In May 2003 the 25 students, of the Masters Class at IT Delhi, and I stood around the 1929 Austin 7 and everyone was grinning – we had done it, the grin said. In January when we started there were two facts – a course in technology that needed to be done – and a derelict vintage car that needed restoring. I had taken the car into the classroom and had asked if the students would be interested in restoring the car as the way for them to learn about manufacturing processes. I cite this example to illustrate aspects of my teaching practice, which is both, student-orientated and focuses upon the educating event. This specific example illustrates my view that the content of education is arbitrary, open to negotiation and if it belongs to or is owned by the student then the educational event becomes charged with energy.

Much of pedagogic practice in design uses the approach of project-based learning. Referred to as the studio, the actual practices vary quite widely from the truly student centred to the extremely authoritarian. Where the latter prevails in learning communities, students feel quite dis-empowered and alienated. In my time at RMIT I have seen a particularly arbitrary practice where halfway through a project the student’s work may be taken away and given to another to complete. Many in the teaching community favour this as the way to give the students a sense of what it is like in real practice. I disagree with these practices and justifications and have a sense of pedagogy informed by my sense of the university as the location for student to grow.

Context and Location is Important

A significant part of my practice is the location of the projects and explorations within the wider community. Over the years I have brought industry into the classroom, in the form of problems solving for industry, or as funded projects for students to work on. I have played a particular role in these instances; I have briefed industry about educational priorities taking precedence over commercial imperatives of the company and have always managed to construct a free space for student explorations. By the same token the masters topics I take up for supervision have to offer a sufficient scope for field work and community interaction.


I do lectures that I believe are a treat to attend – they are well prepared, there is music, sometimes film clips and lots of provocation – I consider public speaking as one of my strengths and have a vast experience of speaking at all manner of gatherings. I use these lectures to construct arguments and treat these events as stimulation for discussion. Since I have been at RMIT I have also done two lectures for the interior and architecture programs in the way to apprehend “the other”.


As supervisor to postgraduate students I work assiduously to build the spirit of the project. I am keenly orientated towards the student over their content and have on occasion said – a good research project does not have to be correct, it can be a failure, but it has to be well argued. It is early days yet for my PhD supervision, and I have some small successes in the way my students are shaping up.

Teaching and Learning

I focus on learning experiences. I agree with many that regimes of evaluation are the single biggest contributor to the negative aspects of student learning experiences. So I experiment with evaluation practices and do not privilege grades. Hence I got together with two others and we did a workshop about learning contracts called ‘grades at the beginning of the course’. I have for years asked students to set their targets and go for their chosen grades. I usually set up peer evaluations and train students in class on the right way to give detailed textual feedback. Often this results in short workshops for students to design and develop dimensions of assessment. I discovered years ago that students functioned at very high levels when the grades were taken away. Simon, teaching CAD in 04, experimented with grades at the beginning of the semester and got astounding results.

Risks and Rewards

I encounter the risks and rewards of my teaching practice almost daily. Among my former students the feeling of mutual respect is alive, my past students are still in touch and eight of them are serving as mentors to students in the studio course I am teaching next semester. I keep getting invitations to attend weddings in different parts of the world and have an unending stream of baby pictures that come to me. We talk, we meet in different parts of the world (Raja and I travelled to Venice and Verona three years ago) and its an ongoing conversation. I get from this a sense of the value of their learning experiences with me – and of the value of the content, what they privilege and how well I prepared them to go through life. Sure many drop out, but the brightest stay – they would be the ones who felt the significance of the educational experience the strongest when they were with me. There have been some spectacular disasters – failures in students some with industry projects – and some breathtaking successes.

