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Ecology and Design: Lessons from the Bamboo Culture

Ranjan, M P is the Head, NID Centre for Bamboo Initiatives as well as a Designer and Faculty member at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. At NID, he has been responsible for the creation and conduct of numerous courses dealing with Design Methodology, Product and Furniture Design and Digital Design. He has conducted research in many areas of Design Pedagogy, Industrial and Craft Design and on the role of design in various sectors of the Indian economy. Besides publishing several papers on design and craft he has edited numerous volumes of NID publications and a major book titled “Bamboo and Cane Crafts of Northeast India” (1986) and a CD-ROM titled “Bamboo Boards and Beyond” (2001) which contains papers and reports on bamboo and on design. Involved with the creation of the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design at Jaipur, he acted as its Director in the formative stages. He helped redefine the Bamboo & Cane Development Institute, Agartala and set up the programmes to establish the new format. He has recently co-edited a major publication “Handmade in India” He is an advisor to many State and Central Government Ministries in formulating strategies for the future use of bamboo and design.

January 2012, Craft Revival Trust
The contemporary significance of bamboo
Bamboo is being rediscovered by mankind in the age of the information revolution, environmental consciousness and space exploration. As a potential renewable resource and an inexhaustible raw material, if properly managed, bamboo could transform the way we think about and use man-made objects to improve the quality of life. In many economically deprived countries bamboo could provide the answer to the distressing problems of employment generation and of providing basic shelter and amenities in an affordable and dignified manner. It also holds promise of the spawning of a host of new industries that are ecologically responsible while providing for the manufactured artefacts for a new age. An agro-industrial infrastructure could well bridge the urban-rural divide in many regions of the world. Can this promise be realised?

Notwithstanding the complexity and magnitude of these assumptions it seems appropriate that these propositions need to be addressed with all seriousness and a multi-disciplinary approach be developed to realise this latent potential. The design disciplines that have emerged in this century have been increasingly drawing on the systems metaphor to cope with the complexity in the real world of resource identification and problem solving. It is here that the lessons from the Bamboo Culture could provide a direction to mankind. Above all the subtle messages embedded in the Bamboo Culture can be re-articulated by mankind today with the aid of some of our very powerful analytical and conceptual tools available to us in this age. Never before has mankind been so fortunate to be in the possession of such a vast and widely networked information base along with the capacity to process this knowledge base for the benefit of all mankind.

Last year, I was fortunate to be a member of an editorial group that met at Singapore to assemble an annotated bibliography on the engineering and structural properties and applications of bamboo. The group led by Dr Jules Janssen of the Eindhoven University of Technology worked for four days at the IDRC office (International Development Research Centre, Canada) accessing satellite databases and team contributions to complete the editorial task which is now in production. IDRC's massive investments in bamboo research around the globe are indicative of the resurgent interest in bamboo. These researches however, need to be given a larger framework to make the individual research efforts more meaningful and to enable us to pattern these contributions in a holistic perspective. Hence I shall use this opportunity to elaborate the ideas that I had barely sketched out in my contribution to that editorial effort. Further, I shall try and link these to the deeper concerns that have grown over the years as a design teacher at India's premier design institution while grappling with the immense problems faced in India's developmental efforts along with the conviction that design as a discipline has a pivotal role to play in alleviating some of these seemingly insoluble problems of immense complexity.

Bamboo: A personal journey
My own interest has been in the structural use of bamboo which extends from large structures including houses and bridges, that is structures of an architectural scale, as well as the application of bamboo in furniture and small craft products. Being an industrial designer interested in the use of bamboo, particularly with reference to its conversion into useable products of everyday value, I have been focussing on the way bamboo has been used by local communities in India, particularly with reference to the northeastern states of India. I have surveyed the bamboo growing regions of India intensively with my colleagues at the National Institute of Design and the results of this research have been published in our book titled Bamboo and Cane Crafts of Northeast India.

