The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.
Edited by Saba Mundlay
Driving from Mumbai, it took about 4 hours to get to Vigyan Ashram, a literal community on a hill, overlooking the village of Pabal. To get there, we had to drive on roads that have hardly earned that title; to pull over on narrow paths to let goat herds pass. It was a totally different world from the one we left that morning.
The last road soared above the valley, leaving the tumultuous journey far behind. Vigyan Ashram immediately seemed a place all its own, although it’s very much built of the local community.
In 1983, Dr. SS Kalbag chose the site for Vigyan Ashram for the problems the area had. It was drought-prone, with no water or electricity supply, had little vegetation, and was largely uninhabited. Student dropout rates in Pabal were high, many were leaving for cities, and those who stayed had few options. All these issues were taken as opportunities — that’s an attitude community members still share.
It all started with a Diploma in Basic Rural Technology (DBRT) program, a one year residence open to students on a first-come, first-serve basis. Students were (and still are) “given training in agriculture and animal husbandry, home and health (sewing and food processing), engineering (fabrication & construction), energy & environment (electrical motor rewinding, survey techniques, solar / biogas etc.), and computing.” — technical skills with immediate value for Pabal denizens.
That common-sense idea of making education useful is, in my experience, extremely uncommon. Dr. Yogesh Kulkarni, VA’s current director, recounted how VA’s founder explained it to him: “You don’t have to lead a horse to water – and you can’t make it drink – just make it thirsty.” And that’s what Vigyan Ashram does now: makes students thirsty for what VA offers, by showing them how invaluable education can be.
Since then, their programming has grown dramatically, even though their first principles remain steadfast. Today, in addition to DBRT, they offer a 1 day/week Introduction to Basic Technology course in 122 schools. Their Fab Lab, which they identify as “technology to create technology” has been growing for the past 15 years and continues to serve as an example for the global community. That’s also led to a robust Fab Academy cohort. VA has also launched a Design Innovation Center in collaboration with Pune University, to bring what they’re doing to undergraduate and graduate students, and they run an entrepreneurship accelerator to help community members scale their ideas. They’ve partnered with INDUSA, DST-TARA, and Engineers without Borders, among others, and in the spirit of open source, they share their designs and thoughts on their blog, and on their page “Learning by Doing.”
They’ve grown physically, too— from a handful to about 60 residents, and from one small building to a sprawling commune. All the buildings are built by and for the community, reminding me of William Borough’s utopian vision described in “A Factory As It Might Be.” The idea of Learning by Doing permeates everything they do: every building they make is seen as an opportunity to experiment, so every one they make is unique. That process has led to a huge portfolio of different projects, and in-depth knowledge of each (since in many cases they literally live in them). That means when they’re trying to help someone build a new house, or a toilet, or whatever, they can show all the models they’ve already made, share pros and cons, and find, from many options, the exact solution for a particular set of needs.
And that feels really good. Everything at VA feels purposeful. While many makerspaces and Fab Labs around the world are really just hobbyist spaces where people have fun and make toys (although admittedly often complex and high-tech toys), Vigyan Ashram is dedicated to projects that make a difference for Maharashtra’s rural population. And more than anything, we were really impressed by the high quality of design and construction that’s less common in hobbyist spaces.
There are, of course, some distinctly Makerist projects, like Electromagnitude: a very inexpensive laser cutter (they’re currently scaling into a business to reach more people). Or the exii hackberry: a 3D printed, open source, electronic prosthetic hand that students at VA have worked on (side note: it’s hosted on Wevolver, which was recently featured in Open World).
But many of VA’s most exciting projects are low-tech, and focus on solving problems the right way, rather than the high-tech/flashy way. Below, Suhas Labade tells us about some of the rural technologies developed at VA, including rice dehusking machines, pedal power generators, feed grinders, all manner of cooking and drying devices, sanitary pad incinerators, egg incubators, and biogas toilets.