I encounter daily the sense of the risk – I will lose my job – that things could go wrong. Students have often come to me saying my course was too complex for them – I then walk them through their expectations and show them that they have been setting up their expectations too high. This becomes a location of their understanding themselves and their relationship to the university – I say initially to all students that they should get a life – so they must aspire for just a pass. I call this the cruise mode – and say that higher grades are not all that valuable for their growth. This is usually an exact opposite of what they have heard – and they at this point say that a weight has dropped off their shoulders, and that this has become their favourite course, they show this by coming to all the classes. A big proportion of them then go and completely complicate their lives even though they promise themselves they would take things slow – and my job becomes one of showing them what they were doing to themselves and were they aware of it. This is the point again when they usually fall in love with their topic and this route, this progression can suddenly change their way of looking at the project. They will at this stage say ‘what I am doing is not work’, and I will agree for work is that thing with negative connotations. I leave them alone for the rest of the journey the learning project for me is complete. They will go on and make things and produce the design and all that they consider the valuable part of the learning experience. Only years later will they admit, sometimes not at all which is okay too, that there was something there that changed things for them. Every time I take this trip with a group of students I am unsure if it is the right thing to do and tell myself that I should just make reaching the goal at the end the objective of the class. But every time I am tempted to sit back and let the student tie themselves into knots and then go in and start talking to them. This way of teaching is stressful but its week five or so in the RMIT semester that I look out for and can feel the rush of joy when things take off.

The Perfect Class

As a teacher I have often dreamt of the perfect class: you walk into the classroom, you have eager learners, and they just soak up everything you have to offer. This happened to me in a curious way in Israel. I was my first lecture; 35 students, complete silence and no laughter at my jokes. I stop and ask if something is the matter they say no. I am later told that as ex-military people (every Israeli does a few years of military service after school) they can concentrate hard and take in stuff completely like at a mission briefing. In the classroom in Australia I see a huge diversity in student backgrounds and cultures. This makes the classroom truly international and multicultural. My past experience of teaching in different countries has made me particularly attentive to different learning styles, and different cultural expectations of teaching and learning. In every context I see myself as an outsider and this one fact keeps my teaching practice in a state of constant evolution. In the first years of my teaching career I would spend an inordinate amount of time planning classes, mapping student growth and reflecting upon what was achieved. I have over the years seen a lot of young teachers go through this first season of teaching – in the same way I have seen them mature into confident teachers and reflect that I have been through as much of a change. I am still changing though I return often to a core system of beliefs. First my core: My pedagogy is located in my community work – it is significantly about people and their process of becoming confident and mature individuals. As a thesis supervisor in recent years of masters students I have had an intimate and full hand in facilitating the growth of a fairly important bunch of designers – some of whom dominate the design scene with heart warming assurance.

I have seen some fine examples which have informed my teaching practice – one who never criticized his students, who always had an encouraging word – some who led by example, some who gave up promising careers to work with the poor and underprivileged. All of which gave me a sense that I was working for a better society – by having an active hand in shaping the value system of society through my students. I do not teach to train manpower for the workplace – I teach to make young people become leaders. Teaching for me is not about courses – but about learning communities and leaders/ and fostering them.


In effect when, I teach the journey of the student, the capability they acquire is important – but the key is their becoming learners, for life. One year in 2005 I had a bunch of year 2 students and things went well that year. So well infact that the portfolio T&L evaluated the course. The report is below.

Course Evaluation – Corporation Game

Social Object

In March 04 Neil the Big Issue Vendor for the Vic Market spoke to the 2 nd year class of design studies. He talked of how he saw Melbourne as an outsider living within the city. The students in their turn confessed they were apprehensive about meeting people like Neil on the street. Neil is small and wiry, a former jockey and very mild. This was an encounter, one in a series, to raise with the students the role of the consumption driven designer profession in society and to give them a sense that they were the ostracizers without due cause – see he is harmless. We have no answers but I do this because the classroom is a political space too and the location of the discourse of the people side to our world. I use these encounters as a shock treatment for the students – and a significant number of students have claimed over the years to have the scales fall from their eyes/ eyes opened. And this for me is the reason I teach – this is my idea of what education ought to do. This is my practice.


