Thursday, January 17, 2008

The TATA Nano Debate Rages on: A Call for Design Activism

As an outcome of the three posts on this blog about the TATA Nano launch at the Auto Expo 2008 we have had several comments made on the arguments here that would be of interest to both design students and professionals when taken together. I am therefore reproducing these in the order in which the comments have come in as one composite post before closing this particular thread.

I had wanted to make a major post on the new iBus that was exhibited at the Auto Expo but the Industrial Designers who contributed to the creation of the product are still restrained from making specific comments about the product due to confidentiality agreement with their client Ashok Leyland, Chennai, other tan confirming that they have contributed to the Industrial Design for the product. Congratulations, Abhikalp Design , Indore for the launch of their product, one of the few indigenous Industrial Design offerings that have reached market in India. We will get back to this product at a later date.

Now let us look at the comments that the TATA Nano posts have generated on this blog.

Soo… 11 January, 2008 1:45 PM
hi ranjan, i was reading an interview of Nandan Nilekani where he and his wife were in the process of setting up thinktanks in India (quite like what you suggest in the last para of this post). I don't know whether it would be a part of Infosys or a separate body, but maybe there could be some collaboration with that. just a thought!

prof M P Ranjan 11 January, 2008 2:45 PM
Thanks Soo ... I am advocating the use of design and scenario visualisation as a social procedure that can make the consequences of any major infrastructure investment visible to the lay man before it is acted upon by governments and industry even if they have the money and the power to do so. This will encourage true democratic processes and it may take a while to move things but once we get an understanding the movement forward would be quite dramatic and the consequences at the social and the ecological level both visible as well as manageable. We could go one step further and say that we could have laws in place that makes such visualisations and community sharing mandatory and time sensitive so that situations such as the Shingur and Nandigram conflicts as well as the Narmada issue that has been contentious.

In all these cases we have only had political activists opposing or supporting the scheme, whatever they may have been intended to achieve. However with design visualisation and scenario building with imagination so that all of us can see and feel the finer aspects of what could be the possible outcomes and then move forward with conviction.

murli said... 12 January, 2008 11:18 PM
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 unfortunate reality 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?

prof. m p ranjan said... 13 January, 2008 11:00 PM
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 democracy and this seems to be the preferred 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 icing 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 expertise 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.

murli said... 13 January, 2008 11:20 PM
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 transportation 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 powerless 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

prof. m p ranjan said... 14 January, 2008 12:19 AM,
Dear Murli. I am neither "Doctor" nor a "Bharat 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.

anuganguly said... 14 January, 2008 12:40 AM
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.

anuganguly said... 14 January, 2008 12:50 AM
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."

murli said... 14 January, 2008 11:36 AM,
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.

murli said... 15 January, 2008 11:34 PM
Ranjan, Ratan Tata is fulfilling his dharma as businessman/industrialist in providing solutions that people need and want. If there isn't really a market for the Nano, then few will buy it and the problem will take care of itself without any socialistic meddling. If there is indeed a need for the Nano and yet you would like to finesse the problem of people buying it then you must do at least two things:
1. Work with cities to plan future development in such a manner that most transportation can be done on foot or through public transportation.
2. Approach the public directly and educate them on the need to avoid personal transportation like the Nano.
If you are unsuccessful at either of the above, then let the Nano solve people's problems. I don't think we should begrudge anyone the right to offer solutions to people's problems at all. 
I am sceptical about any short term improvement in the infrastructure in India. The story behind the lack of good public transportation outside of New York and few other cities is that the auto and oil corporations lobbied (code word for bribed) Congressmen to kill public transportation there. In Bangalore, the powerful autorickshaw lobby has prevented the improvement of public transportation for decades. Politics -- including dirty politics -- is a reality in the US and in India (and elsewhere). One cannot avoid incorporating politics into any systems view of design and development. No point in railing against reality; it is what it is. And I think Gandhiji would have agreed. 
Kill the Nano if you must, but kill it in the marketplace by providing people with an alternative they would be loath to refuse.
Regards, Murli

