Friday, January 21, 2011

Inclusive Design: Invitation to Davos

Inclusive Design for Development in India

Prof M P Ranjan
Design Thinker & Independent Academic, Ahmedabad

I have been invited to speak at Davos on the 28th January 2011 as part of the India - Future of Change initiative's event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum. The event is a panel discussion moderated by Tim Brown and the focus is on Design, Innovation and Entrepreneurship for development in India. The India - Future of Change has a huge task ahead of them and the various events planned by the team is covered at their website here. I have prepared a background note that explores the contours of the Inclusive Design agenda and makes a call for drastic change in the design establishment in India so that these changes can start playing a constructive role here in India and some of these could be influenced by the happenings at Davos next week. The full text of my submission is quoted below and it is also carried at the India - Future of Change website as well.

Image: Thumbnail images of bamboo plantations, product development workshops as well as crafts entrepreneur and farmer cooperations, all part of the macro-micro design strategy that we had called the "Seedlings of Wealth" – has now seeded a new era of development in Katlamara, Tripura using inclusive design as a way forward. (Download pdf 47 mb) Such prototypes and business models are at the heart of inclusive design agenda for India and we need to adopt it and apply it across the length and breadth of India today.

"If we do not work on more prototypes which mainfest in action all our collective understanding regarding our relation to living, work and celebration, then design will indeed not do its bit for India. We talk too much, and do less. Or do in areas or in ways that only talk the same language of legacy thinking. No other nation in the world has the opportunity as we do, since our diversity is the trait which helps us survive, and yet design is working to strip that down to a singular or mono-cultures."
Poonam Bir Kasturi, Bangalore

In 2009 the design community from India was represented by proxy at Davos since the NID team was involved in the design of five posters on sustainability that were used as a backdrop by a high power committee of CEO's from the consumer products industries. I had reported about these posters in previous blog posts here on Design for India blog. However this year the India Future of Change team has decided to distribute these posters as a booklet at their events in Davos and the work done in 2009 will now be available widely at the mainstreet in Davos. I hope that the policy makes will take heed.

Another initiative that we did at NID was the mapping and articulation of the diverse and ubiquitous hand crafts skills all across India which we believe to be the foundation for inclusive action and the seeding of the creative economy of the future for India. The outcome of this research effort was the book titled Handmade in India that maps the existing skills and resources of the crafts sector all located in the vibrant meta-clusters across all regions of India as a living resource that is available for creative reinterpretation using design strategy and action in an inclusive and non-exploitative mode. I have written about the underlying intentions and strategies at previous posts on this blog here below. This can be realized if we are able to make the investments needed in innovation and design that can use this resource to seed the changes on the ground in an inclusive manner. Digital version of the book Handmade in India can be downloaded from this link here as a pdf file 337 mb size.

Design for Inclusive Development

Prof M P Ranjan
Design Thinker & Independent Academic

Our economists and planners have got used to the idea of measuring progress by the growth and their metrics include industrial production, agricultural production and the growth of money itself in the system along with the notional value of a host of financial instruments and derivatives that reside in the digital space. Politicians have not been told that there could be other ways to measure progress and if they have the theory of economics is very sparse in this area. Design education and innovation in India too has languished in the shade of scientific and technological investments (S&T). The deep-seated belief in the Planning Commission and the Political establishment, both in Government and in the Opposition, is that huge investments in science and technology combined with private entrepreneurship and the profit motive will somehow solve the problems of inclusive growth that is beleaguering the Indian economy. This is a consensus that has played itself out in the IT & software revolution in the Silicon Valley and more money is placed in the S&T kitty but the problems seem to grow, nevertheless. The huge gap between the haves and the have-nots grow by the day and the promises that are held out by the advocates of innovation investments in S&T behold a hot social and political time bomb waiting to explode in all our faces. The other approach is more direct, that of providing direct subsidies through political appeasement that is resorted to by Central and State Governments using pre-poll promises and politically mediated grants and aid that are dished out to the poverty ridden folks through direct action primarily to nurture a vote bank. Unfortunately, here too the delivery system is so porous and corruption so rampant through our society that it permeates the system all the way through the supply chain, leaving a very unsatisfied public that is simmering at the fringes, both urban and rural, all over the country. Our corporate bodies too are no better at addressing these needs with all the disclosures that are coming out in the media on a daily basis these days.

