E-arth Bangalore, India

Project commissioner Cisco Systems Inc. Project advisor Sruthi Krishnan, Researcher, Fields of View Project collaborators Iain Kettles, Tarun Dutt, Ankita Viktor, Lisanne Binhammer

Keywords Consumption; electronic waste or e-waste, recycling, sensors, smart cities, smart citizens, sustainability

Research paper and project blog

Research poster


How can the growing problem of electronic waste be addressed in a global context through local investigations?

In collaboration with Cisco Systems Inc., Design Across Cultures teams from MediaLAB Amsterdam and Fields of View, Bangalore have sought to address the growing problem of electronic waste or e-waste in a global context through local investigations. For Bangalore, the impact of e-waste is first and foremost an issue of post-consumption: used electronics are exported to India and improperly dealt with, posing a vast amount of environmental and physical concerns.

Credit: Chinky Shukla

The team in Bangalore was comprised of a multidisciplinary group: two engineering students from Bangalore; a developer from the U.K.; and myself. As a team, we investigated e-waste in the Bangalorean context through an approach that was both desk-based and field-based, with methods from the MediaLAB Amsterdam Design Method Toolkit and cross-cultural collaboration sessions with our peers in Amsterdam. We were able to gain a true understanding as to the many stakeholders who are involved in the cycle of e-waste in India, and, ultimately propose a solution that shows significant potential for ensuring the ease and safe disposal of e-waste. The final solution was both digital and physical: an online platform as well as a Smartbin, which was user tested at the  International Institute of Technology in Bangalore.

RESEARCH APPROACH AND METHODOLOGIES

At top: Teleconferences, From left to right: Spark, The Toolkit, Mind map, Prototype for empathy

Design Across Cultures is MediaLABAmsterdam’s global initiative for collaboration between cities and multidisciplinary multicultural design teams. The teams tackle similar local challenges all over the world, using the undeniable force of cultural differences and similarities as a design strategy. The teams speak a common language: design methods. These methods come from MediaLAB Amsterdam's Toolkit, and, by using similar methods to the team in Amsterdam, we were able to fully understand each others working process across oceans. From Teleconferences to Spark, Cisco's communication platform, to methods like Literature reviews, Mind maps, Customer experience maps, Paper prototypes, Wireframes and more, these methods helped our team to understand how e-waste moves through Bangalore, and ultimately, become attune to the complicated realities of the Indian context.

Sticky note collaboration with key players

Interviewing key players was a fundamental component of this Design Across Cultures project. For each interview, our team would first do background research onour interviewee, and develop a list of relevant questions to ask him or her. We conducted semi-structured interviews with a plethora of individuals. We spoke to electronic salespeople, workers of deposit sites, citizens, informal workers, formal workers (such Saahas ‘Zero Waste’ Solutions, Hasiru Dala (“Green Force”) Innovations, the Centre for Environmental Education, Samarthanam Trust and the Electronic City Industrial Township Authority) and makerspaces. Some of the most important interview sessions that took place were with the informal sector, whom collect and dismantle e-waste illegally, that is, without adherence to certain safety procedures. Despite a language barrier between us, we were able to grasp an on-the-ground understanding of the nature of their work and lives in general, and in doing so, become empathetic to their needs and were able to design our solution accordingly. Our interviews with makerspaces were also highly revealing: makerspaces tend to view e-waste not as “waste”, but instead as integral educational resources for their communities. From this process, we were able to get a better feel of the e-waste climate around the city, and design a solution that was distinctly human-centered. 

From left to right: Deposit site, Formal sector, A makerspace and Stakeholder map

Following our interviews, we then analyzed and compared the information we had gathered in the form of a Stakeholders map. Here, we categorized and defined relationships between the different stakeholders involved. This method was crucial in designing a solution that would meet the needs of the different key players in the Indian context.

Key Learnings

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Credit: Chinky Shukla

India is the fifth largest producer of e-waste in the world, which can be attributed to a number of factors, including illegal e-waste exports to India from the European Union and the United States. Bangalore is the third highest producer of e-waste in the country, with its substantial IT company population (1 700) alone generating 8 000 tonnes annually. However, the problems in Bangalore lie not just within the amount of e-waste that is produced, but the lack of transparency within the cycle itself: many citizens and business owners are unaware as to how e-waste is dealt with in their city.

Working conditions of Bangalore's informal sector

In Bangalore and across India, e-waste is handled, dismantled and processed by two distinct sectors: the formal, or authorized collectors and recyclers, and the informal, or unauthorized collectors and recyclers. Although the informal sector has a wide audience reach – currently, 95% of all e-waste passes through the informal sector – and an underrated knowledge base of the intricacies of e-waste recycling processes, the informal sector lacks the resources to deal with e-waste in a manner that is safe for its workers and the environment as a whole. 

There are several organizations in Bangalore that seek to rectify the e-waste dilemma as it currently stands. Companies like Elcita are categorized as strictly formal, while those such as Hasirudala act alongside informal workers to reach the greater public and make use of their invaluable recycling skillsets. Additionally, there are groups like Binbag, a citizen-driven entity that seeks to democratize recycling through providing collection services to Bangalorean residents. 

It is also crucial to take note of relevant organizations like makerspaces, where end-of-life electronics are used as inputs for new outputs in a collaborative environment. Makerspaces challenge ideas of planned obsolescence for our electronics and instead addresses the inherent wealth within our electronics.


Points of intervention:

· Lack of education about the different sectors in the Indian context

· Lack of opportunity for citizens and businesses to dispose of their personal electronics in a safe and healthy manner

Points of opportunity:

· Encourage inhabitants to become smart citizens or responsible actors within the e-waste cycle through an online platform, dedicated toe-waste awareness and collection services

· Provide physically accessible Smartbin drop-off points for audiences that are both on and offline


Impact

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Top: Credit: Chinky Shukla, From left to right: Platform and bin user tests, user workshops and output

In order to address our key learnings, we designed E-arth, a solution that is comprised of a digital platform and a physical Smartbin. The platform educates citizens about the cycle of e-waste, specifically in the Indian context. It also incorporates collection services, wherein a citizen or company can schedule a time and date for their e-waste to be picked up. The physical component of E-arth, a Smartbin, is placed around the city of Bangalore to make e-waste recycling accessible.

From top, left to right: Web backend diagram, platform user flow chart and landing page

User tests took place to test both the platform and Smartbin at the International Institute of Technology Bangalore (IIIT-B) campus. For users of the platform, it became apparent that there were specific visual design issues that needed tweaking, such as visibility of body copy (due to low contrast colours). However, the graphics and layout of the site proved to work well for an Indian audience, as users were able to navigate the site with relative ease. 

With the second Smartbin prototype, two members of our team moderated sessions with students at IIIT-B and created a video recording of the output. During these sessions, we were able to take note of   the strengths and weaknesses of the Smartbin. First and foremost, users found the bin easy to use, and easy to decipher its purpose as an e-waste disposal unit. However, both user groups were also concerned with the lack of ‘smartness’ of the bin: without some sort of acknowledgement from the Smartbin itself after a drop-off, it was not apparent to the users as to how the bin functioned.

From left to right: Smartbin design, mockup, technical drawing and hardware schematic

As a response to this feedback, another version of the bin was developed, equipped with sensors and the Arduino, as well as a single LED bulb that glows with each new drop off. Here, a sign of acknowledgment from the bin itself would assure users with a sense of ‘smartness’, or that the user is communicating with the Smartbin.