Thursday, January 3, 2008

Poverty and Design: Concerns for the design policy implementation in India

Image: Exploring design opportunities in the supply chain of dairy products with a focus on achieving social equity. Model was built by a group of students as part of the DCC course at NID Bangalore Centre to examine the structure and possibilities that were afforded by the sector.
Many approaches used in India seem to me to trivialize the whole matter of "wicked problems in design" (as defined by Horst Rittel) and place design far below planning and economics in many ways and this may need to be corrected through a better understanding of design processes as well as what the discipline can be asked to do. While everyday dilemmas that stem from inequity and prolonged poverty situations in our country these are talked about as everyday rhetoric within the framework of politics these are indeed "wicked problems". This statement is true in as much as our not being able to find any adequate solution in spite of many years of planning and from whichever angle you may approach it, we must admit that there are those "truly wicked problems" since they are a challenge that defy simple solutions. These kinds of problems are indeed in desperate need for design thought and innovative action, if we are to find any solution at all, but design however is rarely called upon for finding solutions for such problems in India, except in certain limited areas such as finding new applications for local craft skills in the handicrafts sector or the preparation of smart graphics for some lost cause that is in need of mobilizing either funds or public support. Yet another avenue is the channel of corporate social responsibility where guilt funding is mobilized from industry to address some limited objectives in education, vocational training or subsistence support through a combination of planning and grants through macro schemes that produce doubtful results in any case, but guilt is redressed since something was done in a fit of helplessness.
Image: One of the many scenarios created by students in the Design Concepts and Concerns course last year dealing with the design of micro-enterprises for self-help groups.
I am generally optimistic about the ability of the serious and committed design user – be they the entrepreneur, administrator, professional or student, and not just the trained designer – to be able to use the tools and concepts of design that we have gleaned over years of reflection and use in a manner that could be effective particularly where many of our traditional planning and macro and micro economic processes seem to fail. In my view these failures may be primarily due to an absence of innovation that are integral to the planning processes and the very absence of the use of design imagination since design is not yet on the national agenda unlike science, technology and management. Here I see a critical role for design thought and action to be mobilized in the arena of poverty alleviation processes by addressing the ability of rural and urban poor in the process of getting out of poverty themselves and being able to stand on their own feet with their dignity and self-esteem intact. This particular concern has been articulated with a great deal of clarity by L C Jain in his SEMINAR paper on globalization where he draws on the lessons of Gandhi as a way forward for setting planning (and design) objectives for India as well as for others with similar problems at places across the globe. A tall order, but I believe one which is do-able.

It is with this insight that I have been including the macro-micro perspectives inside design education particularly when we are introducing students at NID to design thinking as part of the Design Concepts and Concerns course that I teach at the design school in Ahmedabad, and now in Gandhinagar and Bangalore. Last semester, in Bangalore we asked the group of students to examine the design opportunities in the supply chain of large and local retail operations so that they could enhance the social equity aspects of the exchange which could be made to go in favour of the poor in an equitable manner and in a spirit of fair trade. Besides the skill building and sensitizing assignments that come from the traditional basic design courses we have been looking at expanding the vision and sense of concern for both environmental sustainability as well as to deal squarely with the pressing issues of social equity in the basic objectives of design action in numerous sectors of our economy. The threat and perception of global warming and climate change have now been taken quite seriously as a major area of focus in design education. However social equity and making an impact on poverty alleviation is yet to find a core space as a serious area of focus in many design projects done by design students, particularly since we are unable to find effective sponsorship for those who wish to pursue these objectives on their own initiative. It is here that we will need to use government development challenges to chanalise design inputs to those who need it the most but cannot afford to mobilize on their own volition. Design is a natural human ability and if we were to let people use it themselves, this too may be a solution as I have tried to argue in my IDSA presentation last year in Austin Texas, titled "Giving design back to society: Towards a post-mining economy", which can be downloaded from my website at this link here: (this link downloads a pdf file 812 kb in size)

What I have learned about poverty over some years of trying to address their solutions through the use of design in many parts of India and in quite varied situations is that planners and economists here do not seen to have a clue about how this can be rooted out altogether although huge sums of money and political fire power is expended with this as the stated objective of both governments as well as the non-governmental sector which is quite active in India and some of these have done remarkable work with and without the use of design.

