Skills for life was a research project that addressed the role of education in perpetuating poverty. 

Exploring the intersections of education, culture, and community, our research uncovered several social, cultural, and economic barriers that these communities face with respect to education and employment



The economic advancement of people from slum communities in Mumbai is limited by a combination of social, cultural, and environmental factors. Further barriers are raised by the education system and types of employment opportunities available to the youth in these areas. Such barriers lead to many people getting “stuck” either jumping from one temporary job to the next or living hand-to-mouth on a consistently low salary without any prospect of promotion or growth.

These communities require an alternative to the institutionalized school system that fits in the context of their culture and lifestyle in order to break the barriers they regularly face.

Our initial three-month research project was a broad exploration of a few select slum communities in Chembur and Bhandup. Our aim was to gain a holistic understanding of the situation surrounding the problem of economic advancement to form a solid base for our solution. Primary and secondary research, and thorough analysis and synthesis of our findings aimed to form a clearer picture of:

• the role and influence of generational poverty
• the role and influence of social exclusion
• prevalent mindsets and types of reasoning
• the gap between perceived and actual barriers
• patterns that may influence thinking and economic standing
• opportunities within existing structures and lifestyle



We spent 2 months planning for the field work, which involved –

  • Writing a brief / problem statement / design challenge
  • Connecting with NGOs for interviews
  • Doing a recce of the project sites to find ‘fixers’, locals who would help us navigate their communities


Secondary research:

This involved getting ourselves up to date on the education sector in India, and the Mumbai public school system via articles & reports from NGO and government sources. Concurrently we also spent time understanding various learning pedagogies from around the world (Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Gandhi, Dewey) to get inspired, and to guide our thinking.

Field research:

We spent over 60 hours in the field, working in 6 different slum communities, 30 recorded interviews, and over 900 pictures. Field research also involved building connections with local organizations, individuals in communities, who would be our partners for implementation of any ideas to come out of the research.

We interviewed, formally & informally, individuals and groups, with target users and surrounding people of influence (e.g. family members, teachers, potential employers, etc.) to help us see the problem from multiple perspectives.

Our expert interviews were with people from NGOS specializing in youth related issues. We also connected with ‘local’ experts, socially conscious members of theCommunity. In addition we Interviewed success stories, people who have ‘made it’ against the odds, to identify available pathways of success.

  • Kids presenting their solutions during a workshop we conducted in a marathi medium school in a chembur slum.
  • Chatting with kids in a chembur slum
  • Talking to Rahul Pol, a former addict who now runs a de-addiction program for youth in Dharavi
  • Aerial view of slums from a beautiful lush green hill dotted with slums
  • Kids at a BMC school after a drawing class led by my partner



Concurrently with our fieldwork we began to organize and synthesize information we collected from the field on a daily basis. We divided our observations according to the communities we spent time in and used post its to consolidate all the highlights onto one single wall of information.
From the collected highlights, we identified top level themes of recurring issues, which we identified as opportunity areas for design –

Learning vs education – valuing education rather than degrees
Social and environmental influences – Home life, peer influence, learned habits & behaviors
Experience & Exposure – connecting to people and places beyond the slums
Role Models and guidance – positive influences, guidance & goal setting
Capacity building – vocational skills, life skills, critical & lateral thinking


  • Working with Maia on organizing some of the field data
  • Post its on the wall are easier to move around than thoughts inside your head
  • patterns and organization
  • A persona helps record the narrative of a person



This research was undertaken as part of my startup Ycenter. I was joined in this project by Maia Ottenstien, a product designer from Philadelphia. The research project lasted 3 months. We are currently prototyping one of the ideas that came from these insights, called the Maker Auto, you can read about it here