Sunday, August 12, 2007

Design and the Creative Economy: A Strategy for Development in India

Image 1: Variety of expressions of human form from the many village crafts of India
See more about these crafts in “Handmade in India”

Most people think the technology shapes our environment and objects in our lives, but few people in India would consider the possibility of this being far from the truth. While technology is indeed one of the drivers of giving shape to the objects in our lives, a far more potent force is culture that in most mature societies deeply influences how our objects and environments are shaped. The use of design in the production of meaning and in our constant striving to transcend the technology that we use to create these in the first place determines many qualities that we cherish as part of culture. The evidence of form giving seen in tribal societies and in the highly evolved and stable village forms that dot our landscape in India show us this deep influence of design and culture in the shaping of our lives and experiences and we can foresee that as our digital technologies develop and mature we will be increasingly using culture through the medium of design as a determinant of the form of our software and hardware interfaces just as we have been using it to shape our living spaces and artifacts that we have been using in our lives. We will therefore need to return to our roots and discover afresh the age old local solutions and in this process try to understand design at a new level of maturity. Design has been a core driver for the shaping of culture and we will need to redefine its role in then shaping our future and in forming and providing meaning to our future selves. In India are fortunate to have a living culture that has a continuity in its settlements and life processes going back over 5000 years of civilization and the manifestations of this long journey are visible all around the country, if we care to take a look.

This is a very different kind of design activity that we are talking about here and not the type promoted by the glitterati and the design-as-adjective-media, all dealing with “designer labels”, a creation of marketing strategists in search of gullible consumers. Today, the Economic Times in Ahmedabad had a front page story on Design with a capital “D”, of course, and with a lot of name dropping, well known brand names of cars, perfumes, clothes and lifestyle products, and that in my opinion is another kind of design, the kind that can only lead to global warming by fuelling the consumption culture, and certainly not what I am trying to advocate here. We need to understand design as it was always understood by the common man, a core human activity of thinking and doing, a process of inquiry in a search for insights that could help make an existing situation better in the future for ourselves and for the world. Design at this level is about sensitive and ethical human intentions shaped by thoughts and actions that are steeped with feeling in a process that can generate value for all stakeholders. At this level it is a driver of culture that is sustainable and beneficial to humans as well as the ecology of the planet.

Image 2: Data visualization of village economy in a class assignment at NID
See more about this assignment in the “Data Visualisation course”

India and the Indian village has been the subject of design study in the search of the discovery of the roots of the synthesis of form. Why the Indian village? Christopher Alexander in his masterful thesis called “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” used the generalized Indian village as his object of investigation using as many as 144 parameters that have helped organically shape the relationships that go to make up the structure and form of the typical Indian village. The Indian village was chosen since it is perhaps the only surviving form of settlement that has endured the 5000 year long evolutionary process in arriving at a mature and sustainable model for human settlements and which continues to stand as a living organic system today. This is a model which has been fortunately insulated from mass destruction and migratory pressures and stand as living evidence of forms that can represent the synthesis of forces that give shape to human intentions and designs. While flying from my base in Ahmedabad to Delhi and onwards to Guwahati I can see below the dots that are the villages of the great Gangetic plains below that Alexander studied in 1961, still living and being shaped by many of the forces that he helped describe in his analysis in search for a synthesis of form. The typical Indian village, is a living testimony of sustainability having survived 5000 years, even as we look at it through the haze of poverty and the coloured perceptions that our modern education has endowed on us. Urbanization is not the only option forward since we can innovate other options, only if we try.

Looking down at our village from the air and now by doing the same using Google Earth, we can all participate in the live analysis if we can see the forces acting on the ground as did Alexander in the course of his field study in the early sixties. He identified many forces, some technological no doubt but many are attitudes and belief systems as well as rules and laws that have a far greater influence on the shaping of the village than mere technology and the economic parameters that we hold in such high esteem when we consider the modern day artifacts and environments that are being rapidly thrown up by the technological society that we have built in the recent past.

We are now using an evolved definition of design which places it on a level that is at the very core of human explorations and innovation over the years. Design is about the insightful and sensitive use of human intentions through our opportunity seeking thoughts and actions to produce meaning and value for ourselves and for society as a whole. In this form it is a very potent force that helps shape culture and it is achieved through our manipulations of materials and in giving shape to our intentions at both the material and at the immaterial and intangible level of systems, services and spaces as well as our artifacts and our interfaces with technology products in the software and artifact space.

Design can bridge cultures with its core ability for the sensitive creation of value from channeling human intentions through informed thoughts and actions. Design helps a society connect all of human knowledge with its deeper sensibilities and aspirations and it was an integral part of social and economic action till recent times when it got divorced from daily life in the process of industrialization and mass production. Access to new technologies and the democratization of global communication promises to give new meaning to creative expressions in a two way process that we are now attempting to build into our efforts to use design and its related initiative.

Image 3: Systems model of Design and the many levels of engagement
See more about this model at my website “About Design Theory: Levels of Design”
Download the paper: Levels of Design Intervention - 200 kb pdf.