Jeffrey Sachs in his book "The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime" offers his insights about how one can use economics and policies to move forward but unfortunately the word design is not in his lexicon while innovation is mentioned in passing without much depth or discussion, which I find hard to understand. However I see this as symptomatic of the view taken by many of the worlds' statesmen and administrators who keep grants and aid at the top of their agenda and with very little or almost no emphasis on design as a way forward in such situations, and I believe that they do not have faith that design can indeed solve such "wicked problems".

When we were working on a new curriculum for the setting up of the BCDI, Agartala (Bamboo & Cane Development Institute) that had a mission of addressing the problems of poverty and development in the Northeastern Region of India using bamboo as a resource we looked at the various parameters that would be needed to bring about lasting change in the condition of the local farmers and bamboo craftsmen of the region. From our explorations we did find the creation of new products as a way forward using innovation to generate value. But far more that that we discovered that the people who had lived in poverty and economic and political subjugation for a long period need far more than mere education in skills to make these new products but we felt that they needed a mindset change that could only come from a growth of self-confidence and in a form of "cognitive expansion" which is the term proposed by my colleague, Rashmi Korjan, when she helped me on the curriculum development task at the BCDI in 2001-02. Our experiments at the BCDI, it seems, became politically potent and we were not permitted to continue our work at the Institute by the officials who found all kinds of excuses to scuttle our intentions. Some of this design work and the curriculum development and its application over the two and a half years in which we managed the Institute are available at my website and on my blog, "Design for India" (here) and more will be added in the days ahead.

The hallmark of our new curriculum for craftsman in the bamboo sector and I believe for all our rural poor would be a mix of skill and useful abilities with a good measure of confidence building and "cognitive expansion" that only good and wholesome education can bring to these affected people. We are continuing to address these pressing problems and they are as "wicked" as they come, but the faith that design can answer many of these due to the integrated nature of its offering is still lost to the government and political leadership and we must find ways to change this lacuna sooner if not later.

The problems that I speak about is not unique to India and I find that the discussion raised by David Stairs on the Design Observer blog in his comments about the Cooper Hewitt Exhibit "Design for the other 90%" and another post there about the "Project M" raises important issues about the use of design in such pressing circumstances which are quite ignored by most design schools except for appearances in competitions and conferences, in a very superficial manner. Dori Elizabeth Tunstall has raised another aspect of this debate on her blog as well, and I am in full agreement with her and with David Stairs, although my critique may take other examples in the ambit of our larger debate. The Index Awards were announced in Copenhagen in August 2007, which is very prestigious and very rich by any global standard. However my question is, does this event represent the current global understanding of the "Design Way" as expressed by Nelson and Stolternman if we take the Nobel Prize as a benchmark for achievement in the sciences and in economics? Is there another level that Design can offer beyond the debate that was set of in the mid 70's by Victor Papanek? Some of us living in the "Real World" may feel that there is still a way to go before we can see the light.

I would love to see some sustained debate on these matters as well since so many design users are experienced and come from so many fields that impinge on design research, and design action. I have recently made a post on the durable contribution of the Eamses in India on my blog and also about the many exciting explorations that are taking place across the world in a search for directions and strategies that can be used to address the "wicked problems" of which we have in huge measure in India and all readers of this blog post are welcome and share in this huge design opportunity. The "real world" is a "wicked place" as we can all see that even in Hale County, Alabama, located as it is in the worlds richest country, poverty is not located in the South alone. So it is clear, that this is not a South-South problem as the UN agencies would say in their diplomatic parlance. It is a global problem and we need to explore the use of design in addressing these classes of problems and our policy initiatives must take cognizance of the role design and innovation can play in these kinds of problems. The National Design Policy and its implementation is a good place to locate this debate and an appropriate avenue through which these applications of design can reach those sectors and areas that need and can benefit from the use of design in the empowerment of people in their attempt to get out of poverty with dignity and a sense of self worth.

Design for India: Posts that are linked in content and intent to this one:
• The Eames impact on India:
• The NextD Institute, New York:
• The Creative Economy for India:
• The Mayo Clinic and Design for Medicine:
• Design Concepts & Concerns Course blog

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