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August 7, 2020

B1-Sensing the Senses: Design for Sensory Overload Mitigation in Public Spaces- Chetan Dusane- MID ’21

by chetandusane
May be ‘The Scream’ is an aftermath of Sensory Overload!

!t was a FaMily of 5ive; mother, fat#er, two preTeen daughters, and a younger s0n. The park was over_full and lined with medDling, loud hawkers, and auto-rickshaw drivers, as us<ual. The parents whisked the Children around to find the perfect spot, or rather, just some sp0t to sit. After squeezing through the crOwd to settle down on a patch of grAss, it was time to get some snacks from the bAYing and moBBed hawkers. StriVing hard to order the snacK and harder t_o get it, the father then finds the faMily to see the wife struGgling to rein in the childr:en. The stru?Gle continues to ward oFf the stra/y dogs and l@@k after the chiLdren who are scu{rying around to get in [ong, disorderly queues for the merry-go-rounds. The h<nking vehicles outside, clam@uring people, inap#ropriate lights and stray animals, make the place aberrantly ten$e. The husba/^d sco[ds the meek wife for something, with the argument ending with a slAp across the eldest daughter’s f@ce for no apparent fault of hers. The family )eaves in a huff, )eaving be%ind the unfinisheb snack$, only for the stRays to $camper around with another groUp trying to shOO them aw_ay and ‘grab’ the spot, and the hu$$tle continues…

(imagine having constantly scrambled experiences in daily life just as the words in the paragraph above!)

This was when it struck me! The irony of our experiences as urban Indians with most of our public spaces. The very spaces meant for the facilitation of services and life in general, turning into arenas of sensory abuse.

I could not help but wonder about our daily experiences as the citizens of the world’s most densely populated city, Mumbai and retrace a typical day in it. The harried ticket vendors in packed public buses, frigid auto-rickshaw drivers with blaring music, flustered traffic police personnel in the perpetually noisy and suffocating traffic jams; fazed, overburdened, indifferent public officials; the often scurrying and disorderly citizens, catching a suburban train running six times its capacity or frustratedly waiting at the same traffic light multiple times as queues outrun the green light or hustling daily to get a bite at an overcrowded roadside shack or the perpetual competition even to fulfil basic necessities, compelled me to study the effects of such constant distraction and sensory abuse of an average citizen.

Glimpses of Daily Life in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region including Panvel City

Such overstimulation of the bodily senses due to stimuli present in the urban environment can lead to Sensory Overload (SO). It has been linked to stress, anxiety, bouts of anger, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), etc., among the urban populations. It can have adverse effects on the performance of individuals in urban settings. Most importantly, it made me wonder whether it makes us desensitized and unempathetic as people. This pervasive phenomenon, I feel, eventually affects the very ethos of the community. This disquiet towards the phenomenon of SO proved to the genesis of this project.

The local government bodies in India responsible for public spaces, like the Panvel Municipal Corporation (or PMC, the collaborating agency in this work) do not have an active mechanism to identify, link and tackle the various factors within an urban setting which cause SO. An enquiry into the matter revealed that PMC and other local governments, in general, deal with SO grievances only through actions like installing signs or imposing fines and not by understanding its root causes. This modus-operandi generally leads to non-standardized methods of problem identification, establishment and solving. The solutions drawn from such processes are reactive, non-replicable and non-optimal, without a robust framework.

The plan is to develop a deeper understanding of the SO, to establish its underlying causes in urban environments. I aim to build a problem identification and establishment framework, as a tool to comprehend SO, its multi-dimensional attributes and their interrelations, in select public space(s) in the rapidly developing and densely populated city of Panvel in the state of Maharashtra. A city, which now falls under the bustling Mumbai Metropolitan Region, with the saturated crowds from the neighbouring Mumbai city escaping here for some relative respite. This work will be an attempt at introducing Design/Systems Thinking in the corporation’s process of developing overload mitigation measures and policies for public spaces across the city.

Location of Panvel Municipal Area on the Map of India

Currently, my work involves studying the human senses and their interactions with the built environment. The Indian context, however, presents challenging but exciting opportunities in this regard owing to the additional layers of complexity due to cultural, traditional, lingual, financial, and environmental diversity of the region. Initial conversations with the people there, provide a sense of their unawareness regarding their exposure to SO. Only through diligently framed and vetted (as unbiased as possible) questionnaires, do they recognize some of its effects like exhaustion, stress, irritability, disinterest in professional and personal life etc. I expect these interactions to lead to the identification and establishment of the various factors responsible for SO and the most affected public spaces in the context of Panvel. Further, efforts are underway to find out the overload limits of various senses. Through this study, the elements of the built environment that contribute to SO will be analyzed, contextualized and effort will be made to visualize their hierarchy.

The Seven Senses under Study

One of the significant learning until now is the fact that SO is a highly contextual and personal phenomenon, quite dynamic in nature depending on various psychological, anthropological and environmental factors. It calls for a holistic approach to investigation. Secondly, I have realized a need for due consideration and thought to define an overload of a particular sense, the urbanness of a region and the ways senses interact with one another, and the environment.

The inability to be physically present on the field to record practical experiences and the hectic schedule of PMC because of the COVID-19 crisis management works are the hindrances to the data collection process. Moreover, there is a shortage of data in the Indian context to help quantify the sensory stimuli. Nevertheless, I continue to review the available literature and collect data through online questionnaires as an alternative to field study and in-person interviews. My next steps would be to try and connect with PMC as much as possible and find connections and patterns within the data generated from various resources. The progress is sluggish given the circumstances, but I remain positive and motivated.

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