Bamboo is found in most parts of India and has been traditionally used to solve a variety of structural and constructional problems in the Indian subcontinent. A very interesting observation that we have made in the course of our studies is the nexus between the form of bamboo structures and a set of influencing parameters. These include the variety in types of local bamboo species, its distribution and variability over climatic zones, the availability of particular species and its translation into products and structures for local application. These factors have all had an overriding cultural connotation particularly in the detailing and formal expressions that are chosen by local communities in solving their structural and constructional problems. Product variability in form and structure seems to be quite independent of product function and dominated by considerations of cultural differentiation expressing a need for an unique identity at the community level. Properties of material and structure, and their appropriate interpretation in product detailing are a high-point of almost every traditional product that has emerged from a very long process of cultural evolution. These findings have convinced me that we need to understand this material at many levels simultaneously to be able to use it effectively.

We have followed up our field research work with several attempts dealing with the design of contemporary products and structures using bamboo. Through these experiences we have further confirmed the need for a very precise understanding of the physical and mechanical properties of bamboo. However, I would also like to stress that in order to ensure its successful utilisation over diverse climatic and cultural zones these physical and mechanical properties need to be carefully juxtaposed with cultural and formal practices that are evident in the expressions of local communities. In order to bring about a simultaneous correlation between the various types of information that would be required by any engineer, designer or local craftsman to utilise this raw material in situations such as ours it would perhaps be important at some stage to reorient and enlarge the scope of the ongoing research and development work to include several aspects relating to the cultural dimensions in the use and conversion of bamboo into useable products and structures.

The purpose of the International Bamboo Culture Forum at Oita Japan as stated by Dr. Shin'ichi Takemura is to develop an agenda for the setting up and providing a focus for the development of design activities that are ecologically responsive and humanely sensitive. This conference in Oita which is one of a series of efforts planned to set up the agenda for the proposed Asian Design Centre gives me the unique opportunity to connect and reflect on two of my favourite topics, that is, Bamboo and Design. Firstly I shall spell out the issues and messages that map out the boundaries of the Bamboo Culture after which we can explore the various dimensions of the new awareness relating to the use of the systems metaphor in design and their mutual interdependence.

Knowledge Base of the Bamboo Culture
The manner in which bamboo has been traditionally used by the people in India, China, Japan and several other Asian countries demonstrates a very deep understanding of the workings of ecological principles and the subtle connections between human endeavour and the environment. In our search for sophistication we seem to have lost our tenuous links with the life sustaining processes on earth and seem to be madly accelerating both socially and technologically in an impossible to sustain direction. Total replacement of products of a throw-away culture is unfortunately preferred to the repair and continuous maintenance that is practised in the Bamboo Culture. This has resulted in massive garbage heaps accumulating in our backyards and the creation of museums of garbage. Can we afford to head in this direction? The advanced industrial nations of the West and unfortunately Japan as well seem to be leading the way to self destruction by the materialist and irresponsible consumerist practices and aspirations that are being driven by systematic propaganda in an information rich world. In India too, we have the educated elite aping these practices and aspiring for similar lifestyles quite unperturbed by the ecological consequences and, seeing their behaviour, our disadvantaged rural brethren too aspire to similar unattainable life goals. It is here that I feel we need to rethink our directions and draw on the lessons of the Bamboo Culture. I am not advocating a return to the past. On the contrary I am very much at ease with the computers and other products of human genius including the conceptual tools of our age. I see hope in trying to bridge these seemingly opposing positions in finding a sustainable direction for the future of man on this planet.

Man's use of bamboo in the development of human civilization perhaps predates the Stone Age and the Iron Age as a study by G Gregory Pope seems to suggest. Pope's thesis based on the study of fossil records of the distribution of animal species when juxtaposed with the occurrence of traces of human settlements over the globe along with other indirect evidence suggests that the Asian regions housed the origin and flowering of human civilizations rooted in the availability of bamboo. If this is so, history will be rewritten to give bamboo a catalytic role in the cradle of human civilization which was overlooked due to lack of any subterranean traces caused by the biodegradable nature of bamboo. The theory is quite plausible and it provides some clues on the prehistoric origins and development of man and shifts the focal point to our region of the world.

