HUM2035 is a design fiction told from the perspective of HUM ("we" in Hindi), a fictional humanitarian aid network founded in 2020 India.
The project was commissioned by the Life Rewired Hub and conceived in collaboration with Tandem Research, STBY, and the Humanitarian Leadership Academy. It tells the stories of HUM-affiliated humanitarian workers dealing with a water crisis in the aftermath of a destructive tropical storm. Through this story, we tried to call attention to the gray areas that exist in the humanitarian aid provision space: How does one find balance between scale of coverage and quality of service? Emergency relief and sustainable empowerment? Safety and policing?
The exhibit mixed VR experiences and physical artifact to tell the story of tomorrow's humanitarian aid providers.
Setting the scene
The initial context for the story was drawn from a set of scenarios on the future of work put together by Tandem research, our collaborators on the project. One of them, Fracture, imagined the consequences of an acute water crisis crippling the global economy. As water scarcity in India is already a great source of displacement and suffering for many, but not yet a humanitarian crisis by global standards, we decided to extrapolate the situation and imagine what a global and domestic response to this challenge might look like.
From the beginning of the project the story needed to be an open platform. We wanted to capture the complex and complicated nature of the situations people would be faced with and call attention to the need for a response that balances individuals' power to adapt with strategic infrastructural support. By shifting the focus of the crisis onto the food and water shortages in the aftermath of a natural disaster we intentionally placed the story within a protracted situation rather than an immediate response. There, we were able to build a web of actors from start-up innovators to government-enforced digital services. Many of the ideas were drawn directly from our secondary research, then scrambled in a concept generator to create new stories.
The stories were created by running small speculative workshops and then scrambling the results in a madlib format.
Images from the desk research on the water crisis in India.
1 | Pop-up FED farmer
Displaced farmers, engineers and botanists in collaboration with the FED start-up (Farming Exponentials Deployment), are working day and night in pop-up experimental growing labs to tend to the high demand of locally grown food post the floods. Working with hydroponic and drone technology, these crops are being grown and supplied using minimal resources, but with unintended side effects.
2 | MEDC.N Frontline health worker
The role of MED.CN (Mass Environmental Disease Control Network) health workers is to provide adapted care to affected communities, namely via tele-medicine services on tablets carried by WHEL staff for initial check-ups. They can then choose to come to the person’s home or have them sent to the nearest Primary Care Centre if necessary.
3 | WHEL Water activist
Well-diggers and other water activists have a unique knowledge of homes’ respective water needs and inhabitants thanks to their practice of supplying homes with means to harvest rainwater, and recharge groundwater. These well-diggers have now been trained to inspect the water quality in wells, search for groundwater, and integrate the found data within the WARS network with the aid of their dog-like companions. HUM has also partnered with MED.CN to connect homeowners to necessary care via MED.CN tablets WHEL members can take with them.
4 | Hydrosystem Technician
Working out of the state of the art (but under-construction) Hydrosystem purification plants, these volunteers are assembling affordable water purification, testing and relief kits for neighboring communities and camps. Their activity has led to the development of informal local markets near the facilities providing other services like power, phytoremediation solutions and food.
5 | WARS Ecosystem
A more passive actor was the WARS ecosystem (Water Allocation and Rationing System). A government platform created out of an increasing need for efficient water rationing AI system that could incorporate the entire supply chain, from procurement to distribution. Directly inspired by the Indian government's use of Adhaar and India Stack but using water as a tangible metaphor for identity, privacy, wellbeing.
The five key personas the HUM story revolves around.
Each actor and device in the exhibit was contextualized using the WARS ecosystem map displayed at the center of the space.
A multimedia exhibit
Designed first and foremost as a public engagement piece, the exhibit was designed to appeal to audiences of all ages, allowing for different reads, interpretations, and takeaways. The space was broken into two parts, one analog, and the other digital.
The first was the exhibit of the artifacts and artworks created to convey the challenges faced by tomorrow's humanitarian workers.
The exhibit mixed physical artifacts and VR to provide different narrative experiences to the visitors.
1 | Tangible possibilities
Artifacts were created for each key character: packaged foods informed by local diets for the FED farmer, nanobotic diagnosis pills and a medicines for the frontline health worker, a DIY water-purifying kit for the Hydrosystem technician and a tele-medicine and water quality testing kit for the WHEL activist. Each area in the space was dedicated to its own persona and was presented with a description and an accompanying question:
How might urgent medical care be provided remotely to the thousands affected by a natural disaster? How might local support networks empower communities with the necessary skills for crisis response? How might humanitarian mechanisms provide opportunities for meaningful employment during a process of recovery?
2 | Storytelling in VR
The use of VR was an interesting production and creative challenge. It was perfect to bring together the story of our humanitarian workers but the immersiveness of it made production very demanding. The story in the VR experience was told from the perspective of an investigator trying to ensure the quality of service delivery while on the lookout for any signs of corruption or malpractice. Each scene was like a page taken out of the detective's notebook with annotations and "3D captures" of aid delivery sites. During the research we were inspired by Forensic Architecture's work and their multi-media evidence gathering process. Another source of inspiration was The Industry, an interactive platform retelling the designer drug scene in Amsterdam.
My role was to guide the production and narrative design of the experience by coordinating with Alap Parikh (programming lead) and Yuvraj Jha (visdev lead).
Each artifact was designed as a well-intentioned humanitarian relief solution that however presented potential shortcomings.
The VR experience was imagined as the investigator's virtual notes.
The viewer was then taken to different key scenes to learn about each persona in situ.
HUM2035 after the Barbican
A few Quicksand colleagues (Supreetha Krishnan, Aditya Prakash and Rohan Patankar) took the project into another phase commissioned by MSF, focused on infectious diseases for their MSF Scientific Days. Supreetha used the experience to translate the process into a Speculative Crisis toolkit. Quicksand also worked closely with the MSF global offices using design fiction exercises to align on where they hoped to take the organization.
In the meantime, Yuvraj kept experimenting with other uses of VR and created amazing 360 digital paintings which will be put online for the Primer2020 conference with a few new characters reflecting recent challenges faced my humanitarian workers during an outbreak very similar to the Covid-19 pandemic.
360 environment bringing to life the personas created my Yuvraj Jha.