Also I have fashioned my approach and professional orientation as a pathway – The Social Object. In 1994 I got a small grant to do a photo study of life on the streets of New Delhi. This became a project – ‘design in the public domain’ – and formed the basis of my aesthetic discourse. I taught courses in aesthetics and form development from 1994 till 2003. I did my story telling course in Bezalel from this archive of images. It formulated my people focus in opposition to the producer focus. In 2003 I submitted my PhD thesis and this was a on a case study of people’s material culture. I now had a theory of the social object. In my teaching I critique the producer side (manufacturer) thinking and the consumption side (seller) preoccupations in design. In the dominant discourse both use and value have been marginalised. But there is yet another marginal discourse that describes the location of my practice and that is about people, their gestures and the unselfconscious side to their everyday life. A student project for 04 illustrates this quite well(see the image in the poster above). Annika started the semester wanting to design a towel rail and through conversations I brought her to an investigation of peoples practices and her topic became the “Wet Towel”. For her research she spent endless hours quizzing people about how they discarded their towel after a bath. She found a forest of practices: some dropped it, some shrugged it off, some peeled it off, and some even flung it. She then used the gesture, flinging the towel, as the central fact of her project to come up with her interpretation of the object that would hold the towel.

The simplest way to characterize my approach is that I am political about objects. I wish to rescue the marginal (objects of the lower classes/poor) such as kitsch. I use this to critique the dominant ethic of consumption. Though this was the radical ethic a decade ago – I seem now to sit within the larger discourse of sustainable consumption. But as I have said on many an occasion – that is not it at all. My position is aesthetic. I actually stand for the ugly and the not so beautiful – privileging the bitter gourd over the lolly – and the development of capability to value this.

All about material culture and sustainability forms a big part of this work …

Key Words: Sustainable Consumption Material Culture Community Commodity Food Renunciation RMIT/ FU/ NID Hitachi Cultural Amplification

Archive resources: Aus DEsign in China Story Telling Anxious Objects Food project Spending Habits Mythical Objects LC of the object All my PD work Furniture


In 2001 I developed a curriculum tool kit for design academics to teach sustainability principles in the classroom (published as a paper). This kit is in use today as the prototype of a learning contract for use by teachers in the Industrial Design Program at RMIT. I see this as the location for re-implementing the outcomes of my research practice in the area of Ecodesign, a practice that in its early years had already started to proliferate beyond the bounds of the university.

5 th Quadrant, a Delhi based design consultancy, developed a packaging system for a major steel re-rolling mill that saved on the wood they were using. They charged the company a decent fee to execute the project. The Indian European Ecodesign Programme had trained the team from 5th quadrant in one of the capacity building workshops – and now they were offering eco-redesign services to industry. They were one of 60 designers directly trained by the project, and two of the directors in the company went to Netherlands on an exchange to work on projects there. They constituted just one of the stakeholder groups targeted by the project – the other stakeholder groups were staff in large Industry, SMEs, design academics and people working in the NGO sector. The project thus directly trained around 200 people. All this began from my presence on the internet discussion forum – IDFORUM – in 1995-96 engaging with design academicians in Europe.

In 1997 a group of three people walked into my office in IIT Delhi, two of these people were from TU Delft and they had heard about conversations on the net that I had been part of. They were there to investigate possibilities for a collaboration; the first of these was support for a student from IITD to do course in TU Delft called Ecodesign-I ( The aim of this program being to support universities, NGO’s, consultants and companies in developing their environmental product development activities). This was quickly followed by a grant application for funding (Euro 400,000) under the EU India Cross-cultural Programme. The application was successful and the Indian European Ecodesign Program (IEEP) was set up. The project was to run for three years from 1999 and aimed to create an Ecodesign Network in the Delhi region of northern India and by extension to develop capability in the environmentally orientated practice of industrial design among design professionals, academicians and industrial enterprises in India. The partners in the project were the Indian Institute of Technology at Delhi (India), the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), and INETI (Portugal). I was the Principal Investigator in the project from IIT and had a team of two people to assist me in the running of the project.

