Design Thinking – Shelters for the Homeless

Design Thinking – Shelters for the Homeless [3.5 minute read]

Here’s the next post, towards sharing stories and incidents around design thinking in daily lives, towards a better collective understanding. My earlier post was about taps at home, and why house helps might be wasting water. If you missed that, here’s the link.

Now, in developing India, as the nouveau riche buy vacation home after home after home, we are still home to an astronomical 18 lakh homeless (as of 2011)!

Now this post is not on wasteful spending, or on “prudent, realty investments” either. Actually on second thoughts, prudent realty related investments might be right at the centre of this one.

I had read about this story over 2 years ago, and was so fascinated with the design thinking connect, I’d shared it on Facebook. Thanks to Facebook’s random annual reminders, this one popped back up recently. It showcases a classic design thinking flaw, of thinking for the user, instead of simply observing and asking them.

New Delhi faces some really bitter winters. I’ve spent some time there on work over different winters, and on some of those nights, the cold was mind-numbing. So one can only try to imagine how tough it would be for Delhi’s homeless people. Right? Think again!

Some years ago, the state government in New Delhi, with good intentions for its homeless, built 218 shelters with a capacity exceeding 17,000 people! Impressive, right?

Now you probably imagine that as winters approach, these places must be getting mobbed with homeless folk rushing in to keep warm? Especially considering there are about 125,000 homeless people in Delhi.

To the contrary, even on the coldest of nights, apparently these places were sparsely occupied. As per government estimates back then, at its highest occupancy, there were only 8500 people at the shelters.

The homeless somehow preferred enduring the cold in the open, to these warm shelters. According to the statistics, for every person who huddled up in one of these shelters, about 15 remained in the open. The government even had cops spotting and taking any homeless to the shelters. But the homeless were like mischievous children, waiting for an opportunity to sneak out of this situation they didn’t like.

Does that even make sense? Who, in their right mind, would prefer to freeze outdoors, as opposed to being warm in?

Unless a bigger picture was missed out. About them and the lives they lived.

It turned out, the homeless were afraid of contracting fleas from other homeless folk packed into these shelters. Which in turn would make even their waking hours miserable. The shelters also didn’t have any storage areas for people to keep their few but priceless belongings safely. And the few belongings they probably had on them, were always at risk of being stolen at such places.

In total, a somewhat hostile place for them to stay in, even in the most unrelenting of winters.

In their empathetic and genuine concern for these people, the government somehow assumed many things about their lives, or conveniently skipped them out in light of the greater good they were doing for them. They forgot to actually involve the very people who would be using those facilities. To know what they could be like. To know if they’d missed out on some aspect. They too are, humans after all. Or if even that didn’t matter (as seldom does for our elected rot from across the country), at least to justify their investment in the project.

Some observation. Some asking. And then more of both, could’ve truly taken India a step closer to being a concerned and inclusive society.

You can read about it here: link

Would love your thoughts on it.

And if you’d like my to look at some complex business problem you’ve been grappling with, drop me a mail at shrutin[at]ateamstrategy[dot]in Hopefully, I’d be able to give you a fresh perspective in an effort to help you solve it.


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