These regions of Asia have had an undisturbed association with bamboo and in many inaccessible parts of India and most of other East Asian countries this link survives in the lives and practices of its people even today. These need to be systematically and sympathetically studied by contemporary man to distil the essence of the millennia old wisdom that even today resides in these local associations with bamboo. These proposed studies are not merely aimed at the conservation of archaic practices for the sake of some romantic or sentimental mood. They should be aimed at discovering the larger patterns that lie embedded in the details of each product, practice or ceremony associated with the use of bamboo.

Bamboo: The tasks ahead
Keeping this pattern discovering task as the focus of the study and as the overarching objective the other areas of knowledge need to be correlated and systematically interwoven to map the boundaries of the knowledge base that I prefer to call the New Bamboo Culture. Some of these are listed below, and would naturally be elaborated with the intervention of others from a variety of special disciplines.
  1. Botanical information sources related to the distribution and availability of particular bamboo species in various regions around the world. A map of the available gene pool of bamboo resources needs to be generated and preserved for the future of man. Bamboo constitutes a diverse group of plants that are greatly differentiated in physical stature and structural properties that are influenced by local climatic and environmental conditions. Knowledge relating to this variety and the suitability of each species to particular environmental conditions will be a major factor influencing the future use of bamboo.

  2. Agricultural information relating to propagation, cultivation, care and harvesting and post harvest processing techniques for bamboos suitable for mechanical and structural applications. These would include areas of biotechnology explorations. The anomalous and often mystical flowering of bamboo species over very long cycles of gestation has been a major bottleneck in past researches. However recent researches in genetic engineering and tissue culture seem to suggest potential solutions to the problems relating to the sustained regeneration of species suitable to the task and the location.

  3. Mechanical engineering data relating to particular species of bamboo with reference to physical characteristics of culms and other parts that could be used for structural applications. The variables would include properties influenced by the age at harvest, part of culm and sub-parts of internodes used, species vs environmental conditions in which it grows as well as any changes induced by post-harvest practices. Mechanical properties of each species in respect to a minimum set of variables need to be experimentally verified to generate a database that can be interpreted by the heuristic processes used by designers and craftsmen and not as mere statistical data.

  4. Information sources related to structural, mechanical and physical properties of bamboo of various species primarily focussed on test data generated in laboratories and field situations. Building and constructional codes would need to be generated and disseminated to re-establish the status of bamboo as an important resource for mankind.

  5. Information sources relating to the diverse structural utilisation of bamboos in different cultures and geographic regions particularly with reference to the variety of interpretation of structural form as a result of cultural differentiation. This is perhaps the most urgently needed research as the sources sustaining this knowledge base are being rapidly eroded by contemporary education and as a result of the social and economic upheavals of the information age.

  6. Experimental data relating to contemporary explorations into utilisation of bamboo in structural and product design applications. These would include the creative re-interpretation of potential applications in the light of new technological insights developed in diverse fields. The developments in the area of composite materials could transform the manner in which bamboo is perceived as a potential engineering material. Bamboo is nature's marvellous composite material that needs to be reappraised in the light of developments in carbon fibre composites.

  7. Information sources related to techniques, processes and tools/ equipment used for the processing and conversion of bamboos for structural applications. New and improved tools would result from a systematic study in this area.

  8. Principles of structure and morphological characteristics of structural form that show potential for application in bamboo. These would include principles of lightweight architecture and micro-mechanical structures that cover product scale applications.

  9. Materials akin to bamboo such as canes, rattan and a vast range of grasses and leaves as well as other plant materials could be put to effective and sensible use once again in the search for man's harmonious existence with nature. This checklist could provide the agenda for a coordinated research effort that needs to be supported and sustained to generate the awareness and knowledge needed to realise the promise that bamboo holds for the future of man. .

