Is this a new approach or bold way of answering the challenge? Studies on embodied cognition have shown that school design can influence up to 25% of a child’s development - positively or negatively — over the course of an academic year (Goldhagen, S.W. `Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives’. Harper Collins, 2017). In the aftermath of a disaster, with issues of trauma and the need to heal, the impact of the built environment is only amplified. We have observed this in our work in Kashmir and Uttarakhand, India, after massive floods where well-designed, locally-appropriate learning environments have done wonders to encourage students to return to school. So far, safe spaces and temporary learning centres have often adopted a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why the idea of a ‘school from thin air’ is not about innovating a product, but a human-centred process for locally-led post-disaster education. Our approach through this concept, and indeed our broad approach, is to use the impact of the emergency as an opportunity to approach problems differently, in partnership with communities. This concept is an opportunity to make school architecture more conducive to child development and the quality of education in the long term. The involvement of the community, including children is integrated into every step of the process, from ideation to construction to actually staffing the learning centre. This means that children and community members are engaged in the process of conceptualising the construction of schools and the pedagogy of teaching in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
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. For example, an old Japanese folk tale about a farmer burning his crops to warn people to get to higher ground has been a positive way to spread tsunami awareness in Japan. Part of the methodology and process revolves around psychosocial healing for these children. Our approach ensures that children are empowered by engaging in the process of developing their place of learning. The safety element of the space will be prioritised with a consideration of the needs for both boys and girls of different ages. Breaking psychosocial concepts down into simple, easy-to-use tools also helps facilitators integrate these into their daily interactions.
How do you account for resource variability? Conscious of the fact that materials and resources will vary, the process builds in options for customisation. The use of local materials and contractors / masons also allows for local employment generation.
What is your business and sustainability model? The business model of the idea towards long term sustainability is built on two resource sets. Firstly, aid agencies that respond with educational support in major disasters will be tapped to provide partial seed funding to community schools from thin air and in-kind support will come from the community itself. In addition to large scale NGOs and corporate donors, there is a potential resource pool with individual disaggregated donors that are now emerging as a significant force through crowd funding platforms. The option of lining up such donors with communities directly will also be explored for supporting schools from thin air. Secondly, operational costs beyond the initial period will be generated from within the community. We have observed first hand that when community livelihoods have partly recovered, a few months after a disaster, families are able and willing to pay nominal amounts for the education of their children. Schools from thin air will operate on frugal resources and such amounts will suffice to maintain them in the period after aid agencies withdraw and before fully functional permanent schools are put in place. Rather it is seen as a more sustainable, less-expensive, locally-driven and effective alternative to the current patterns of temporary learning centres. Its model will be based on adoption by responding agencies in future disasters. The engagement of local government actors in these processes is seen as of central importance. Features of the ‘schools from thin air’ permeating the school spaces ultimately built to replace these temporary structures will also be considered a strong outcome. This outcome will be evidence of the continuation of the community based approach to education and learning spaces as the community and child requirements will be reflected in these physical structures.