The result of all these plans and actions is the grave political and social unrest that is facing us in the form of a very angry citizen near the bottom of the pyramid who can for the first time see the lives of the other affluent sections and the growing middle class played out in full colour in daily broadcasts of the television channels and the open access through the internet in an age of heightened communication. Charles & Ray Eames had warned us about this impending impact of such disruptive change through extended communication, a change in kind and not in degree they said, in their 1958 India Report and we have not paid heed to this sanguine advice. He had called for the use of design to address the needs and aspirations of a people in the throes of such change but we have perhaps let slip an advantage by not channeling adequate investments to address their dreams and aspirations in close partnership with the people directly. Innovation at the grassroots has become a buzzword in management circles and here the case studies that are celebrated fall into the category of Jugaad (creative make-shift) and not of Design (intentional and sensitive configurations) as we would argue that it should be. Jugaad stands for the creative interpretation of severe limitations and shortages to produce a workable contraption or scheme held together by available opportunity, hope and hard work, always at a fraction of the cost that would otherwise have been available, with most of the action lying in the unregulated space of zero taxation and technical specifications, in many cases illegal. So the celebration is in the extreme cost cutting that has been achieved by the poverty ridden creator and service provider and the rest of us stand in mute respect for the heroic achievement, the response of the poor or a clever service provider to an impossible situation, a sheer act of survival. Unfortunately, Jugaad also fosters a Chalta-hai (make-do) attitude that permeates all our offerings from Government services to low cost infrastructure, products and service solutions that are not sustainable for inclusive development, all lacking in refinement and costly in the long run, creating the platform for a low quality sub-culture far from the rich tapestry of traditional wisdom that are at the very foundation of the Indian society that has somehow survived till date. However is this the only way? Is there another way?

The communication boom and an era of transparency have ensured that the Indian consumers are no longer willing to accept the mediocre when better value is available. For example, in many parts of India the poor have shunned incompetent public education systems to place their child in expensive private schools and in going the extra mile to avail quality where it is on offer, a new phenomenon for both urban and rural India that is communication enabled. However, the design establishment in the country has languished in the face of great apathy from both Government and industry during an extended period of a highly regulated and centrally managed economy and the absence of any real competition. Design schools like the National Institute of Design have suffered from an absence of both funding and vision in recent years and the National Design Policy of 2007 too has a very limited mandate which does not include the huge opportunities that exist for local investments in innovation and design for inclusive development. It stops short of harping on slogans and on the export and luxury product industries as their area of focus. Further, on the education front while several new NID’s are proposed to be funded by Government there is an absence of any new vision statement as to their focus and purpose as if the model exemplified by NID Ahmedabad could be used as a clone for the creation of these new centres in four geographical regions of India, a missed opportunity to address the change that is taking place in our country. The India Design Council, another outcome of the National Design Policy is harping on “Good Design” as a quality benchmark which is product of Western Industry and their consumer marketing focus that is least suited to evaluate design solutions for inclusive development that is now needed in India.

No international design solutions are available that are ready and off the shelf to address the pressing problems of the Indian people such as affordable healthcare, rural and urban sanitation, dispersed quality education at the primary and secondary levels, agricultural and rural tools, rural housing and mobility and a host of other design opportunities across 230 sectors of our economy that are in crying need of design attention. These will have to be addressed locally and innovation and design will be the way forward but the infrastructure for action is not in place since the existing institutes are barking up the wrong tree it seems. The Eames Report and the National Institute of Design in the early years innovated an unique education programme in design that was addressing these very issues but over the last ten years these advances in design education and research were systematically demolished by literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater in their misguided effort to get university status and in the search for qualification rather than content and relevance. The DIPP, the department in Government that handles the NID budgets and the National Design Policy has proved to be patently incompetent to support the design movement in the country and to move it in directions that it needs to be taken if it to be relevant to the creation of a platform for inclusive development. Perhaps their limited mandate to address the needs of Indian industry has made them myopic to the larger roles that design has to play if it to be relevant to our national agenda. Design is not a mere hand-maiden for industrial development but a much broader strategy that can help transform society and feed into the culture forming processes of a country and a region. The evidence of this incompetence is visible in the poor quality of vision and funding that is provided to the NID when compared to the IITs and IIMs, both of which were set up around the same time in the early 60’s. The National Institutes of Fashion Technology (NIFT) was set up in the late 80’s through the Textile Ministry and they used a special export cess that was accumulated with Government to rapidly fund the establishment and growth of a huge national infrastructure that is now recognised as a university of national importance. Further, NID’s faculty are a poorly remunerated lot when compared to their counterparts in any comparable institute or university in India and this I am sure will ensure that the best will veer away from committing themselves to pressing design education roles that are facing the nation today. Perhaps the correct way out of this messy situation is to move the NID’s to a new ministry that is capable of addressing the multi-facetted roles of design action that are needed in India across all verticals and all ministries. My students once proposed a structure and they called for the creation of the Ministry of Design, perhaps as part of the Prime Ministers Office till it can move to the area of Culture where it could find a niche that is appropriate to address the emerging challenges of quality and relevance to society

