Friday, January 11, 2008

TATA Nano and the Indian Cities in the Creative Age

Image: TATA Nano that promises to grid-lock Indian cities by 2010…IMHO
Richard Florida in his book “The Flight of the Creative Class” examines and defines the shift of activities to urban centres around the world that provide supports and sustenance for the creative community and as these centres grow they tend to attract more such people. At the end of the Industrial Revolution the availability of material resources and expertise by way of knowledge held sway over the production of wealth in the cities and centres of high production. However now it is sharply veering towards services and these are based on knowledge and expertise and those cities that are able to attract the young performers is able to grow rapidly and far outstrip the growth of the former industrial giants. These centres of power and productivity are moving towards yet another shift which is being driven by the growth of the creative industries and it is only those cities that are able to attract the creative professionals who work in these industries are able to show signs of very high growth and the creation of wealth. Richard Florida is now a professor of management at the Rotmans School of Management, Toronto that is also well known for using design and innovation as a driver for management education and is now rated among the top 10 management schools in the world by leading international business magazines. The school is headed by the visionary Dean, Roger Martin who shifted the focus of management education to design and innovation in 1998 and these shifts are well documented in the Rotmans magazine available as pdf files and is published thrice a year.

Image: The Tata Group chairman, Ratan Tata, with the "Nano" on Thursday at the New Delhi auto show. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
The creation of the TATA Nano, which is no doubt a great feat of engineering and market prowess raises many questions about the systems level relevance for our cities as they are now and in today’s accepted value system in the business domain it seems that it is not Ratan Tata’s problem at all but that of the government or some other unnamed body to sort out the mess that will surely follow by way of congestion, pollution and road rage that are sure to follow, to name only a few anticipated fallouts of this much heralded innovation. Ratan Tata has shown that it is possible to build a car for less than one lakh of Rupees but he has however failed to show us how this is a desirable option for India. The creative cities are characterized by several features that are attractive for the young creative professional and these include both work related facilities as well as those that support community of creative professionals as well as provide sustenance fro a host of creative activities across a large number of interest areas. These features would include I believe a realm of peace and safety, a place for work and relaxation as well as time away from commuting and the so called rat race, all contributing to the flow of creative juices that will make the whole experience one that is exhilarating and satisfying. The infrastructure for these activities are an essential part of what these cities have to offer and along with these the attractive elements would include high quality accommodation, travel and transport facilities and centres of activities that offer a wide range of creative interests. It is in order to explore and articulate the renewal of our cities by the imaginative use of design that we have included these topics as part of the Design Concepts and Concerns course at NID in the last semester.

The task assigned to them asks the students to examine through brainstorming, categorization and modeling the issues relating to the empowerment of the city populations to make them both interested and capable of contributing directly to the four chosen areas of city life with the intention that we need not wait for governments to act while the city population could take up some of these planning tasks on their own initiative and use the government systems as a key support mechanism. The specific areas assigned to the four groups were to explore and discover design opportunities for the empowerment of local populations to initiate the design and creation of new infrastructure, services, facilities and activities in the four broad areas listed below in the public spaces that could be extracted from our cities by collective action:

1. Healthy Sports
2. Art & Infrastructure
3. Public Education
4. Festivals and Culture

Our cities are already chock-a-block full of cars and bikes and parking space takes up all the free space around houses and offices leaving very little for any imaginative use in play for children and in relaxation for the adults and the elderly, who just refuse to go away. However, we do see that with the application of a little bit of imagination and the creation of new norms and laws we could help transform of cities into robust centres of creativity and then we should be able to expect a very high growth in these cities that are in line with Richard Florida’s assessment. This will not be achieved by the TATA Nano by any stretch of our imagination and on the other hand we believe it is going to add to the chaos and confusion that is the way of life in our Indian cities today since we are aping the American dream of one car, nay two per Indian family, and an infrastructure boom that would build fly-overs in the sky. Such poverty of imagination that would surely make Charles Eames turn in his grave fifty years after the submission of the India Report in 1958. We need to create space for our festivals and parks, for our playgrounds and pavements, for our public facilities and art installations, all in the space now occupied by cars, and this can be achieved with a little bit of imagination and a lot of determination at the political level.