prof. m p ranjan said... 16 January, 2008 12:06 PM
Dear Murli. I somehow expect our business leaders to be statesmen as well as philanthrophists, which the TATA group has always represented for me, unlike many other business groups in India, from whom I do not expect anything but black profits. I will therefore continue to expect Ratan Tata to look at the larger picture while continuing his business interests in India as well as around the world. 
Global warming and social equity kind of problems are man-made and the men making these are to be held responsible in my view even if new laws are to be drafted to enforce these positions. I have been advised by a friend to read the book "Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives" by Edwin Black. I am sure it will be an instructive read but my gut sense tells me that in the case of known threats we cannot leave things to market forces as Adam Smith has had all of us believe nor can we take the Malthusian stand that these are inevitable. Economics needs to be redefined and innovation too needs to be placed in perspective and they too carry responsibility and we are trying to build responsible designers even if industry is only asking for competent ones. I am not advocating either communism or socialism here and we need to seriously look at a new path that is sensitive and informed innovation as political drivers going forward. I hope our politicians are listening
Regards, Ranjan

murli said... 17 January, 2008 1:10 AM
Dear Ranjan, from all our exchanges so far, I see no disagreement in our goals. You and I see eye to eye in regard to a goal of creating a earth-friendly and sustainable socio-economic architecture of which the transportation infrastructure is one key component. You suggest that it is irresponsible for corporations -- particular reputed ones - to introduce solutions that are not sustainable, even if there is a market demand for it. An implication of your argument is that the population at large is better off living in their state of sufferance until a sustainable infrastructure in put in place. And further, it is the responsibility and duty of corporations to work toward those sort of solutions. I agree that corporations should demonstrate responsibility, but they should not shirk from providing solutions that might appear a short term fix. Let's take a few other things that some people consider 'bad' -- alcohol, tobacco, junk food, and pornography. Is the solution to ban the manufacture of those things or to educate people to avoid them? Your counterargument might be that while the morals of the above items might be debatable there can be no two views on whether promoting the use of fossil fuels and traffic congestion is morally or even ecologically acceptable. 
Such a view as at least borderline patronising to the population at large - the view that We Know What is Good For You Better Than You Do, So Hang Around Until a Better Fix Is Found. 
This might just be the right place to initiate a people's movement that pressures the political and administrative machinery to do something. Or perhaps the People's Movement could pressurise Corporations. It isn't, in my view the responsibility of corporations to assume the role of Knights In Shining Armor. They have enough on their plate to worry about. 
And if you would like to get a People's Movement going, I'm ready to sign on.
Regards, Murli

murli said... 17 January, 2008 2:04 PM
Dear Ranjan, since my last post, I've been thinking about the idea of a People's Design Movement. Is there such a thing already in India? If so, I'd love to know about it. NGOs and activism is a big thing in India. Is there such a thing as Design activism. My specialty, if you will is innovation -- mindset, skills, processes and culture. I see design as innovation, and innovation as fundamental to design. 
I like the idea of Innovation and Design Activism. Or Innovation-Design Education-Activism (I-D E-A) whose purpose is to not only build design/innovation awareness but also to provide skills and tools to people at large: schools, villages, neighborhood groups, govt departments, universities, corporations, etc. 
Our once beautiful and harmonious-with-nature human settlements have metamorphosed into the ugly, festering sores that pass for Indian cities (save for isolated pockets). The ugliness also reflects the sense of alienation that urban denizens have with respect to each other. The sense of community and interdependence has all but vanished. Each home has become a fortress outside of which whatever happens, one scarcely cares about. Rebuilding community goes hand in hand with fostering good design. And this cannot be achieved by appealing to the good sense of industrialists -- it has to emerge from the grassroots. Regards, Murli

