Thursday, June 28, 2007

Science and Design: Reality check for India

A wily old “designer”, the first of a breed, lit up a bonfire outside a cave somewhere in South Africa and stayed the night in the cave behind it. We are told by Richard Dawkins that this happened regularly more than 2 million years ago and it certainly changed the course of human destiny. This was his design epiphany moment, and the first for human kind as they became the only species on planet earth to intentionally use fire to generate real value, starting with a feeling of security and a good nights rest. The rest is history. This act of pure insight set us apart from all the other species on earth, all an outcome of perhaps the first discernable human act of design, yes DESIGN!

Intentional action that generated real value!

Design, in its broadest sense, means the management of intentions through thought and action to generate real value. This was a true act of design done in good faith and if someone had tried to regulate his actions and ask for proof of future success, we would perhaps not have been around today to discuss these matters. The human use of fire started as an act of faith and knowledge of fire came much later, after many experiments and truth seeking reflections which is now called the process of science. While science and technology deal with finding truths and building specifications, design deals with reality check in particular context and in the marketplace, which cannot be checked in any laboratory or supported by an abstract proof. Design uses insights AND knowledge with feeling and concern for the context while science is a search for the ultimate truth. While the scientific process is immaculate, we must admit that it is faulted to a point where all truths, however hard earned they may be by repeated experiments and reflection supported by flights of fantasy and imagination, it must give way to the next big truth – the proof of which lies in the fallibility test – upon which the foundation of good science is built and nurtured. Design on the other hand must always fit the context, for the particular moment and the particular location and as Harold Nelson and Eric Stolterman would have us believe from their book, the Design Way, in the ultimate particular form of something that works for us, here and now. Science searches for the general, and higher the level of generalization the higher it is in our esteem, closer to the ultimate truth. Design seeks the real and the possible, the politically correct path, closer to the needs and aspirations of the particular user, customized to be a perfect fit. The better its fit the better its perceived benefits and value in that particular context. In the best case scenario, so good is the fit that we even fail to notice its very existence and we fail to see it anymore, it almost disappears from our view and becomes one with our experience and becomes one with us, subsumed into our sub-conscious self, just like a part of our body and mind.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Joseph L Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto is taking this intangible quality of design to a new level in management education in Canada with a significant impact across the developed world. He is introducing design understanding into management education with his call for the design of products and services to achieve a total experience, a sensory and intellectual experience, where the manifestations of the material and structure almost but disappear and get blended with the experiential memes of the individual user, the community of consumers and all the stakeholders – which includes the user and the service provider alike – a win-win situation that generates great value for all. He is quoted in a recent issue of Canadian Business, “Design in its broadest sense is figuring out the most elegant, efficient, effective way of doing something – the way that is most matched with the user’s needs. You create a system that efficiently delivers precisely what the customers want.” (pp 45, DB Nov 6-19, 2006). Yes, good business design is good for business and it is not about getting designers into the act, but about transforming business processes and offerings by putting design into each and every one of them, and this is a task for the empowered manager of the future, from the MBD programme that he has helped initiate to replace the thousands of old MBA programmes that dot the globe today. The MBD, Master of Business Design, is now in its third year at the Rotmans School of Management and its message will surely travel to all the other schools, and it is only a matter of time. Yes, it is about putting “Design inside everything”. If may use a modified expression borrowed from the Intel logo, a pun which was also stated by Uday Dandavate in his speech at the “Design with India” session at the Asia Society in New York this February.

We desperately need the message that Roger Martin brings to the Canadian management community if we are to are to combat the mediocrity that abounds in the popular tendering process that is mindlessly adopted by the Indian administration for all infrastructure and public expenditure on the pretext that it solves corruption in our society. Roger Martin’s is a call to bring imagination with some design thinking that would be acceptable to an entrepreneur which could include a dose of calculated risk into our public expenditure that is accompanied by good business sense of a CEO if we are to transform our country with design inside each and every one of these public offerings. Design for India would then mean putting design inside all government investments to bring out the true value of our intentions, surely a task fit for a new Ministry of Design, if we can take a progressive leap into the future of well designed governance in India that would touch the lives of all its citizens in a positive manner. Can we dream big? Can we dream our dreams and act right? Can we try and emulate the act of the first ever designer of two million years ago and set a new course for humanity, and of course for India, towards a better and sustainable future for all of us by using design. However, in India today the collective science and technology budgets of governments and business exceeds Rupees Sixty Thousand crores per year while that for design would be below Rupees One Hundred Crores, surely it is time to examine the proportions and make the required adjustments.