Image: Bus Rapid Transit System in Curitiba, Brazil: A success story that was homemade with local political will.
One city in Brazil has shown us what can be achieved if only we try. Take a look at what the Bus Rapid Transit System has helped Curitiba, Brazil achieve in just three years of determined public action and with an inspired leadership. I quote from the Curitiba story from the Race, Poverty and Equity issue a case study on “Curitiba's Bus System is Model for Rapid Transit” by Joseph Goodman, Melissa Laube, and Judith Schwenk – I quote...
“The BRT—A Success Story:
The popularity of Curitiba’s BRT has effected a modal shift from automobile travel to bus travel. Based on 1991 traveler survey results, it was estimated that the introduction of the BRT had caused a reduction of about 27 million auto trips per year, saving about 27 million liters of fuel annually. In particular, 28 percent of BRT riders previously traveled by car. Compared to eight other Brazilian cities of its size, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita, resulting in one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country. Today about 1,100 buses make 12,500 trips every day, serving more than 1.3 million passengers—50 times the number from 20 years ago. Eighty percent of travelers use the express or direct bus services. Best of all, Curitibanos spend only about 10 percent of their income on travel—much below the national average.”
Download the full article as pdf file

Amazing statistics, and amazing results are just as possible in India as it was in Brazil, if only we tried. I am not advocating that we now start importing Brazilian ideas by dropping the American dream. Far from it, but I do call for an application of local imagination in each of our cities to tailor new solutions that are appropriate in each case and then use of community processes that were called for in the Eames India Report that use design imagination and articulation to discover what India and Indians believe is a good life going forward. While science and technology and engineering are the “Art of the Possible” we must understand that design and politics can be seen as the “Art of the Desirable” and the debate must begin here with an application of imagination which is the “Design Way” and not just with street level opposition and arguments, which is the “Political Way”, whieh is something that we see exercised daily in our very democratic nation. However the "Design Way" must be given its due soon if we are to find the solutions from here. One positive outcome of all the Shingurs, Nandigrams and the grid-locks in our cities will be the possibility of a rethink when we too will look at design scenarios as a way forward and I do hope it is sooner than later.


  1. I agree with every argument against the proliferation of automobiles in the world. The practical reality is that unless one has the power to change the political order such that reliable, comfortable public transport becomes the norm, it is sheer hypocrisy to drive around in automobiles while instructing others not to. Try to spend a day as a woman carrying a small child standing in 45 degree/95% humidity weather at a bus stand along with 50 others waiting for a bus that may not arrive, and which is already over-crowded when it does and thus may never stop; and one is required to take two or three such buses to get to work or school. Then the Nano is a godsend. Infosys founder Narayanamurthy was powerless to bring about positive urban change in his hometown of Bangalore -- and here's a man with the money, ideas and intelligence to make it happen.

    I salute Ratan Tata because he is doing the best he can for the problems faced by a significant proportion of Indians.

    Since neither political will nor intent exists to create a transportation infrastructure, and since nothing short of a revolution is going to effect significant political change the alternative is to fill the streets with cars until somebody somewhere in power is forced to do something. That is the unfornate reallity in India -- not doing something until there is no alternative left. And this change in public infrastructure may happen just about the time when Maoist groups have succeeded in controlling every district in India (penetration exceeds 50% today).

    Not a very positive perspective perhaps, but definitely a realistic one. And design is about reality, right?

  2. Dear Murli

    I have argued here that "The Political Way" and the "Design Way" are both about methods for dealing with reality and the complex issues at hand. The first we are all familiar with in the Indian democrasy and this seems to be the prefered way in India whenever there is a major problem that confounds all of us. Run to the politician or take to the streets and this is bound to lead to conflict and not solution, although we do get some kind of patched up truce, I cannot call it anything but 'jugaad", which was celebrated by India Today magazine as a unique Indian realisation, with pride, I believe.

    The free market is not going to solve such complex problems unless we are able to invest our imagination in creating the material and service alternatives and models that will give us a future that has value for each one of us. This blog is about design for India and the "Design Way" which is not as yet fully understood in India. Design is seen as the iceing on the cake, the aesthetic layer, and not as the value of the core offering which some of us think it should be providing and we do have the tools and processes and the expertice that can make it happen. Alternatives can be "Designed" which cannot be negotiated by "Political Debate" alone.

    This is what I am advocating and the Government of India and our Indian industry as well as the great leaders like Rattan Tata should take heed of this possibility and invest in design at the systems level to make the desirable alternatives happen within our lifetimes.

