Image: NID students and faculty at the Auto Expo 2008 send back images of TATA Nano.
The TATA Nano is sexy and cheap; a potent combination when taken to market and that is exactly what Ratan Tata has done. Consumers and designers alike are enamored by the offering. Many designers on the DesignIndia list have chosen to praise Ratan Tata for achieving the price sensitive Nano which was unveiled at the Auto Expo 2008 in New Delhi. I too admire the achievement in a qualified sort of way, particularly in automotive design, engineering and marketing and Ratan Tata has taken a step ahead of the Japanese car makers in offering a competitive price point with quality and having met the existing benchmarks for cars of this kind. The will surely be a different place from now on.
However I am afraid that at another level this will contribute to the growing mess that is now our Indian city and I would hold Ratan Tata just as responsible for that since he is among India's business leaders who has the means to make a real difference by working at the systems level and in influencing government to act responsibly as well. In the emerging world of Web 2.0 all of us are responsible and the clear cut separation of responsibilities that have been carved out for each in the era of industrial specialization, the separation of church and administration, and later the separation of industry and governance, have all but blurred to give us an online community that responds in an online democracy in real time responses. The theories of economics from the industrial era all hold that the consumer and market responses will somehow shape the events that flow in the free-market but I have some counter arguments for that and we are at a stage when we need to rethink our macro-economic theories and bring in innovation and design into the equation which is not being done nor has it been done at anytime in the history of man. Innovations were seen as individual pursuits or as business activities of individual companies that would need to be therefore protected by law so that future inventions could be encouraged in society. This may be so in the pre-internet era of poor communication but today we need a new paradigm and the open-source movement and the creative commons are helping rewrite the way innovations happen in our society but business still goes on as usual and countries compete, companies compete and individuals compete as if this is the only way forward for society since we are all victims of the Malthusian beliefs and the theory that he had proposed and we are not able to operate at any other level of imagination. I believe that we are entering an era of massive cooperation where our notions of competition will be challenged and will need to be replaced by new attitudes that foster a dialogue between the players and a whole new way of creating our future.
We need to explore ways in which we can get business leaders and politicians from all parts of India to listen to some of our dreams as well and the design vision can then be a driving force for the shaping of tomorrow’s cities. I have been working in bamboo for many years and we have several break-through innovations that promise to give a good future for our rural folks and we have numerous failures from which we have learned a lot about the material as well as about human behavior. Design for social good is a mission that can be achieved but too little is being invested into that direction because we do not have faith in that direction since it is not yet a measurable offering as science, technology and market offerings are in labs, tests and the market with a look at the bottom-line only. Companies such as Infosys are among the most respected ones in India, in my personal view, since they have exhibited extremely high ethical standards in all their operations but several other large companies in India cannot be included in their league of ethical operation even when the government itself is moving onto a regime of extreme transparency with the new Right to Information Act. Design is an act of faith and a matter of judgment. Faith by itself is not a bad thing if we can support it with insights drawn from experience in the real world and from our imagination of what can be achieved and what needs to be achieved. Blind faith, on the other hand, is to be feared since it fosters fundamentalism and extremism as a reaction. However, design thought comes in the first category, faith based on experiential insights and on informed intentions but it can never be subject of reason unlike science and technology. Therefore design looses out on every engagement that requires proof before it is accepted and in India huge investments are made in Science-Technology schemes while design has been left out and this cannot be the responsibility of the design community alone, especially since design can indeed offer real solutions if only we tried. Design good cannot be proved but it can be sensed and modeled or simulated and tested through that route, if only the necessary investments are made in that direction and when sufficient time is given to create the models that could be appreciated and apprehended first conceptually and then in more rigorous ways.
Image: NID stall at the Auto Expo 2008 in New Delhi.
I have moved some distance in my journey in understanding design and I am now convinced that we need to take our arguments to the business and government without being apologetic in any way. Design is complex and while I can admire the engineering achievement of Ratan Tata and his team I bemoan the huge catastrophe that this will portend for all of our society and us in the days ahead. I have been thinking about the directions that we have chosen to take in our educational ventures and sometimes I feel that we need to stop and think a bit about both direction and speed. While a hyper-fast "mind to market strategy" may be a desirable activity for business success it could also be a sure sign of disaster for society if the direction of movement is wrong for the context in which it is applied. Speed and efficiency need to be tempered with relevance and direction that is desirable if we are to benefit from the speed and efficiency that is on offer by raising the bar and coordinating our efforts. I would have liked to see some imaginative public transport solutions rather than just some more sleek automobiles being exhibited at the Auto Expo 2008 in New Delhi. Perhaps we need to take systems design more seriously and get all our disciplines to work together in the final years to show India just what can be done by a determined young team of designers, all moving in the desirable direction. This direction should come from our analysis of the Eames challenge that he had set in 1958, "what qualities does India and Indians consider to make a good life?"
The TATA Nano has raised many questions which need to be answered in this context and as the premier National Institute of Design we are just as responsible for our actions as is Mr. Ratan Tata as the senior Industrialist and businessman of India in the 21st century. I do hope that these matters are discussed at the Institute and in the design community in India since design at the systems level, which is being ignored by both industry and government for over fifty years now, since the Eames India Report was written and which led to the establishment of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, needs to be reexamined in the light of our current needs and aspirations as well as in the context of global warming and social conflicts of the day, for us to find direction forward from here.
There has been much debate about the Nano in the DesignIndia forum and the note by Sagarmoy Paul that Arun Gupta has so kindly shared with all of us at NID and it is just one such debate that is in progress there which can have a wider participation within design schools across the country.
Image: City Tablet – A concept scenario for socially accessible transportation for our cities by NID student Varsha Mehta in the DCC class.
Image: Water Focus – A concept scenario of water based alternate transport for Indian cities by NID student Vinay Jois.
I would like to share here two design opportunity visualizations that were prepared by two of our students in the last semester as part of their Design Concepts and Concerns course at NID. They were looking at mobility options in the city and came up with scenario visualisations based on the insights that they had garnered in their group brainstorming and research in this very short foundation course in design. I propose that such socially relevant challenges be taken up at the systems level in senior years in our design schools and that these be funded and supported by our industry and government agencies who are looking at the whole area of transport design in India. Such assignments could be conducted in a collaborative space that is carved out from a new partnership between design, engineering and management schools in the same city and there may be other possibilities to get several multi-disciplinary teams together, if there is a will to do so.
Will the design community pursue the government and industry to make this happen? I do hope so for the good of all of us. Perhaps it is also time to explore new theories of economics that is informed by the possible use of disruptive innovation as a way forward not just as a market driven mechanism of competition between nations, companies and individuals in the WTO framework but a new order that is based on open-source ideology of cooperation and community based innovation particularly for innovations of objects, services and infrastructure for public and social good. This can only happen if we are able to take the understanding of design and layer it with a new theory economics and politics of innovation that can be set in motion in a cooperative framework going forward. Design schools have a role to play in shaping these frameworks and much of the initial explorations that are needed by society can happen within the classrooms of the future and these in turn will help us build scenarios that will be moderated by the community to actually build a desirable future for all of us.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Image: NID students and faculty at the Auto Expo 2008 send back images of TATA Nano.