Perhaps we need to bring the spirit of Roger Martin’s debate to the National Design Summit in Bangalore this year if we are to convince the uninitiated and the skeptics in administration, finance and governance to make up for lost time, as a part of our determination to make the National Design Policy work for all of us across all the 230 sectors of our economy where it is needed most. We need design as it is broadly defined and we need it urgently, and we need it now!


Richard Dawkins, The Ancestors Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Houghton Miffin Company, New York, 2004.

Harold Nelson and Eric Stolterman, The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World -
Foundations and Fundamentals of Design Competence, Educational Technology Publications Inc., New Jersey, 2005.

Erin Pooley, “The Dean of Design”, Canadian Business, November 6-19, 2006, pp 45.

Rotman School of Management, website and links to Roger Martin papers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wish List for India’s National Design Policy

The debate is on and the cows are set free in the meadows and this sets the stage for some pondering and reflection from the design community if we are to get it right, if at all. Notwithstanding the 28 years of inaction by the country after the Ahmedabad Declaration of 1979 and fully 49 years after the clarion call from Charles and Ray Eames in their India Report of 1958, we finally have a National Design Policy (NDP) , hurrah.

The Policy as enshrined in the Cabinet release of 8 February 2007 which unfortunately leaves much to be desired and it leaves out much that could be imagined and wished for. The design community needs to get its act together and help the Government grapple with the many intangibles that make design so effective and at the same time ambiguous and undefinable and to some extent unknowable, because design is about shaping the future which can be imagined and determined by our actions but which cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty by any science or technology known to us. So it is easy to deal with these ideas when we give it adjectives and in the process we miss the essence of the act itself as we ought to appreciate it, with our feelings and sensory appreciation. Design at this level is an intentional activity informed by thoughts and ideas that lead to actions that generate great value, and it helps determine our future, as the Eamses had declared, “…a sober investigation into the values and qualities that the Indians hold important to a good life”.

How can we move this understanding of design as a core offering across every sector of the India economy and social action through the policy initiatives of the nation? The frameworks and action points that are now being discussed and articulated through the National Design Policy implementation committees need to be informed by a thoughtful and informed debate that the Eamses had called for in their seminal report which resulted in the setting up of the National Institute of Design in 1961 at Ahmedabad. The NDP that is supported and promoted by the Government of India needs to be beefed out with well structured and imaginative guidelines that can be actioned by the government, administration and business along with the full participation of the design community in India with the inclusion of all the other stakeholders – the Indian public – who should be involved in the process fully if the efforts are to achieve the desired results in a reasonable period of time, and we need to make up for lost time.

I have a constructive proposal here. Design is needed in as many as 230 sectors of our economy and we will need to start from ground up to build a sustainable movement that can capture the imagination of our nation so that the discipline is adopted and used across all these sectors with the active assistance of a policy framework that can help cope with the ambiguities and multi-dimensionality of the discipline itself which are not well understood and therefore not used to its full effect so far. We need to start at the very beginning and use all the dimensions of design as an critical activity for development in India. Further this needs to be rolled out across all the sectors of our economy, all 230 sectors, and at the very outset it seems to be a task that may well require the setting up of a coordinating Ministry, a Ministry of Design, if you like, if we are to do so with determination and conviction in a rapidly changing India that is quickly shedding its agrarian past and moving to a post-industrial and post-mining economy in the era of global warming and catastrophic change.