  10. Human experiences in the setting up and the sustained conduct of decentralised cooperative societies that have been practised in several cultures need to be reevaluated in the context of a global information society to explore new and sustainable forms of ecologically responsible behaviour. This combined with the messages embedded in the Bamboo Culture promise to hold a vital significance for the environmentally friendly use of available resources.

Having outlined what I perceive as potentials in the study and contemplation of the Bamboo Cultures we can now look at developments in design thinking in order to try and articulate the kind of shifts in thinking that are beginning to emerge with increasing ecological awareness and environmental consciousness amongst concerned planners and designers. Industrial design principles and processes are being re-assessed in the light of the massive ecological disaster that have been caused by the follies of the so called advanced technological process of scientific industrialization.

Systems Thinking and Design
The nexus between of the quality of natural and built spaces and its various components with its influence on the quality of life has been a recognised premise for quite some time now. The quality of the built environment is also recognised as a very complex interplay of a vast number of influencing factors that are physical, psychological, socio-cultural, economic and philosophical. If we were to accept this premise, it is apparent that anyone responsible for the conceptual planning and the realisation of these environments must have a holistic view along with a corresponding set of tools and skills that enable one to create the scenario for action.

However as professional designers, the various areas of specialization that are represented by Architecture, Urban Design and Planning, Industrial Design and Communication Design, to name only a few, are rarely found to cross their artificial boundaries to explore the potential of a higher level of synthesis that could accrue from such a crossing. Further at the academic level a host of other disciplines (which are also specializations) such as Sociology, Anthropology and Ecology, and Mathematics, Logic and Ethics, to single out a few for the purpose of this illustration, are piously touted as essential branches of human knowledge that enable the resolution of complex design tasks. The attitudes that foster these specializations come into direct conflict with the premise that design synthesis requires quite the opposite, that is an integrative capacity. It is here that emerging concepts of systems thinking, in a vast number of fields, are increasingly influencing the search for inter-disciplinary options that transcend boundaries of traditional specializations.

The keyword here is complexity. The resolution of this complexity resides in the necessary diversity and range of factors that affect each designed situation. The handling of this complexity requires the development and assimilation of a body of theory that could enable designers, architects and planners to effectively grapple with real life challenges. This should be possible without having to break down every task into simplistic and specialized sub-functions, to be resolved in isolation, thereby losing the vital advantages of the symbiotic relationships that are enabled when such tasks are perceived and resolved as interrelated components of a dynamic system. The ecological model of design will perhaps be the outcome of this realisation.

Design methodologies have constantly been invigorated, over the years, by assimilating into their repertoire developments in a vast number of disciplines. This is particularly so in recent years when there is a resurgence of interest in the theory of systems and structure. Developments in mathematics, physics and information technologies have been responsible for opening up new vistas of exploration in the study of biology and ecosystems which in turn have influenced explorations of the systems metaphor in design and in other fields of human endeavour. These explorations have been greatly influenced by the work of the structuralists in the field of anthropology and linguistics with a resurgence of interest in product semantics and semiotics amongst designers. Engineers and architects have been exploring the limits of the concepts of module, proportion and symmetry while drawing analogies with corresponding work in other quite 'unrelated' fields. Bionics is one such field, where studies of nature and natural forms, structures and their working principles set the platform for the creative development of engineering details and new product analogies that use similar principles. The emergence of the fields of biotechnologies and genetic engineering throw up new design challenges and potentials along with the dangers of a runaway disaster if handled irresponsibly.

Design: An alternate definition
When I use the term 'design', I do not wish to refer to design as an elitist preoccupation but to design as a developmental activity, a powerful tool for economic and social development. The development of this definition of design represents the current state of the art in the area of design as a discipline as we now see it in India and in our perception this interpretation can be used to improve the quality of our lives. Design as a multi-dimensional process and design as a strategy are quite different from the more commonly understood definition that covers the limited roles that professional designers play in the service of organized industry.

