Thursday, January 10, 2008

TATA’s One Lakh Car: Systems Failure on Indian Roads?

Image: An immersive experience at the trendspotting workshop at NID with Swedish and Indian students
We have been teaching systems thinking and design to several generations of students at NID. When asked what we should do to improve design education in India, Kishore Biyani answered that Indian design students were steeped in ideology and were bent on changing the world. He said, Six out of ten students coming out of design schools want to change the world and three others want to set up their own business, which leaves very little for the industry to choose from. This was an exchange that happened at the CII-NID National Design Summit in response to my question. This answer is not surprising nor is it alarming since we have been teaching our students to address systems level complexities while our industry is asking them to do a bit of aesthetic cleaning up of the mess that is being offered to India in the guise high quality and benchmarked offerings that meets international standards, whether it be retail or in automobile. Whose standards are we following? Have we asked our people what they need or are the advertising claims made by industry and the market buzz about growth and volume all that we need to be concerned about? In my earlier post on the CII-NID Summit in Bangalore I had called the TATA initiative as irresponsible and now I return to examine the alternatives.

It is not surprising that there is an uproar about the TATA’s one lakh car and the promise for a national grid-lock sometime soon which is coming from the NGO community and a small band of thinkers such as Chief U.N. climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, who shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize, as quoted in the where he says “…I am having nightmares” about the prospect of the low-cost car. Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), on the other hand is quoted as saying “the solution is not to ban the Rs 1-lakh car but to "tax it like crazy until it (India) has a mass transit system that can give people another cheap mobility option”. While its opponents rant and rave, the Nano from the TATA stable has its supporters too. Mritiunjoy Mohantyin, Professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM Calcutta) in his piece in titled “Why criticising the Rs 1-lakh car is wrong” argues…“…in my view, given environmental concerns and urban densities, India's mobility requirements are perhaps best met by a combination of mass transit systems and small cars like the Tata 'people's car.” He goes on to say “…perhaps the best solution for an efficient and environmentally friendly mobility policy for India is to focus on an affordable mass transit system and on small cars (including the Rs 1-lakh car).”

Nothing wrong with that point of view either. Disruptive innovations are the need of the day and if the low-cost small car is one answer while we must get our industry and government to invest in generating a number of alternatives that could be better aligned to the needs of the Indian consumer. Here is the rub. Very little investment has gone into examining the alternatives through sustained investments in visioning exercises at any level in India and we are running on the tread mill of everyday existence to have any time and place for design innovation exercises that could pave the way for informed choices that could be presented to our political bosses in order to make the decisions on levels of tax, regulation and a desirable quality of life for our people. It is assumed that more investment through FDI’s by companies in an unregulated market economy will somehow bring us disruptive innovations that will create the necessary differentiators through market processes of competition and regulation in the economy and here the main role would be played by investments in science and technology that can be measured, such as emission standards, safety and other parameters that would be subject of lab and field investigation using science and technology metrics. However the issues that would need to be examined are in my view not what is possible – which science and technology can answer – but to try and answer the big question of what is desirable – which is only possible through the creation and examination of several alternatives that are tangible and can be appreciated as projected scenarios in a format which can be apprehended by the common man and then these need to be debated and resolved in a democratic manner. Design scenarios can be developed for many of our society’s needs and aspirations and the product of the design journey will then be the shaping of our culture and not just the manifestation in the form of its artifacts and some scientifically measurable attributes. All proposals for new infrastructure and major development programmes must be presented in a visual manner that can be seen, examined and appreciated by the lay man and the man in the street before it is taken forward by administrators and politicians with their industry big-wigs who have the money.

The shift to asking what is desirable for our society raises a whole lot of other questions that cannot be answered through science, technology or engineering since there are those intangibles that fall outside the ambit of knowledge and enter the domain of feelings and values. This is where we have discovered and built our conviction of the need for looking at these situations in a holistic manner and looking beyond the artifact in isolation and the need to look at the systems level to study both impact and the consequences. If this understanding can be embedded into the offering the effect would be valuable by magnitudes in terms of the benefits that would accrue from the situation. We need both government and industry to join hands and invest in building use case scenarios that can be made visible to all stake-holders so that an informed debate can ensue before major decisions of infrastructure and direction are decided and this would apply to whether or not we need to heed to Sunita Narain’s suggestion of “tax it like crazy”. This kind of public examination should be an ongoing one since change is a continuous process and we would need to make a constant vigil on the feedback loops that are so important in a systems model to help separate noise from meaning and information travel through society. Last week we have had a group of Swedish students and their teachers camping at NID and during their stay they worked with NID students and faculty examining future scenarios for forecasting education trends in India and across the World. Prof. Peter Majanen lectured on “The Art of Trendspotting and Future Thinking” while Prof Ronald Jones addressed the notion that “The India Report was once a Micro Trend”. The Think Tank was truly interdisciplinary with students from four schools in Sweden from across disciplines traveling to India to work with NID students from across disciplines at the Institute in an immersive workshop format to look at India now through field exchanges and then at India in 2058 through immersive experiences. Their insights and findings were presented this morning at the NID Boardroom just as the TATA’s one lakh car was being unveiled in New Delhi today.

I do wish that Ratan Tata and the automobile industry as a whole had invested in numerous such scenario building tasks in our design, engineering and management schools so that all of us could have a glimpse of what would be the consequences of our smart management and engineering actions today and tomorrow. We can explore and envision desirable futures at a systems level where the mobility of every citizen is assured at a quality level that we can only dream of today. We need to set up these think tanks across disciplines in India and to examine the desirable alternatives in a transparent manner using the systems design processes and the envisaging methods that would reveal alternative scenarios that can then be placed before decision makers and the public for debate and necessary decision as we go forward. Vertical specializations cannot tell us much in such complex situations and we need to encourage collaboration across disciplines and for this to happen we need to set up platforms of collaboration and formats for engagements that could be applied to all 230 sectors of our economy using design as a common language that can be appreciated and acted upon with conviction and vision. Our National Design Policy will then be put into action in a manner that will bring benefits to all our citizens across all sectors of our economy. Let us become a nation with great imagination and provide leadership to the world in a sustainable manner.


  1. 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!

  2. 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 iontended 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.


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.