Thinking out of the box :  ‘jugaad’ thinking and the power of simple ideas  

On the side of a busy street, a man sits on a stationary bike. Next to his handles is attached a sharpening wheel attached to the bike pedals, and he is busy sharpening knives for customers. At the end of the day, he starts the bike and rides home. The vehicle, shop, desk, seat all are in one for him and other mobile workers like tailors, cobblers or repair-men. It is one of the examples of ‘things that work’- creative ideas that require the ability to think laterally, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of a desire for innovation-the idea of ‘jugaad’ is not a concept that can be easily translated or explained, but it hits you on your head when you see its perfect logic.

A motorbike that doubles as a tailoring machine and a workspace. (Photo- Mindspace)

The ability that Edward de Bono termed ‘lateral thinking’ is exemplified in the famous 9 dot puzzle.

The famous nine dots puzzle and the solution. (Photo: Nine Dot Partnership

If you struggle to join the dots and then see the solution, it is so simple that it becomes fascinating how it did not strike you earlier. The simplicity of the solution is its strongest attribute.

Sometimes, the fixation with an existing idea happens in the process of construction when you are unable to think out of an artificially set construct. For example, when we were designing an office project, we used a cobbled flooring and it was decided that instead of using smaller pieces, a 2 feet by 3 feet template with grooves works best. When the construction started, there were alignment issues and whatever we tried, the alignment was not perfect. We tried chipping, burning, breaking and had a lot of brainstorming before we realized that we can simply revert to the smaller pieces. This was a self-created problem with a very simple solution, but sometimes it happens that we cannot break out a preconceived idea that we start to believe is the only way of doing things. We take the idea at face value and stop questioning its validity to all situations.

Adhocism, by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver

Lateral thinking also was a part of the movement in the 1970s called ‘Adhocism’, a term coined by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, who called it ‘the case for improvement’. Adhocism refers to human endeavours that have speed  or economy, and purpose or utility, where you deal with an existing situation quickly and effectively using available resources. This term was often used to describe products created out of mass produced elements.

When an idea for these solutions comes to a person, it is interesting to ponder about how this process happens. Is it relentless hard work, or is it an instant spark? When does this ‘eureka movement’ come and what kind of ambience could encourage it? In early Europe, coffee shops were considered the symbol of this space which generates ideas, where you are discussing and arguing with friends in a relaxed environment. Charles Correa described this process thus :

“You are looking down on a dark night, suddenly there is a flash of lightning and you see everything clearly. But the next moment it is gone. The process of designing is to recover this flash step by step.”

So there is a spark, but there is also that hard work, inseparable from each other. Hence great people always talk about dedication, commitment and not merely talent.

With great ideas, you most often are telling yourself- how could I not think about this before? Like Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of relating sea salt with the freedom of the nation, the two ideas later become interlinked so strongly that you cannot separate them.

When it comes to architecture, great ideas often have such a form and a juxtaposition of lines that you cannot add anything, you cannot remove anything. It is like a process of elimination where whatever remains is so precious that it cannot be altered. The process of achieving this simplicity is actually very complex, and very few can arrive at it.

Some examples of this are the Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillion, and Tadao Ando’s Church on Water. In the latter, the juxtaposition of a few lines and plans appears to have almost a perfect form. In the latter, the cruciform outside within nature creates one of the simplest and greatest statements.

But great thinking is not restricted to buildings by great architects, and in the context of India with limited space and resources, the challenges that arise from a high population sharing these resources often gives rise to ingenious ideas.

A shop under a staircase, a shutter becoming a storage space, a street used for different activities at different times and seasons- multi-functional spaces and improvisation are everywhere.

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A minimalist house/bed/temporary shelter over a drain. (Image: Mindspace)

In the example above, you see how a person has devised a shelter for himself by laying his charpoy or bed across a gutter, put a shelter above it with bent bamboo sticks and a sheet, and created a makeshift house where he can wash in the gutter. Solutions like these are bare minimum, and use only the basics of how to deal with nature.

Another example of this multifunctionality in Indian cities is in maidans and playgrounds, which are often used by multiple groups of people and there could be four cricket matches going on simultaneously. To the observer, it may look chaotic but every player knows exactly which game is where.

A maidan with multiple games where everyone knows who is part of which game. (Photo: Gourmet Chick)

These efficient uses of space become  most crucial while designing affordable housing. The chawls in Mumbai work on these principles. Here, the corridors become an extremely important space. Here, you meet your neighbours all of whom you get to know very well, newspaper reading and preparations for cooking happen here, cricket is played, tulsi plants are kept, agarbattis are lit. When guests come, they sometimes sleep in the corridor. These corridors become a sort of living room for the entire chawl.

Corridors as an extension of living space. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

Another important space in a chawl and in affordable housing, is the box grills on windows. This seemingly inconsequential space of just one-and-a-half foot width in many cases becomes so important, with the space available being so small that every additional space matters. This space is a small garden where many keep flower pots, it is a drying space for clothes, a drainboard for kitchen utensils, it is a balcony and feeding space where kids often sit. If you look at a kid sitting on this grill four floors above the ground with his legs dangling down, it could be thrilling to imagine how this memory of his or her childhood would shape perceptions.

There have been several attempts to use sophisticated technology to create dynamic facades. In situations like this, dynamism in the façade comes as a result of functional needs. The challenge here is then just about bringing order to the chaos, it is about absorption and not elimination. It is our way of seeing that needs to change, a redefining of the idea of aesthetics, to break preconceived ideas on what is considered unpleasant or not creative.

There have been several attempts to use sophisticated technology to create dynamic facades. In situations like this, dynamism in the façade comes as a result of functional needs. The challenge here is then just about bringing order to the chaos, it is about absorption and not elimination. It is our way of seeing that needs to change, a redefining of the idea of aesthetics, to break preconceived ideas on what is considered unpleasant or not creative.

These ideas come into different spheres of life and activities, like the use of plastic cups versus clay cups. At one point, clay cups were used in railways for serving tea which benefited multiple people- the pot maker, who as a skilled craftsman is encouraged to pursue his or her craft rather than migrating to urban areas for unskilled jobs; the user who could enjoy the earthen fragrance while sipping tea; and the biodegradable nature of the cup that benefits us all. Like an ice-cream cone, if cups could be edible or made out of a biscuit, then we minimise the waste even more.

To conclude with a quote by industrial designer Bill Stumpf on the simplicity of great things,

If your shoes are comfortable you’re not aware they’re on. If the water is pure you can’t taste it. Similarly when a chair is a perfect fit for your body, it becomes ‘invisible’ and you’re not aware of it at all.”



One comment

  1. an interesting and an indian way to understand multiplicity and indiviual identity simultaneous happening in our cities and places.
    we today stand sometimes on the threshold of many thought process and not able to achieve the desired…


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