I propose a seven stage wish list that can capture and help manage all the dimensions of the national design policy framework from intention to value creation. These seven stages are as listed below:

1. Design Opportunities Mapping: Setting goals and defining objectives in close cooperation with the stakeholders.
2. Design Awareness Building: Promoting and informing all stakeholders, the public, government, business and society about the use and processes of design.
3. Design Support Initiatives: Enabling and empowering user groups and stakeholders to access and manage design to meet their core needs through incubating, incentiviceing and hand-holding supports.
4. Design Advocacy Services: Initiating and catalyzing action in high risk areas through planned investment and regulation of infrastructure and policy initiatives for growth and sustainability.
5. Design Action Initiatives: Public infrastructure and good practices in governance can be designed through a systematic programme of government action through public private partnerships to ensure that what is built is an umbrella for sustained and balanced development across all sectors of need.
6. Design Evaluation and Regulation: Impact assessment and systems audit on an ongoing basis will inform future investments as well as help regulate and instill good practices across the board in all development initiatives funded by government.
7. Design Planning and Vision: Support and direct investments in public interest research and design development initiatives that are both visionary can ensure the future proofing of our economy in a climate of cataclysmic change.

These seven dimensions need to be managed across all the sectors of our economy as well as its assimilation within our society if we are to emerge as a nation that is both creative and effective in a sustainable and equitable manner. These dimensions will need be expanded and articulated in a master plan if we are to shift to a design centric view of the future and to make it happen in India, a nation that can provide leadership across all the sectors in the creative economy of the future.

Can we make it happen? Can we afford not to?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Theme Lecture at USID2007, Hyderabad

Delivering the Keynote address at the USID2007 on 18 June 2007, I focused on the theme of the conference, “Living in a Digital World: Opportunities for Engineers & Designers”, and my travel to the “CyberCity” gave me several insights about the IT industry in Hyderabad as well as the status of recent developments in the city. My presentation to the conference gave an overview of our current understanding of design from the NID perspective and focused on the emerging opportunities in the field of digital design and it touched on the new policy initiatives that promise to finally bring support to the design sector in the country, long delayed, but much needed nevertheless. The conference was well attended with over 150 participants from the Indian IT sector, international players as well as the Indian media.

Hyderabad has changed since I last saw it, and this is quite dramatic since the conference at the Hi-Tech city’s Novotel Hotel conference centre could have been anywhere in the developed world, going by the quality of facilities but when you head back to the old city, real India strikes back with its traffic jams and its multi-layered cultural and chaotic infrastructure and road sense – cows, dogs and humans all using the same road, competing with the cars, rickshaws, trucks and busses – and people all over the place, yes we are in real India again. The approach road, a three-lane highway almost completed but not quite, is lined by the leading IT companies of India and many of the worlds largest IT corporations or their respective research centres. A month ago in Bangalore, another exploding IT destination for India, I saw similar sights along the Outer Ring Road also lined with Indias’ best and many many from the world stage, and I wondered about where all this explosive growth was taking us, traffic and all. Missing are all the great big boulders that had lined the landscape in my imagination and memory of Banjara Hills and the Jubilee Hills area through which we traveled, to make way for the new roads and IT campuses, I miss these spectacular landmarks, perhaps we could do all this development in another way?

My presentation called for the use of design across all the 230 sectors of our economy and for IT and Digital design initiatives across five broad fields of exploration and design action. Opportunities for design action were described across these five major areas of focus, namely, Nature, Life, Work, Health & Play. Nature includes all needs of the Earth and its Environment and in the age of Global Warming we need to apply our minds to addressing design action in this field. GeoVisualisation, endangered species watch as well as the health of our planet using research and informed design action are some of the opportunities that I identified here. Life and community, society and culture are another avenue for channeling design energies and imagination and these could be the key source for future human harmony and community satisfaction. Work, on the other hand for me, represents meaningful and satisfying occupations and productivity as well as sustainable services and supports for the business community. Health come next with a focus on good food & fitness regimes that could ensure a quality of life that many of us lack, particularly in the developing world today. Elimination hunger and providing food and clean drinking water for all humans is not a difficult task to achieve if we set our minds and actions to achieve these results. Finally, in Play I see relaxation and sports, leisure activities and entertainment, all of which needs to be designed to meet the stressful lives of our times as well as the needs of our youth, children as well as our elderly and differently-abled citizens.