Technology development isn’t the only way they solve social problems, like creating space for young people to dance freely (in a culture that sometimes disallows that), or writing Wikipedia pages in Marathi, the local language, or the Ashram’s strict vegetarianism.
Most of these projects were developed in collaboration with community members who came to Vigyan Ashram with intimate knowledge of a problem. They get some international contracts, but the majority of their work is based in local people’s problems, or problems that the VA community itself is having. As an example of the latter: VA’s growing community means there are a lot of mouths to feed, and in light of the spotty electricity there, they’ve built some amazing solar systems for cooking and drying food.
My friend Saba (who also took many of the photos in this article) asked if they were able to create more useful solutions because there are more opportunities than in city or suburban spaces where there are fewer immediate problems. And while I initially struggled to accept that city makerspaces I’ve visited generally have fewer problems than Pabal did, I think it’s actually true. Furthermore, the problems faced in cities are usually systemic, and difficult to solve with hardware alone. At Vigyan Ashram, and around Pabal, there remain a lot of problems that makerspaces in the United States, for example, never have to worry about.
That reminds me of a Gandhi quote displayed on VA’s Learning by Doing site: “There will have to be rigid and iron discipline … and that discipline will not come by mere academic argument and appeal to reason and logic. Discipline is learnt in the school of adversity.” The immediacy of the adversity they face at Vigyan Ashram doesn’t just produce good work, it cements discipline, the groundwork for producing more good work.
The whole community shares a regimented schedule of early-rising, prayer, scheduled work, and community meals. And that follows from being called an Ashram — that word’s history connotes work and discipline, and it’s usually used to describe spiritual/religious monasteries or hermitages in Indian religions. In Maharashtra, residential schools are also called Ashrams and, in a way, that’s what VA is. Vigyan means learning, and many students do stay on “campus.”
Their extreme focus on their work and learnings, and on their local community, sometimes comes at the expense of outreach to the rest of the world. I had never heard of them until relatively recently, and struggled to get a complete picture of what they do from online research. Their own website isn’t the most legible, and some of the best resources can be a little difficult to find, like the profile Maker Tour did, or this rare Google folder of VA presentation slides.
As a huge fan of what they do, I would like to see better documentation and organization of their work online so that people in other places might benefit from it. But I think the disconnect is two-sided — give me a moment to explain:
In Ian Cole’s recent Medium piece, the “Third Wave of the Maker Movement,” he describes three waves: 1) the Maker Movement’s roots in 90’s hacker culture, 2) Maker Media and new digital fabrication tools 3) organizations like Nation of Makers (which he helps lead). Despite his transparent bias, I think it’s a commonly held and useful framework to describe the Movement in the West (although it overlooks important historical context like the Arts and Crafts Movement and the movement around the Whole Earth Catalog).
Vigyan Ashram, however, doesn’t fit into that Western narrative. In fact, it’s been finding success through the values of the Movement since before that language even existed. There’s a different set of historical precedents in India, from the language of Jugaad, to Swadeshi, to Appropriate Tech. Even though VA have since converged with some Western movements through their interaction with Aid Organizations and MIT’s Fab Foundation, it has only been featured in Make: magazine very briefly on two occasions (one of those times was in another article I wrote).
In a way, the most remarkable thing about them isn’t the incredibly important, empowering, and sustainable work they do, or their historic status as the first Fab Lab outside MIT, but that they remain so unknown to the rest of the Maker Movement.
So while my first questions were about how they continue to grow their space and socially productive work, my next questions were bigger: like what other valuable models might we be missing because they fall outside of where we expect? Can we define that area of expectation? Where are the practical and theoretical bounds to the Maker Movement?
I don’t think these questions have absolute answers. But they can guide us in finding and recognizing more good and relevant work. They could be useful in starting to understand our biases toward particular kinds of making, and in making a more inclusive and representative movement.
If it’s not already clear, I think there’s a lot we can all learn from Vigyan Ashram. Let’s take that challenge as an opportunity.
If you know of other spaces doing great work that goes under-recognized, I’d love to hear about them— let me know!