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Schools from thin air! Locally resourced and community-led learning spaces for disaster-hit children in South Asia

‘Schools from thin air’ empowers disaster-hit communities to lead innovative learning processes using scarce local resources!

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What problem does your innovation solve?

School buildings are often damaged or taken over as relief centres after disasters. Teachers migrate outside the affected zone and families focus on survival needs. Girls especially suffer as they take on extra caregiver duties. The efforts of aid agencies are often late and inadequate (evidence includes The recognition and systematic use of local resources, such as people, material, skills and tacit knowledge, is a chance to sustainably address this gap.

Explain your innovation.

‘Schools from thin air’ is based on the idea that communities can lead post-disaster learning processes using locally available wisdom, construction material and skills. A child rights focus also empowers children as decision makers in this process. This idea values tacit knowledge, which can be used to provide a mix of formal and non-formal learning, including traditional wisdom, folklore based survival tales and the community’s eco-sensitive practices. This is a lesson SEEDS learnt through its work with children after disasters in the region over the past 20 years. Through community-led action planning, a fun space is set up. This will support local livelihoods and local enterprises such as small construction contractors. The school architecture aids healing of trauma and promotes learning through the design, colours and use of space (using Building as a Learning Aid, or BaLA, concept). Special attention is paid to elements like girls’ toilets which have been shown to affect the attendance of girls in school. `Schools from thin air’ will aim to be set up in a week after a disaster, progressively being customised and culturally adapted over the first month. Aid agencies who adopt this approach will be able to deliver manifold impacts to communities with the same amount of investment as a few `delivered’ schools. Small local enterprises that will construct these spaces and operate the centres will make the approach self-driven for replication and scaling.

Who benefits?

The innovation will directly benefit disaster-affected two to ten year olds in the South Asian region with educational opportunities and mental health support during disaster recovery. The schools will focus on encouraging girls to attend through the provision of girl-friendly facilities such as toilets. Indirectly the space becomes a rallying point for the community as a whole, aiding healing through active participation and cohesion. The involvement of local entrepreneurs benefits livelihoods, helping to kick-start rather than compete with the local economy. The success of individual schools can be measured through attendance rates, and impact on the recovery process of the community. The approach will also help the environment and economy as it will rely on local and usually bio-degradable materials, and construction techniques, rather than importing temporary learning centre (often made of corrugated sheeting) models that bring in alien designs and unsustainable materials.

How is your innovation unique?

‘Schools from thin air’ differentiates itself through four main pillars. First, the idea will set a clear process for localisation. It empowers the community and its children to be in the driving seat, using techniques such as action planning. Second, the process integrates diverse components to address needs holistically. The interface between the design of the built environment, the learning content and delivery, and the impact on healing is taken into account. Young girls are often tasked with caring for toddler siblings. Integrating early education and primary schooling addresses this gap. Third, it builds in an angle of social enterprise, finding value within local scarce and invisible resources. This approach is remunerative and empowering to local people. Finally, the consortium brings multidisciplinary expertise in disaster recovery, social empowerment and architectural and educational approaches that uniquely position it to deliver on this innovation.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

We are currently battling three practical questions. While speaking of healing, what exactly does psychosocial support mean for children and how best can the built environments provide this? While a safe space is traditionally the obvious answer we want to expand on this. The inclusion of protection advisors or context-appropriate child psychologists is welcome and is complimentary to the activities proposed but is costly to finance. How much knowledge do diverse communities hold that can be delivered to children without professional teachers and to what extent will support be required? The last thing that keeps us up is how this can run in a scalable and perhaps enterprise based mode, while still remaining ethical and social at its heart

Tell us more about you.

SEEDS Technical Services, an India–based social enterprise linked to a NGO, is leading the bid. It has delivered post-disaster projects across the region. The partners include the Judith Neilson Chair at the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, Australia; and House at Pooh Corner, a playschool that is part of Early Years UNSW. UNSW and SEEDS are currently delivering a DFID funded innovation lab project in Bangladesh.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

Our idea is set primarily in the aftermath of an earthquake, cyclone or flood in South Asia, where schools are damaged. We will focus on poor remote communities, where aid takes a long time to reach, and trickles in with low per capita volumes. Subsequent events such as monsoon rains, flooding and epidemics that hit their relief camps, make the situation worse. We aim to focus on traditional rural settings of aid delivery, but can also apply this approach to newer and challenging urban con

Where will your innovation be implemented?

The ‘schools from thin air’ initiative will focus primarily on South Asia, one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world. We propose that the first operations be carried out in Nepal where the devastating impact of the 2015 earthquake on remote areas continues till today, and many children remain out of school. However, we leave the location for a pilot open to change in case an emergency situation arises in the region within this timeframe (specifically India, Bangladesh or Myanmar).

