Humanqind's Vision: Children Co-Designing Safer Streets

Ruchi Varma has a vision for designing safer school zones that involves asking children as young as nine what they should look like

June 2024
June 2024
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“Children grow up in adult-owned, adult-designed and adult-managed spaces that constantly diminish their agency, compassion and well-being.”

Ruchi Varma has a vision for designing safer school zones that is quite unique: it involves asking the children themselves what they should look like.

Varma is the founder and chief executive officer of HumanQind, a social design enterprise building equitable, kind, and compassionate cities. An architect and urban designer by training, she adopts a human-centered approach in her work, running design-thinking workshops focused on co-designing everyday spaces with the help of students as young as nine years old.

In their first four years, Humanqind made incredible progress. Their pilot school zone, '250 Meters of Happiness', is under construction, and their pilot school won the FICCI Road Safety Award. They were also recently featured in the Echoing Green short film ‘Communities’.

We spoke with Ruchi about where Humanqind is heading next.

Ruchi Varma

India is the crash capital of the world. Forty-five children die daily on our streets -– or put another way, we are losing a classroom every day to road crashes. Millions of students and caregivers commute to school among poorly designed, crowded and unsafe streets. Our idea was, if we gave agency to young people, then what would the physical environment look like? How would they design things differently? What does participation and democracy shape a built environment?

When HumanQind began our work, we wanted to see children as equal citizens. We started looking at the school-going experience as a critical piece of the lived experiences of those under 18. And we saw the clear danger that Indian streets present around schools.
So we launched our flagship program, CROSSWALK, and co-created 250 Meters of Happiness – a name proposed by students – to build India’s first student-friendly street, designed by students as young as nine years old.

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How does the process work?

Varma

Whenever we collaborate with  a school we follow six steps, using human-centered design principles. After a preliminary meeting with the principal and setting up a core team composed of different members of the school community including students, an orientation is conducted to focus towards school commute for all, engage with city youth and school alumni to collect travel data and visualize through data analytics and GIS maps and storytelling.

With evidence, the team delves into design collaboration with a single class of the school. We co-design a proposal through nine design workshops where students employ different tools such as design thinking, empathy mapping, and mental maps – asking the children to draw a map of their home to school journey.

When you're working with any community, you have to engage in active listening, be patient, drop any professional ego despite the years of experience and surrender to what the community wants to teach you. With children it is similar, but even more so. You can’t always rely on vocabulary and language that you have been trained in, but you can create a new language and discuss ideas through art, gestures, role play.

So when we ask the children to map their journey, we have them add smileys and emoticons to reflect where they feel happy, sad, scared or other emotions. Then we ask them to create blueprints out of craft material, playdoh and paper. The ability to look at these outputs as data that represents childrens’ voice and informs transformative change, rather than just a happy-go-lucky thing, is something we continue to cultivate in our work.

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Once a proposal is ready to go, how do you involve stakeholders beyond the school, on the city and government level?

Varma

After the design workshops, the next stage is where the school holds an exhibition, where we bring the whole school community – all students, teachers, parents and residents together behind a single vision. Feedback is taken, while every participant votes. Once the majority votes are received, it is taken to the larger audience – the political and bureaucratic strata of the city. 

Through the Public Works Department, Govt of Delhi this project got funded to become a living street in 2022. We have been fortunate to oversee the implementation of the project.

‘250 Meters of Happiness’ is [roughly] 7000 sq.m urban space with accessible sidewalks, cycle tracks, waiting spaces for parents, vendor spaces, games, art and lighting integrated to celebrate children, compassion and their community. It is India’s first school zone where students of four schools experience safety during school hours and residents in the evening and weekends. The final stage is to partner with traffic police to support schools in the school zone management and necessary enforcement. 

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What’s next for Humanqind?

Varma

Within a short amount of time, we've been able to move mountains – showcase a new possibility of shared power and democracy. In partnership with TRIP Centre, IIT Delhi we’ve been able to partner with the Government of Delhi, establish road safety clubs in all Delhi schools affiliated to the Directorate of Education, and launch a co-creation process for schools and working on one school zone in every district of Delhi. As we continue to understand the ecosystem of school commute,  we are slowly and mindfully scaling up.

Currently, ten other school zones projects are ready for implementation. Eight of them are government schools of which one co-ed, three are girls-only schools, four are boys-only schools, and two are private schools. With this expansion, we’ve tried to learn from the reality of  various children in Delhi coming from diverse neighborhoods and backgrounds.

We have observed that children when exposed to dignity, compassion and agency unlock change making and problem solving abilities in themselves. I remember that children of ‘250 meters of happiness’, collaborated to reopen their school during the pandemic and further wanted to change the examination system. 

I have learned that children can teach you much. Inclusion and friendship comes natural to them. There is very little that has to be unlearned. The adult minds are jaded with colonial thinking and see children only as small, as learners, and future workforce. We forget to see children & their worldview as a potential for a radical future. While the adult world is seeded in doubt and suspicion, looks at everyone who is different as the ‘’other’’, children see everybody as friends. 

I believe that this proximate leadership model of co-creation is new to India. But this community-centered, compassion-centered approach is providing an alternative vision to build a sustainable and stronger India together, where even the youngest, even the most marginalized, have a voice to transform their everyday surroundings. HumanQind will continue to serve children and communities to design their world of well-being and cultivate compassion capital in the world.

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