Over a three year period the direct impact of the project as claimed in the final report was: 200 people trained in ecodesign practices, 5 demo projects with industry (Whirlpool, Philips, Neemrana, Welcome Group. Karam Marg), 8 exchange students (from India and Europe), joint publications, curriculum developed for a course titled Design for Sustainable Development, 5 workshops, one International conference. All design schools now have staff trained in Ecodesign, Furthermore the Confederation of Indian Industry supports the project. The International Conference on Ecodesign in 2002 December had every single significant figure in the Ecodesign movement present. Why they chose to be at this event is significant – the project was partly seen to offer a gateway into collaborations with Indian industry and NGOs but more importantly the IEEP was the most significant ecodesign initiative at that point in time. Prof. Chris Ryan, formerly at RMIT, was there and we began a conversation that eventually led to my relocation to RMIT. An unforeseen outcome was the Ecodesign network in Portugal, eco-portugal, that I set up when I spent two months on the project at INETI in Lisbon.

At a UNEP forum in Paris in 2000 I opened up the issue of traditional Product Service Systems and now a PhD student in Milano has based her work on the Wallahs project. It also resulted in a collaborative relationship with Carlo Vezzoli, Milan Polytechnic, where students in Milan worked on a project being developed at IIT in the area of services related to ‘clothing care’. In 2003 I was part of the team led by Carlo Vezzoli to put together the UNEP publication on PSS.

Key Words: IEEP Product Design Back Casting

Papers/ PDF

Ecodesign Blog TBC


My foray into waste began in 1998 as a classroom exercise for my students where we were looking at types of problems and ways to approach them . The first exercise to design a better garbage bin became an exercise to portray the whole system. Two months later I agreed to do a pilot project, ‘Campus Recycling Programme’ (CRP) to test the Zero Waste system and also agreed to find the funds to run the project from industry sponsorship ( IITD Seeks Corporate Support For Recycling Project , Indian Express, New Delhi, 18/ 04/1999). This I did (collecting, for over two years, close to 1.5 million rupees, donations of vehicles and infrastructure) and the project was up and running soon. In this phase the pilot project serviced 200 houses. Bins were installed outside the homes, a campaign was conducted to elicit the cooperation of the residents, and all the other infrastructure elements required for the project were designed and fabricated. By the sixth month the segregation rates were very good, in the 8th month it was nearly 100 %. At this point the institute asked for it to be upscaled to the whole campus and came in with the salaries for the staff (Approximately Rs.100,000 per month). I continued looking far and wide for sponsors for the vehicles (2 small trucks donated by Scooters India) and for infrastructure (Suzuki and DSCL were the big supporters) like the bins and the building of the collection centre and offices.

A year and a half later I was coordinating the collection of 2 tonnes of waste everyday, and when this project, the Campus Recycling Programme, finally ended there were two worker owned NGOs (In year three the project team, now an NGO, Naya Savera (New Dawn), formed by the team members, was awarded a commercial contract) together servicing, in addition to the University campus, around 8 communities/ localities in the city. There had been a lot of media coverage, many invitations to speak to local community organizations, conference audiences and a role in preparing the position paper for Johannesburg 04. After the project I coordinated the preparation of a status paper for the Department of Science and Technology (the equivalent of ARC as the premier S&T funding agency) on municipal solid waste in the country. What I hold precious and which is really quite significant for me is this and growing; the lives of the project team members were transformed – 30 families had a predictable source of income; the city of Delhi and possibly India too had a community model for recycling waste; and about ten thousand households in the city had a feeling they were making a contribution to society by supporting their waste service provider.