  3. Dear Ranjan, I don't see The Political Way and The Design Way as distinct. The Design Way is to include every significant stakeholder in the process, and therefore should include politics. The neutral meaning of 'politics' is getting things done through dialogue among people. And isn't that how it should be? Colloquially, the term has a very negative connotation typically implying one-upmanship, greed, backstabbing, hidden agendas, quid-pro-quos, and the like.

    Also, I don't see distinction between Free Market and Collective Social Planning (or whatever) -- there is no pure political/economic/social system in the world. Even the putative Free Market that exists in the US is hugely influenced through governmental involvement -- with the participation, and often lobbying of corporate groups. Just a few examples: the Interstate system, the Internet, Social Security, Affirmative Action, etc. India's major problem has been excessive bureaucratic meddling at every level. Planning is far too important a process to be left entirely to bureaucrats, politicians and so-called 'intellectuals': I say 'so-called' because of their typical disconnect from reality.

    Mr. N R Narayanamurthy of Infosys took great personal interest in trying to improve the infrastructure of Bangalore. Didn't help. His Bangalore Action Task Force with eminent personalities on board was disbanded. As I mentioned, the 'authorities' refused to give him time of day. I have no doubt in mind that Mr. Ratan Tata is himself involved in many such initiatives. Indeed, his next dream is to ensure clean drinking water for the people of India. Not all industrialists are money-grubbing capitalists. The Western experience (as well our own Indian history) has shown that the achievement of great wealth leads to great philanthropy, Bill Gates being a shining current example.

    If some day, an efficient public tranportation infrastructure is created (including safe lanes for pedestrians and bicycles), I will stop using my car. I have need only to go somewhere, and have no emotional attachment to a vehicle. And day in, day out, I see ordinary people suffer from lack of reasonable transportation. I think even the Tatas of this country are powerles before the festering sore that our political system has become. So they are compelled to go directly to the people. If you, Dr. Ranjan, in your influential position, are able to make a dent in this diseased fabric of our polity, you deserve something of a Bharat Ratna for it! Regards, murli

  4. Dear Murli

    I am neither "Doctor" nor a "Bhatrat Ratna" aspirant. However I am interested in getting design understood in India and have it used by all professions and not just by designers. Design for me is a broad human field with the ability and tools to realise human intentions and build value for a sustainable future.

    Politics in the broad sense is also dealing with these actions but it is understood differently as a negotiated process of change and the use of design in building alternate scenarios that are both tangible as well as testable makes the "Design Way" one that can help offer a number of possible scenarios and from which we can build a future for ourselves using all the political will that is available. I am making another post with some examples about scenarios that design can offer to make the definition a little more clear.

  5. we've already reached a stage where the average speed of a car on calcutta roads is 12 kmph and the max. speed of a bicycle is 14 kpmh. the math is easy.

    thank god for the tata nano. its given us the need to think urgently about how badly we need to re-evaluate our attention to the transportation system.

    there's a reason why our taxes arent going into maintaining buses, why all taxis and buses are not fined for fuming, why bus drivers are still paid on a commission basis, forcing them to drive at reckless speeds. are we putting enough effort to pressurizing our local media and governments to stop pocketing the money of our land and put it where it belongs? does all this sound naively idealistic? good. because the WILL to effect change has always been the only force behind anything thats EVER happened in the universe.

  6. Dear Ranjan,
    I was just reminded of this:

    In an interview in 1997, Miuccia Prada, fashion designer, articulated the conflicting emotions inherent in feminist discussion of fashion and design in general, "even in my political phase I loved fashion, but people made me feel ashamed of it...I don't see a contradiction between beauty and politics: politics is man trying to live better; aesthetics is man trying to improve the quality of life."

  7. Dear Ranjan, it might surprise you to learn that I too am interested "getting design understood in India and have it used by all professions and not just by designers," although I am not formally a 'designer' myself in the way that it is usually understood in lay -- or even design -- circles. I have no desire to be adversarial -- indeed, I am absolutely thrilled that India has people such as yourself, something that one could only dream of a couple of decades ago. Bringing about such changes in India is a huge undertaking, and it really doesn't help to criticise someone (Ratan Tata, in this instance) who is genuinely trying to tackle a problem in the only way he is permitted. Let a thousand flowers, bloom, I would say -- let each person try to work with the system to solve problems and eventually, society will be the better for it. The Nano may be a short term solution until the infrastructure improves. That's no reason, however to look down upon it. As John Maynard Keynes once famously remarked, "In the long run, we're all dead."

    I eagerly look forward to your next post where you lay out some scenarios.

    Regards, Murli.


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