prof. m p ranjan said... 17 January, 2008 3:38 PM
Dear Murli, The closest thing to design activism that I know of is the Khadi movement by Gandhi and his followers and now it has all but run out of steam although much lip service is given to grassroots innovation and the falvour of the moment is to celebrate science and technology in a pretty sloppy way and justify poor quality since it is handled at the grassroots with a jholawallah culture that is adopted by the practitioners. Strong criticism, but I am afraid that this is how I see it today. There is a bandwagon effect that is spawned by the availability of easy funds from uncritical science and technology support programmes in India and a huge investment climate exists where a very large number of state sponsored labs and training programmes as well as awards and grant in aid schemes are managed by the state and central government agencies which are science biased and which is rarely assessed for what they are worth since the sacred cow of Indian science and technology establishments may not be questioned and the stake holders and vested interests protect this space with the threat that without such standards and test procedures the R & D driven knowledge streams would dry up to the peril of the leadership that India may have in a number of related areas. This grassroots kind of science action is very widely dispersed in a number of areas and good work has been done in some of these sectors. However I am yet to see one where design thinking and design action is at the heart of such innovation efforts and as a result the application of the principles do not end up as compelling new services and products, with very few exceptions.
We cannot equate science and technology innovation to that provided by design innovation although many would like to argue that they are the one and the same thing. While the aim of science is the production of new knowledge the role of design is to offer people centric solutions in the current reality and this may or may not represent new knowledge, but it has to work for the stake holders as well as for the environment and the larger systems within which it is embedded.
The best international example that I can think of is the ongoing efforts in the Northeast of England with the DOTT07 project that is being handled by the Design Council UK under the leadership of John Thackara and his team. John has tried to bring these ideas to India as part of his "Doors of Perception - East" initiatives as well as the regular events held in Amsterdam over the past ten years and the team involved has grown in size as well as credibility through the "Doors" conferences and the people that they were able to attract for action on the ground. The other group who has made good progress is the Politechnico di Milano group headed by Thomas Maldonado and Ezio Manzini on the whole front of sustainability. They have used what we could call design activism and awareness building at the youth level across the world as opposed to the political activism in the field that is represented by the action and style of the groups such as GreenPeace and the Ruckus Society who deal with environmental issues and others like Free Trade and Human Rights activist groups that deal with social equity issues by direct research and voluntary support action in the field. These do not necessarily have elements of innovation attached although they could do a lot if they did include this as a part of their offering.
What we perhaps need are multi-disciplinary panels of experts who can adopt and use design innovation as a way forward and through their creative prototyping actions show the way forward for major investments to be made and here industry could be a very viable area of action if they are led by visionaries and this is not a far fetched dream, very possible in the emerging creative era. 
Thank you for your comments that have provoked me to elaborate on my ideas about economics and design action. I am not likely to set up an activist venture myself at this stage in my career but will be happy to advise and interact with young groups that would like to take these ideas forward. Many of our students are already doing this and I propose to write about their work in the days ahead so that they gain the visibility which is today being ignored due to the print and TV media glare on fashion and glamour type of design action at the cost of exploring real work that is happening at the grassroots level.


  1. Dear,
    I am Aniket Chattopadhyay, from Kolkata. I heard about the i-bus but there is something which i want to tell.
    Actually i saw someone has told that speed of transportation here in kolkata is really horrible slow. and more is that an average earning guy cant even effort a 14 km distance with a lavish bus. i can give u an example that AC bus fare from ULTADANGA to TOLLYGUNGE is 35.
    even that bus doesn't come with the facility that the famous i-bus can provide. I mean tell me who will ride it with that much cost and even after that one can bet on that the bus never gonna reach to the destination in proper time with the blessings of traffic system and the road quality.
    So my point of telling is shouldn't there be a specific design firm to design of application or any thing which somehow can effect on a positive manner. Then only we can introduce a high end technology with a eye catching look and we can easily use those stuffs in our daily life. There is no meaning of making such technology which can't be used for the mass.
    Designing a firm which will control the application will not be that easy! We have to think what are the elements that can change the system. Definitely it cannot be the vote, with a brand new government. its us , the people of India who can create if we want.
    pls let me know what your view on this.

  2. Dear Aniket Chatterjee

    We have to design the product, the system and the infrastructure at the same time if we are to see a greater degree of success. Yes, people matter and if they are involved in the process in a form of co-creation mode the Government too will be able to get the job done with a much better chance of success. Design of public systems may need several iterations of design and evaluation before a perfect system is implemented with a lot of consensus in the political space.


    from my imac at home on the NID campus
    17 March 2009 at 11.05 pm IST


I reserve the right to edit comments. Please keep it simple and to the subject.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.