The project was awarded the ” Indo-German Greentech Environmental Excellence Award” in January 2001 for its work in demonstrating a sustainable solution to the problem of managing waste in an Indian city (Award to the Campus Recycling Programme: http://www.indiaeducation.info/iit/delhi/awards.htm). The project was the topic of a magazine article in a series that looked at people making a difference to society (Outlook India, 17 December 2001: ” Some time in the beginning of this year, Soumitri and Vasudevan decided to spin the boys off into an NGO to disseminate their expertise for projects outiside IIT as well “). I have presented this project at conferences and workshops in Delft, Lisbon, Israel, and Paris. At this time I was involved with Sajha Manch, a forum of associations of unauthorized colonies in New Delhi and helped write the waste section in the Alternative Master Plan for Delhi. Student who have worked with me (also other students have studied the projects – typically from MGT and Civil) have worked upon many aspects of the project like the vehicles and other infrastructure elements. Last year a group of students (RMIT – Industrial Design) organised a waste trip like the ones I used to do in India – going from bins to landfills to recycling centres like Vizy.

Today there are many NGOs servicing different parts of New Delhi two of these are run by former staff of the project, and there are many others doing this in much the same fashion. The Waste campus/ collection centre became a tour destination for many of the UN agencies in New Delhi & continues as an exhibition for the project. In June 2000 I was invited to a meeting by UNEP (Paris) on “Product Service Systems”; this was one of the direct outcomes for me, and it was followed by invitations to two more UNEP events. The meeting was to be a crucial formulation of a change of regime in the sustainability discourse – from products to services. I presented the CRP at this meeting and in the debates ensuing made a point that community orientated traditional service systems (the wallahs) existed in developing countries. At the end of this meeting I agreed to do a project to look into wallahs and over the next few years had groups of students documenting different wallahs (such as the Dabba-wallahs of Mumbai who have been the subject of study in best practices by Harvard University). This resulted in a joint paper with a colleague for a UNEP conference in Japan in December 2003.

Key Words: CRP Recycling Incubator Waste Water


Blog (1) Resource Archive for Project Waste TBC


Diabetes has been around among humans a long time. There are many people around the world who suffer from diabetes – 171 million in 2000 going up to 388 million in 2030. A lot of people work in and specialize in working in the area of diabetes: diabetes for them is a source of employment. This is one aspect of the phenomenon of diabetes and what is worrisome is that a few of these people may be keen to get diabetics become dependent upon them. A doctor may be keen to have the patient dependent upon her, a pharmaceutical company may be keen to have large populations of patients become dependent upon their drug formulation, a product manufacturer may be keen to see diabetics become dependent upon expensive technology and even the diabetics associations have their own notion of the ‘right way’. Many feel this ‘fostering of dependency’ has had a detrimental effect upon the quality of life of diabetics. Some have said that this ‘culture of dependency’ is a recent phenomenon, a fact of modern life where we have grown accustomed to giving ‘experts’ control over our body, our lives.

There exists therefore a Need (!) and something has to be done to improve the situation.

Complex problems such as Diabetes tend to be fuzzy and messy (and confronting). Often these are also contested territories dominated by experts. Designers very often have to hear disparaging comments from experts saying ‘what can YOU do’. This is also what makes this area exciting.

This project – project diabetes – is a space to work, a live project with real people and real outcomes.

My Asia Activities

Encyclopedia of Asian Design: Soumitri Varadarajan is a co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Asian Design (Berg Publishers). I am at this moment engaged in research to co-edit the Asian Encyclopedia of Design. For this project I am looking for and contacting Asia Experts, both in Australia, the world and in the specific Asian country. I am, over the course of this year, evaluating potential collaborators and contributors to the project.

ADDITIONALLY – over the years I have been engaged in privileging Asia as a component of design capability. More …

  1. Student Exchange: Student exchange with Asia is an ongoing activity (Since 2005). Approx 150 students have received scholarships.
  2. History-Theory Course in the UG program: There is a taught course in Asian Design in the undergraduate Industrial Design Program.
  3. Studio projects with Asian Content: The program conducts studios with the theme of Asia or situated in an Asian Context.
  4. Asia Focussed Post-graduates supervised:
    1. Masters by research: Reconstruction in Aceh post Tsunami.
    2. Masters by research: Chinese Whispers: Industrial Design in China
    3. PhD: Design in the redevelopment of Iraq.
    4. PhD: The Australian Design Condition
  5. Alumni Group: As a programme, the staff keep in touch with the alumnus of the program in Asia.