Urban heritage conservation in India is particularly challenging: the lack of technical and financial resources, professional knowledge and application of traditional skills to restore and reuse old buildings has led to neglect, decay and dereliction in the urban environment. A two-level engagement is required, one with policy makers, another with local communities.
The Restoration Toolbox, which was launched on 19 April, creates tools and spaces to promote participatory heritage conservation in India, using open-source digital technologies to empower citizens and local communities to preserve their own heritage. In September 2023, India hosted the G20 in New Delhi, where circular economy and sustainable development are key agenda points; this project therefore offers an opportunity to highlight the contribution of the Toolbox to achieving circularity.
The key principles of the project are people-to-people, co-creation, and community-building. To achieve its goal, the project is sustained on three main activities: technology sharing and knowledge transfer, capacity building, and training as well as dissemination to a wider audience through hybrid models, seminars, and co-creation workshops to strengthen local knowledge and skills.
The success of heritage conservation in India depends on the connections with the local communities and the platform gives us the opportunity to not just focus on exchanges between elites of each society but working on ground with citizens.Prutha Narke, Deputy cultural attaché at Institut français India
Empowering and engaging citizens in heritage conservation
The participatory processes towards heritage conservation are seen as a tool to support stakeholder involvement and policy making built on a deep understanding of the Indian context. Developed on Decidim, which offers a stable, ethical, and modular architecture to build such a platform, backed by a strong international community maintaining its code and ethical compass, facilitating the sustainability of the Restoration Toolbox platform.
The project operates with an open definition of heritage, not limited to listed assets but also involving those buildings, complexes, and spaces that have a symbolic or practical significance for local communities. Diverse cases of cultural heritage communities will be connected through the online platform, which will be open to a diverse range of actors, which form the complexity of heritage communities, including residents, craftspeople, students, academics, civil society actors and local authorities.
The project exchanges and shares knowledge on open governance, financing models, Private-Public-People partnerships, reuse models, grassroots community development and holistic approaches to heritage and urban development. Partners will carry out training sessions and promote outreach, fomenting long-lasting and multistakeholder heritage conservation communities.
Towards heritage policy making influence
A beta version of the platform has been launched in Step 2 of European Spaces of Culture, to help citizens access technical knowledge, resources and professional advice to envision, collaborate and implement heritage projects. It provides an online space to ideate and take collective action to restore and reuse buildings and spaces that have community value. It also provides the civil society a tool to engage with the civic authorities to encourage and build bottom-up actions for heritage conservation in India. The platform experiments with new funding mechanisms such as crowdfunding as well as creates professional ties between heritage actors and local businesses, funders, etc.
The Restoration Toolbox provides an opportunity to promote repair and circularity. If you empower people to rethink preserving their heritage, they can find their own solutions.Aishwarya Tipnis, initiator of the project
On the short term, the project aims to create a community of stakeholders in urban heritage conservation in India and Europe and to spreading awareness among citizens, institutions, stakeholders and relevant parties about the importance of being actively involved in cultural heritage conservation. The long-term goal however is to, by co-creating activities by these partners, encouraging and mainstreaming the use of the platform, publish results and methodologies with a global audience and thus, influence policy making on cultural heritage restoration and reuse in India.
Applying the Restoration Toolbox
Over the course of 2023, the project team undertook not only the further development of the platform and the Toolbox itself - partly done directly by students -, but also outreach to numerous partners in nine cities across India, teaming up with universities, municipalities and national authorities. Many of these partners have shown an interest to disseminate and use the Toolbox.
On 27 and 28 September, the Restoration Toolbox organised the International Conference on Enabling Conservation Through Digital Engagement, in collaboration with and hosted by O.P. Jindal Global University's Jindal School of Art and Archeology. The conference brought together students, policy makers, practitioners who have worked (together) on the intersections of emerging technologies, conservation, and policy.
During the conference, the results of the project were presented and situated in broader discussions about sustainability, repair, circular economy and Indian and global policies in these fields. Moreover, JSAA students who actively applied the Restoration Toolbox in both the classroom and field work, shared their experience and recommendations for its use.
The conference was followed-up by a stakeholder meeting, bringing together all key (Indiana and European) partners actively contributing to the project, as well as additional stakeholders vital for the sustainability of the project. The collaboration and generosity between the various partners was lauded and a key factor for the success of the project. Partners have been able to find complentarity to other partner's strengths, be it to bring in political support, experts and networks, or communication efforts to reach a wider audience.