Human-centred design in China

Reflections from China by architect, Philippa Battye

When AzuKo invited me to join their team in China to research community-led projects and present findings in a public showcase - I didn't think twice. I had a romantic vision of the rural and remote.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

But the nerves soon set in. It wasn't the prospect of China itself, it was the task at hand - I would need to talk to people, lots of people and likely many who speak little English. I don't speak Mandarin. I would need to question, dig, unearth and investigate.

Now, three weeks in, I have returned to Shenzhen my base camp and relative home. I have spent this time pursuing architects who adopt a community centred approach to their work, with a particular focus on villages (rural and urban). I have spoken with designers in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Beijing, of Chinese, Taiwanese, English, Irish and French origin. The task I was most apprehensive about - talking to people - has been the most rewarding. Each conversation has given me a greater understanding of what it's like to work in China, and what community-led means in this context.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

My interviewees are hugely passionate about what they do, often subverting the normal routes to building in favour of less economically focused and more human-centred approaches to design. I have learnt how projects are initiated and conceived, where funding is sourced, how communities are engaged and at what stages. I have listened to their motivations, ambitions, and what matters to them as architects operating in this country. Nearly all had a story of frustration to tell.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

I have discussed bathhouses, schools, community kitchens, museums, activity centres, housing and libraries. With each project the context, design intent and process is unique.

What they all share is an ambition to improve the lives of the beneficiaries they serve. A desire to help create and maintain socially and economically sustainable communities.

After connecting with these design leaders, I began a journey into the relative unknown, visiting projects in far flung places. Never before have I had to plan such complicated logistics under such time constraints, or frustratingly been so at the mercy of others.

I leave my hostel in Beijing at 5am and it is bitterly cold. Five hours on the bullet train and I arrive in the city of Xinyang, Henan province. I am greeted by the only two people at the station, brandishing a sign with 'Philippa Battye' - a first for me although I think I would be hard to miss! With my translator Ms LuLu and local governor Mr Zhang we drive two hours to Xihe village, an old cereals and oil trading centre and granary in the 50's. The road reduces from vast empty motorways to single lanes weaving through smaller settlements until we hit an unmarked road leading to the village. Three years ago no roads reached Xihe, it was only in and out on foot.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

The young, who as part of the poverty alleviation scheme set up by Xi Jinping China's President, have returned to Xihe for the promise of a better life. Most now run profitable tourism based businesses back in their birthplace. They have returned to their rural heritage, with a positive outlook.

My next stop - Angdong village...

China feels like a country on the move, with purpose and in constant evolution. The view from my train carriage is always a marvel. Imposing infrastructure such as giant concrete columns march through the landscape waiting to be decked out with new high speed rails, and clusters of 60+ storey towers loom over the farmers below. This infrastructure will contribute to an already mind boggling rail network, which is run with unbelievable efficiency - in my 42 hours spent on trains and 11 hours of bus travel so far, not one has been a minute late.

It is in the parks or around lakes where the pace slows down, and people seem most content. Every morning the older generation practice thai chi; the parks are full of people walking, jogging and stretching together. In Beijing locals break the icy lakes to take a dip and people cluster to play 'keep me ups' with what looks little a giant shuttlecock. In the evenings music blares as large groups of women exercise with square (plaza) dancing.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

There is a real sense of community within the city, and an everyday enviable sense of togetherness played out in public space.

It's the home straight... once reunited with my comrade Jo we will attempt to turn this investigative work into something publicly engaging. The types of projects we are examining, while often small in scale, can have a profound and significant impact on the lives of communities.

We believe these empathic approaches to design should be shared and celebrated.

Read about the learnings and showcase in Shenzhen >>


Author: P. Battye

A commitment to justice and dignity for all


In a recent interview Beth Ashbridge, one of AzuKo's major donors, talks about her yearning for enlightenment, her deep family ties with public interest design (PID) and... her connection to pear trees.

At AzuKo, we look to shape a family around the work that we do. We believe it's crucial for the health of our craft, ourselves and those we serve.

Beth speaks of the care she has for AzuKo's work - the care of a sister - and why it's important that she is vested in it. She shows why support for AzuKo is a voice to the voiceless and a commitment to justice and dignity for all people and all generations.

(From New York by way of Newcastle)

  • Beth, tell us a little bit about yourself...

I am a Novocastrian 30-something chocophile who plays a spot of tennis now and then. A scientist by trade, I now work in the field of pharmaceutical patent law litigation in New York City. I currently live in Harlem and enjoy jogging around Central Park, primarily for the purposes of people-watching. New Yorkers are a fascinating species.

  • What is it about your experience and your life that has inspired you to give back?

I have led a privileged and protected life. I have been given every opportunity by my parents to develop knowledge, travel to other countries and cities, try new things and meet so many wonderful people. I don't have an 'aha' moment per se, I just have a sense of fortune and love and I want to pay it forward. Giving money to a cause that directly impacts the comfort and ease of others is one way to thank the universe for a life loved.

  • How would you describe your personal mission?

To learn as much as I can. Live as fully as I can. And be there for others in any way I can.

  • What do you believe would most disrupt the challenges associated with poverty? And why is AzuKo the right organisation to do that?

I am not at all in this field of expertise but it seems like putting a spotlight on issues that perhaps do not make for 'good media' or are not 'social media worthy' are key...

Working out how to humanise a problem is always going to be challenging and so an organisation like AzuKo is here to champion the communities who do not get the recognition they need to make real change in their daily lives. By facilitating development and change from within, AzuKo offers a sustainable way to improve the human condition.


  • What is meaningful to you about donating to AzuKo?

Jo is my favourite and only sister. I have seen firsthand how tirelessly she works to do the most with every penny she receives in donations. Her determination and dedication towards impacting people's lives is inspirational. This is the easiest donation I have ever made and will continue to make going forward.

  • What would you like to pass on to future generations?

You only live once. So live every day to its fullest. And be kind.

  • What makes you hopeful and happy?

When I see a kind gesture on the subway or while I am wandering through the world, I am reminded that human kindness is all around us and that small gestures are happening all the time between friends and strangers without fanfare or expectation. I believe that these little and large kindnesses far outweigh the evil in the world, and that makes me hopeful and blissfully happy.

  • Fun one... If you were a tree, what species would you be? And why?

A pear tree. It feels classically British. Pear trees tend to live together in orchards, happily supporting one another and feeding their human neighbours with sugary sandy goodness.


If Beth's generosity has inspired you to give, please get in touch or visit our donate page >>

We look forward to welcoming you to the AzuKo family.