The challenges for Indian design are many and we will need to work overtime to make up for lost time due to poor policy frameworks and a lack of thrust in the past. The national Design Policy too will need to be refurbished to meet these enormous challenges to make any significant breakthroughs in the 230 sectors of our economy that we would need to make design action happen in India. These include all the Government sectors and Ministries as well as all our Industry sectors, all of which need design at many levels of intervention, and many of them still do not know that they do. Design for the social and public sectors too need special attention and it may well be a call for the establishment of a Ministry of Design in order to coordinate the design investments that are needed across the board in all the sectors of need and action in the days ahead. The mind-set to be nourished in my view would be to ask our engineers and designers to think of creative products and systems that are simultaneously sustainable and provide a great experience to the Indian public and the consumer, the Indian stakeholder at large. Design is a way forward, and at the broadest level of definition it can take good intentions through creative thoughts and skillful actions to generate huge value for everyone. Design is being re-invented, and around the world many design thinkers are recognizing this powerful role and it is this kind of macro-micro interpretation that should inform our national Design Policy going forward.

My presentation can be downloaded from my website at the design theory link and the conference details are seen at the USID2007 homepage link below. Comments in the media missed the case studies that were presented, the NID designed Electronic Voting Machine way back in 1988 which is now used in all elections across India, perhaps the worlds most significant and complex interface design experiment of the 80’s and the home composting system from Bangalore called the “Daily Dump”, which promises to revolutionize the collection and disposal of garbage, in a decentralized way, if it is supported and adopted by our society, only time will tell. Bucky Fuller’s “Space Ship Earth” is now for me even more delicate and it is the “Space Bubble Earth” with the soil layer forming the critical organic zone which will need to be protected at any cost, if we are to ensure the survival of the planet as we know it in a sustainable manner. Design creates – concepts, communications, products, systems and infrastructure – all using tools and processes created by technology, imbued with information and meaning in a intentional manner, transforming materials and form in a sustainable manner, which are driven by sensitivities and attitudes that are at an ethical level, well beyond the legal and the political, yes, “Design is an Intentional Activity that Generates Value”, for all stakeholders and the environment.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reflections on Indian Design Policy 2007

Design has been flying under the radar ever since it was given formal Government recognition in 1958 when Charles and Ray Eames were invited by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to write their legendary “India Report” based on which the National Institute of Design was set up at Ahmedabad in 1961. The Eamses called for a desire to create an impatient national conscience – a conscience concerned with the quality life that Indians considered valuable and the ultimate value of our environment. Design for them was about seeking a direction and not just finding ways and means to limited industrial and business agendas. Design is about social values, strategy and policy as much as it is about technique and elegant solutions.

Romesh Thappar in his keynote address at the “Design for Development” (1979) conference commented on the slide to mediocrity and vulgarity in all walks of life in India and called for a design conscience to change all this through a mix of ‘dreams’ and ‘practicality’. This UNIDO-ICSID sponsored conference at NID called for the establishment of design policy in all developing countries and the call was heard loud and clear in many nations of Asia and Latin America who immediately set about building their design capabilities and promoting the discipline at the national policy level. However India lagged far behind and while there was much talk about concerted action nothing happened that was of any significance.

This significant conference produced the “Ahmedabad Declaration on Indudtrial Design for Development” and an accompanying document titled “Major Recommendations”. Detailed recommendations are categorized under seven heads (A to G) of which the first four are significant in the context of the National Design Policy of 2007.

A. Recommendations for Design Policies
B. Recommendations for Design Promotion
C. Recommendations for Government Action
D. Recommendations for Industry Action
E. Information Requirements
F. Recommendations for Education, Training and Extension in Industrial Design
G. Recommendations for International Cooperation.

Design is a basic human activity and it is moving away from being seen as a profession for a few able individuals and it can become a way of life for most of us if it is promoted and adopted more widely by society. In India some of us are advocating the use of design across as many as 230 sectors of our economy and in the social and political levels. It is a broad field of application and in this form it would not be restricted to designers alone, although I do hope that it includes designers. It can be seen as the process that would help manifest the form of our culture and help build the future by unfolding opportunities through the imaginative reshaping of our resources and constraints, most of which are products of our perception, using all the tools and processes of design as we know it today, along with the new ones that we will adopt tomorrow.

