Category Archives: Society

Indian Reminiscence

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I just rediscovered a small reflection I wrote a few years ago. I thought it was worth a share.

8th February 2009

It’s been 5 days since I returned to Australian shores from 18 incredible days in India. The experience of immersing oneself in that “the boiling pot of humanity” was fulfilling beyond words. Before I went to India I often found myself feeling confused, inhibited and largely apathetic about the world. When I returned, I was filled with a passion for life I had not felt in years.

Present-day India has many, many social problems. Extreme poverty, an unjust caste system, inadequate women’s rights, a deficient health system and ubiquitous pollution are all areas which need urgent addressing. However, whilst India certainly has many areas of concern, it has the right idea in some crucial areas.

Just like a cauldron full of all kinds of delicious ingredients and exotic spices, India is packed full of Hindis, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and a wealth of other denominations. The ingredients won’t mix unless heat is applied to break them down, and this is an area in which India has succeeded where so many other regions have failed. The source of this ‘heat’ is not dictatorial rule, nor is it rigid police service. It’s much more affordable and far less difficult to organise. The pot of India sits atop the glorious blaze of ‘love for one’s fellow man’. 


Speak to any foreigner who has spent time immersed in real India – that is, one who has become part of an Indian community rather than trying to achieve the agenda of their company or business in India – and they will speak of the warmth of the people. During my stay I witnessed countless instances of this warmth.

One evening my sister and I were buying a snack from a roadside stall when we saw an over-ambitious taxi driver try to squeeze between a pedal-rickshaw and a train barrier. The gap was not large enough and the taxi forced the flimsy rickshaw up against another taxi, bending the rickshaw’s frame out of shape and sending its driver leaping for safety. As the taxi driver tried to reverse out of this sticky predicament, a group of roadside onlookers swarmed upon his vehicle, herded him off to the side of the road, pulled him from his car and smacked him around for a good five minutes. Fortunately for the taxi driver, some armed guards intervened and he was able to escape, but had the guards not been there he may have been seriously hurt, maybe even killed. The protectiveness of the Indian people for one another is so strong that, ironically, they will seriously harm anyone who neglects to consider the safety of others.

The very next morning, as a few other volunteers and I took our daily auto-rickshaw ride, we saw a large sack of rice (probably over 50kg worth) fall from a pedal rickshaw, burst open and spill onto the street. Instantly the hectic traffic stopped and drivers leapt out from all directions to help the poor rice courier recover his livelihood. One man promptly set about binding the split bag back up, whilst another two or three produced sheets of material and began scooping the spilt rice onto them. They then bound up the sheets, handed them to the driver, and were on their way. The whole rescue operation had taken less than two minutes and a potential disaster for this driver had been averted. All thanks to the altruistic actions of a few strangers.


I think that this sense of community, this genuine valuing of all humans, regardless of colour or creed, is the missing ingredient in our otherwise nutritious western cultures. The power of a love such as that I experienced in India is simply incredible – after only a few days in it, I felt fears and inhibitions that I didn’t even know I had melt away to reveal a powerful underlying joyfulness. Imagine what could be if we all had a good thaw.

Australia: A Selfish Giant? I don’t think so.

Above is a film/documentary that I made in Tanzania a fortnight ago. It follows our group, eleven teachers and architects operating under the banner of CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International), as we entered a small village, conversed with the village council, and through these discussions designed an educational facility that will be built by volunteers and funded by donations. Our process was based on the excellent (and free) human-centered design process outlined by Stanford D-School. You will notice that the very first stage of the process is empathy.

I have been following the interminable “Boat People” debate back home, and frankly it seems to me that the difference between the two sides of the debate is that one is coming from a place of empathy, and the other is not.

The “Anti-Boat People” side, of which our politicians are unfortunately the chief spokespeople, starts from the egotistical belief that Australia is the greatest country in the world. According to this argument, all refugees want to come here to ‘bludge’ on our enviable riches. Proponents warn us to jealously protect ourselves from the hoards of untrustworthy foreigners who are hell-bent on plundering our world-famous social conditions.

The “Pro-Boat People” side, led by Human Rights lawyers such as Julian Burnside, starts from the empathetic view that examines the realities of these refugees’ lives. Such examination reveals a range of facts that contradict the other side’s view. For example, in many cases, refugees simply aren’t equipped to endure formal processes given that they cannot obtain the necessary legal papers from their own governments. Furthermore, many refugees have not even heard of Australia, let alone dreamt of reaching its golden shores their whole lives. In fact, many come here because it is the cheapest option.

Under the light of these facts, the narcissistic self-image of the other side is revealed, and it ain’t pretty. It raises real concerns for the spiritual health of our nation. If we as a country go down the “anti” path, we are no better than Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant; enforcing our borders with tall walls, declaring to the world that “trespassers will be prosecuted”, warding off the sunshine of empathy and inviting a cold spiritual winter. Indeed, we are betraying our own national anthem – “For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. Shouldn’t it be “We’ve boundless cells to spare?” That is not the Australia I grew up loving.

As the above video shows, empathy can achieve an incredible amount in a short period of time. Empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. What kind of nation are our politicians designing? From here it certainly seems they only have designs on themselves. But thankfully empathy is universally accessible, which means that we grass roots Aussies can harness its power to make a massive difference. Thus we must ask ourselves, what will we, the real Australia, choose to design?