Design is a powerful integrator at the systems level while it may continue to be operative at multiple levels and work across multiple sectors, materials and fields of business and social life. Our conviction about its effectiveness stems from the experience of numerous development projects that we have had in India over the past fifty years of using design as a critical tool for economic and social development. Other countries too are veering towards this new view of design as a vehicle for culture and it is here that we are likely to see its true value for human development.

Image 4: Model of Design as Fire: Systems dynamics and the design effect
See more about this model at my website“About Design Theory: Metaphor of Fire”

Design as a core human activity evolved from its first appearance over two million years ago when per-humans used fire to ward off predators and provide a sense of security to the early users. From the use of fire to the use of materials and tools is a long journey that chronicles that evolution of design and separates it from the organized forms of both science and art, since it predates both these disciplines when seen at this very general level of engagement with human aspirations and actions. This very integral set of capabilities that were part of rural habitats got separated and differentiated into specialist activities both with the birth of formal education and the university systems as well as through the processes of industrialization and it is now seen as a profession in the periphery of business and social action. Now we have embarked on a journey that goes well beyond material and tools and it includes the creative shaping of ideas about society, politics and ethics just as we looked at function, form and aesthetics and in this new journey we see interesting possibilities for design to expand and embrace this expanding universe of action with growing influence in shaping all our lives.

Image 5: The design process integrated with business models
Download paper about this model from my website “About Design Theory: Iterative Design Process.”

We will need to build new models to understand this evolving profession and build both processes and platforms for education in order to embed these new capabilities in a more formal manner into the shaping of our culture in the days ahead. Some of these approaches are part of our experiments in teaching design to students at the schools in India where design has been largely neglected by both Government and industry for the past fifty years since independence. However the recent surge of interest due to globalization should not limit the scope of its application to just business and industry but make it accessible in its significant role as the core capability in shaping our culture in a rapidly changing world order.

Agriculture gave way to Industry and now we are heading towards a new wave of global change that is predicted to transform the way we choose to live and work in the information empowered world order. The dawning of the creative has been predicted by many and countries and cities are vying for creative talent in trying to make their policies more attractive for those with creative energy and this includes many kinds of design professionals and innovative occupations. Does this mean that all such change will take place in urban India and leave the great village devoid of any talent? I do not think so and nor do many of my colleagues in the design profession in India who have been experimenting and researching the great Indian village traditions in search for ways to take these durable traditions forward into the next epoch of change with sustainability. We only need to look at the numerous stories of small-scale entrepreneurship and the vast range of craft, performance and artistic skills that live in our villages today and juxtapose it with the potential that the information age provides all of us to have a two-way communication across the global village to realize that the old bazaar could be recreated anew to offer a platform for a new age economy that can sustain a new economy in new and imaginative ways.

Image 6: Profile of the emerging designer and those who will adopt design as a way forward in their own professions.
See more about this model at my website: “About Design Theory: Profile of the Designer.”
Download paper: Creating the Unknowable - 50 kb pdf
Download paper: Craftsmanship in Education – 160 kb doc

This is the creative economy and we need to look at design in a fresh perspective not just as a servant of industry and business but as an enabler of such creative enterprises that are driven by local talent and linked to value rich associations with carefully paired relationships that the community channels now provide across the world for those who have similar aspirations and interests. That such networks can be created with the use of local skills and resources can be easily be demonstrated in each sector and some of our young designers are already showing signs of this journey and we will need to harness the pointers that they are revealing to us through their work in the field. Music, art, performance, storytelling through cinema and theatre have all been made accessible to small scale producers, all of whom have the reach across the globe for their offerings. Similarly crafts producers too have the same reach for their wares that are valued for their unique offerings and their exclusive qualities, particularly if they are handmade with a high degree of understanding and empathy for the intended user. Rich texts are being co-produced by collaborators on the net and so is music and image banks and research, all of which point to new possibilities that are emerging that will eventually challenge industry and business in new and exciting ways. India needs to look at this transformation and try and integrate what it has preserved for centuries in the living village economies and then build the creative economy on the back of this great tradition to provide leadership across many spheres of activity in tourism, entertainment and life-styles that are sustainable and satisfying in a modern sense.

In order to succeed here we will need to build a policy framework that is sympathetic to the design process of exploration, experimentation, modeling and prototyping before rapid deployment and make the investments in infrastructure and people through appropriate education and an umbrella of supports that would help them realize this potential. This would then be a design led initiative that can usher in the creative economy and other countries too are looking at this possibility but India has a real advantage with a huge cultural resource that is alive and ready to be used. I will elaborate the application of design strategies to other fields in the days ahead and in each one we will need to nurture the creative force of innovation and help make situations and offerings better than they are today. Design can usher in the creative economy and we can make it happen right here in India.

The Design Concepts and Concerns course (DCC) had covered this theme earlier in the Foundation as well as in earlier PG batches. This year we are looking at the Creative Economy and its potential for India with the PG batches at Gandhinagar, Paldi as well as Bangalore. I have set up a new blog for the DCC course which can be seen at this link and the theme for this year is the Creative Economy of the Future in the DCC course. The Gandhinagar batch is looking at the design opportunities in the area of Digital Design.

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking and inspiring piece. It gives individual professionals, food for thought as to how in their own ways the ideas can be integrated in practice.

    Thanks Ranjan for setting up the blogs and rendering this great service to the profession of design!


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