Putting design inside each and every such offering would require a huge social transformation from a science and technology centric approach of seeking truth and specifications to a shift from looking at products and objects of design to the objectives and goals that are set to be resolved by design. Imagination is the key and value creation the focus, be it sustainability or social equity, it is an activity that needs to be driven by social objectives for the greater good of society and the environment, rather than the limited view of the “market knows best” approach of growth and profits unlimited, quite unsustainable. Design at this level is a political activity and is being recognized as such by the thought leadership within the design community, a small beginning, but present all the same within the design research community and its partners across the world. Political and business leadership is yet to fathom the power of design when it is used as a tool for social and political change besides the obvious economic roles that it is known for today, and here it is not so much about the making of sustainable objects but about fostering sustainable behavior in the human race as a whole.

A tall order, but one that is achievable, if we can shift our gaze from globalization and megalomanic obsessions to local opportunities and the creation of diversity that can match the variety of the socio-cultural landscape that we have all but abandoned in an increasingly homogenized world order. Education is one such sector that is huge and in desparate need for design action at the macro levels of policy as well as at the micro levels of products, services, spaces and events, all of which would need to be innovated across the numerous opportunities that would emerge along the age and demographic profiles of our population.

Prof Bruce Archer had in the 70’s proposed the introduction of design into general education in the UK and he conducted some far reaching research into the establishment of design in the National Curriculum which has had a significant impact in the rise of the creative economy in the UK over the next 40 years. He distinguished the characteristics that made it a discipline that could be at the core of education through describing design as being Useful, Productive, Intentional, Integrative, Inventive and Expediant. It is distinguished from science and technology on the one hand and from arts and humanities on the other as a third leg on which humanity would need to depend for the production of its future contexts as well as give shape and new meaning to its evolving culture. He proposed the use of a “designerly approach to education” rather than a scholarly or a scientific approach to build capability in this third field of enquiery that he believed to be of critical value to society and its future. The UK has hugely benefied from this work and of those who followed Archer, Ken Baynes who helped introduce design to school education, and Nigel Cross who worked at the Open University to make design accessible top a much wider audience across the UK, to name only a few who made significant contributions.

Nigel Cross, Distinguished Fellow of the Design Research Society, in his numerous papers and his significant new book, “Designerly Ways of Knowing” (2006) explains the core concepts of design research and action as well as the ways of knowing and action that are used in design as distinct from the approach of science research and other forms of human enquiery that are offered at the university level. They establish that along with numeracy and literacy human societies have always needed another capability, that of “visuality” to use a term propogated by Gui Bonsiepe, a former teacher at the highly influencial Ulm school of design in Germany. Here we must not be swept to imagine that I am talking about the ‘Chitrakar’, a producer of artistic images but I also include the ‘Kalakar’ the producer of objects with great skill and embedded knowledge, which is a capability that is all but lost in our schooling system today. Design can bring back this integration of imagination and production at an inventive level into our society and as Romesh Thappar had called for, a counter point to the mediocrity and vulgarity that is spawned by the imitation of the West without a deep examination of local values that are dear to us Indians.

The National Design Policy does touch upon some of these concerns in passing and through some angular suggestions. However it is largely dominated by the traditional view of design as a tool of business and not as a core activity of human society.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mission Statement

Design is a powerful force that shapes culture and it is a professional activity that is beneficial for both community and business alike. This blog is for all those who are interested in exploring these wider manifestations of design as a critical human activity and would like to shape its application across all human cultural and economic activities. Design uses all of human knowledge and is informed by the deep sensibilities developed through skillful and playful exploration of nature and the human spirit. It is a responsible activity that is driven by value systems of culture and society which are beneficial for sustainable and equitable existance of the planet earth and its inhabitants. Design is an intentional activity that generates value and in its processes it uses the creative potential of the actors to build a better future for all. This blog primarily focuses on issues and concerns in India but would be open to cooperate and engage with all other like minded groups in achieving the larger objectives of the blog.

A discussion list has been set up on googlegroups to facilitate live discussion on areas of mutual interest and to build a community of shared concerns about design and its use for India. The list on googlegroups is moderated to encourage and facilitate a sustained dialogue about the scope and impact of design across all the 230 sectors of the Indian economy. While the focus is on the Indian dimension we are eager to discuss all other global development perspectives that may have a bearing on the promotion, support and use of design in the Indian context. Both this blog and the discussion list will be coordinated to facilitate easy archiving and dissemination of the posts as we go forward with our efforts to meet the objectives of this blog.

The moderator's home page can be viewed at this link Prof Ranjan's website

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