Design as a discipline necessarily draws on a vast body of human knowledge that are appropriate to the task at hand to generate the scenarios that could be subjected to rigorous evaluation. Design activity focusses on the user's needs. In this case we recognize the need to use design processes to identify and configure products and processes that would enable both producers and users to benefit in a market economy. To achieve this, the designer must develop an intimate understanding of both the production and user environments. The Indian experience in design for the handicrafts and handloom sectors of our economy as well as in the areas of small-scale decentralised production exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi's Khadi and village industries experiment that is being sustained to this day, throws up an intricate set of propositions that impinge on the success of the country's developmental efforts.

Many years of efforts have shown that capital is not the sole determinant of economic success nor is the multinational industry model the only way. These views on design are further substantiated by the thoughts and expressions of design thinker Gui Bonsiepe from his experiences in Ulm, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and India. He has been a source of inspiration for many of us in India. Small-scale production on a very low capital base is very susceptible to economic and social exploitation, while markets respond to quality and value in an extremely competitive manner. The designer working in these sectors must recognise the proposition that in the product environment there are those products that are exploitative in nature and products that are liberating in nature, e.g. a component supplied by a vendor to a large industry is exploitative in nature, whereas a small product, low in investment, low in tooling, short time cycle for manufacturing and sale and with direct access to market is least exploitative. Design strategies that recognise these and other similar principles provide us with a tool and methodology for social and economic change.

Can we design products of this nature to enable start up entrepreneurship? Can this form of industry be based on use of raw materials that are truly renewable? Can the demonstration of a successful model based on the use of carefully cultivated bamboo set off renewed searches for meaningful patterns in other forms of industry? Can design enable disadvantaged communities to solve social and developmental problems locally? Can a productive and market oriented community be ecologically responsible? Can women play a vital role in the social and economic development of a community? I think the answer to all the above questions is a resounding yes!

The New Bamboo Culture: A search of sustainable models
Through design as defined above, we can see that it is not the product or the technology that matters, but it is the people who really matter. Design is hence the vehicle for the creation of permanent innovations in a culture and the means available for each culture to express and discover its identity. The Bamboo Culture that I have direct contact with in India is a model of diversity with a richness of messages for mankind of which through the years of study we have barely scratched the surface. I would like to share with you some of these observations with the aid of photographs that aided our research in India. I shall focus on the manner in which various tribes and communities in the bamboo growing regions have built up a very refined sense of material utilisation. The centuries of physical isolation and a deep seated need for an exclusive identity have generated a rich matrix of overlapping cultures exquisitely demonstrated by the manner in which they use and revere bamboo. One tribe in northeast India stands out as a shining example that deserves to be studied in depth before the homogenizing effect of mass media wipes out all traces of cultural differentiation along with the rich messages embedded within that culture. They are the Apa Tani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, who systematically cultivate bamboo in well tended groves near their villages in stark contrast to their neighbours who generally exploit forest resources. The Apa Tanis have fortunately been studied extensively over the past 50 years by the legendary anthropologist, Christoph Von Furer Haimendorf. The Apa Tanis and others like them are distributed over the Asian and Latin American bamboo regions and they are the custodians of the traditional bamboo wisdom that needs to be made explicit for the future of mankind. At the other end of the Indian subcontinent, in Kerala, community efforts have made the entire population literate, and experiments in cooperative local people's industry are based on the use of natural raw materials including bamboo. Although these efforts have had varying degrees of success they hold the hope for a sustainable model that is both dignified and ecologically sound.

Note on photographs illustrating this lecture

  • All slides of tribes shown are from the resource of the National Institute of Design Ahmedabad, and were generated on the research projects on Bamboo & Cane Crafts of Northeast India during field visits in 1979 and 1980, 1981 and 1986.

  • Slides of the Kerala experiment have been kindly provided by Ms Claire Hicks, Australia, and were generated during a field trip associated with the International Bamboo Conference, Cochin 1988, organised by IDRC


Keynote address at the International Bamboo Culture Forum at Oita Japan from 5 November 1991 to 7 November 1991.



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