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.

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