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

SEEDS has been working on disaster issues in the South Asian region for over 20 years and the Judith Neilson Chair also has extensive disaster experience in the region. The consortium will leverage our established partnerships with existing Asian NGO and university networks for peer technical validation. We will also work closely with government agencies, for example the National Reconstruction Authority of Government of Nepal, to best integrate with local schemes and regulations.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

Our disaster work has kept a focus on schools and emergency education, from running Mobile Knowledge Resource Centres to reach the most vulnerable in Myanmar to setting up transitional schools in Kashmir and Nepal. The Judith Neilson Chair brings expertise in innovation processes in the built environment through engagement in the UK Humanitarian Innovation Fund, while UNSW Early Years adds critical insights into the needs and tools of early education and has a strong child rights based approach.

Innovation Maturity

  • Existing Prototype or Pilot: I have tested a part of my solution with users and am iterating.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered for-profit company (including social enterprises).

Organization Location

SEEDS is based in New Delhi, India, with sister organisations registered in Japan, Nepal and Myanmar. UNSW is based in Sydney, Australia.


SEEDS Technical Services, the lead agency: The work of its parent organisation, SEEDS, on schools: UNSW Built Environment: Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture: UNSW Early Years: Facebook posts linked to House at Pooh Corner:

How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

The influence has been two-fold. Based on feedback, we’ve emphasised the critical role of a learning built environment and our process-driven approach to the idea. Through discussion with the community in Nepal, we decided to further strengthen our psychosocial component, adding simple tools for learning facilitators to use. For even in schools that survived intact, a sense of fear remains among students and parents. More broadly, there is a helplessness that still pervades affected communities.

Who will implement this Idea?

STS will lead the effort with a community architect and social communications expert working full-time, on the ground in Nepal and partly in our Delhi studio. Partners based in Sydney, Australia will provide part-time support. This includes two UNSW academics on community-based disaster reconstruction and one teaching staff from House at Pooh Corner (Early years UNSW) with early learning, child rights and psychosocial expertise. The fourth partner – the communities – will be continually involved. ADRRN (NGO) and AUEDM (university) networks will test application in other South Asian contexts.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

Across Nepal, affected families have lost the sanctity of a learning space. In these communities, it serves a role beyond education alone, as a gathering spot and beacon of hope. Considering the day-to-day struggle for basic needs, the more time that elapses, the greater the risk of children not returning to school at all. The continued fear means end-users feel helpless in re-establishing learning processes on their own. From a systems angle, 8,242 public schools have been affected by the earthquake. Waiting for all of these structures to be permanently rebuilt means an entire generation may lose out on education. The bureaucracy and political instability cripple efforts and so communities simply wait for government-mandated processes and approved structural designs to be completed.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

We are a small social enterprise, registered in India that works on a cross-subsidisation model. Our specialised consulting and research services have been sought by development banks, government agencies and INGOs. The generated revenue helps subsidise our non-paying clients - the local communities. We see these families not as ‘beneficiaries’ but equally valid clients availing hands-on design and planning expertise. We engage closely with local governments and see our role as one of filling gaps until full recovery is achieved and governments re-establish their long-term management role.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

IMPACT: In the aftermath of future disasters in South Asia, all responding agencies and affected communities are able to establish ‘schools from thin air’ QUESTION: Considering the diversity of challenges in a post-disaster context, how do we ensure that the model is moulded in a manner that allows for rapid deployment (timing) and scale that reaches the last mile?

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

The overall output will be measured by how many schools from thin air are built. An outcome will be how different elements of the idea are adopted by responding agencies and later into permanent school reconstruction. Each specific school will be assessed by disaggregated attendance rates; enhanced academic performance (measurable by comparing exam results with children where schools weren’t built); and impact on mental health and well-being (measurable through baseline and end line surveys).

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

We envision a timeline of 24 months that includes four broad key steps. The first step will involve mobilising communities, programme design and field testing to refine the various elements of the idea. The second step will be a full-fledged pilot. The third will include testing of self-sustaining mechanisms, particularly adaptation to different contexts and adoption by responding agencies. Finally, learning and evidence around the idea will be documented and disseminated.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Under $50,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • Under 5 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are a registered entity, but not in the country in which we plan to implement our Idea.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • Between 6 months and 1 year

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Model Support

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How does it evolve beyond physical environments and incorporate a more holistic application?
An array of local community members including grandparents, out of work adults and adolescent volunteers serve as learning facilitators, vetted through a child protection lens. Their involvement in the teaching process is facilitated by basic tools and augmented by technology based tools, where required. Bringing in folk tales and local wisdom from their experiences has proven to be highly effective in previous work in the region.