When I reflect on the various projects done at the NID in the early years from the Electronic Voting Machine to the Jawaja project, through the Chennapatna toy project to numerous textile design projects such as the Dhamadka Block Print project a number of design strategies come to mind. We need to ponder deeply on many of these real world design experiences to cull out lessons that can take us forward to a socially and culturally appropriate application of design action that could bring great value to our population. More recently, our initiatives in Tripura State through the “Katlamara Chalo” project integrates bamboo cultivation with product manufacturing as a means to alleviate rural poverty using local skills, resources and local enthusiasm as the primary resource. We were able to discuss design and develop strategies for the bottom of the pyramid with colleagues at the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design, Jaipur, an initiative of the Government of Rajasthan that is now being managed under a public-private partnership and here we built a more generalized sketch model called “Raindrops and Footprints” that explained the process leading to the selection of the village through local intensive research and the building of an understanding of the local context from which a number of design opportunities are identified and modeled before they are taken through a participatory development process which used the local strengths and resources in a sustainable manner. Here design is not just looking at “Good Form” but at the strategies and approaches along the entire supply chain and at each stage value is unfolded. The attempt was to find local solutions suitable for local application using our macro-micro strategy for design action that are informed by serious research and sustained contact with the beneficiaries through hand-holding and educational contact in the field. This integrated strategy has paid off but the investment of time and effort is considerable to prototype and test such a strategy to be rolled out to various locations using available local resources as the platform for sustainable change. For the first time in India we have a rural community using farm based bamboo to drive a local industry towards self reliance and managed growth. Starting with bamboo products and furniture we see the sustained action providing an uninterrupted supply of raw materials and skill sets that can foster the growth of a decentralized, local and self governed economy that could survive and thrive in the emerging era that I call the “Post industrial and Post-mining era”.

This is a new form of design action not to be confused with the form giving activity of traditional industrial design, although it would include elements from the old form of design thought and action. Here we are proposing that the design action take into account the structure of society along with their macro aspirations, their histories and cultural preferences as a starting point and from here build imaginative approaches for products, services and systems that would include the meta-system, the infrastructure, the hardware, the software and the processware to ensure a perfect fit to the circumstances and requirements of the particular situation. This kind of offering is complex and would need a multitude of knowledge and skill sets to be brought to bear with sensitive social and cultural orientation and with a fine tuned economic and technical feasibility. Design for inclusive development is therefore a multi-disciplinary activity that needs to draw a variety of knowledge and skills in an innovative and future oriented setting that is well informed about the legal and the ethical parameters. In this form it becomes a powerful political activity since it is propositional in the manner in which it visualizes and realizable alternatives for the stakeholders from which the process of selection and decision can begin. It is a democratic activity at the very heart and gives power to the people who are at the location and to those who would be most impacted by its implementation. This shift in design thinking can be better understood through the model that I have proposed that explains the three orders of design – Form, Structure and System – material & functional, aesthetic & socio-economic, environmental and political – all of which need to be addressed in all cases if we are to be assured of its sustainability and relevance to the local context. Under these terms of reference industry and business must take responsibility for end to end offer of service and not just for the delivery of brands and boxes that contain a “Good Design” product but ensure that they serve the purpose that was promised in the first place.

I do believe that design can help here and we may need to make some fundamental changes in our design education approaches and widen the base for action, a shift from a focus on business and industry to the design for public good that is operational at the local community level. These should include the grassroots workers in the design education loop and the content of such education needs to be informed by design insights that are local and rooted in the local reality for which our current crop of textbooks would be found wanting. This will need fresh approaches and enlightened support from the political establishment if these changes are to be forged. I do feel that we need to raise this debate and explore the various roles of design and its potential application that is today ignored by design education and practice alike, including my own school if I may admit here, so that a new sense of commitment is brought into the use of design in areas far outside industry and business. This is one of my mission objectives for setting up the 'Design for India" blog to help create a platform from which I can share my thoughts on the possibilities that I see in my minds eye. I also find the peer review system of the research publications as not so perfect for the dissemination of design insights although it does work wonders for science analysis and knowledge creation but it may be extremely defective for design demonstration since the idea of “design opportunity”, a very specific term – a combination of perception and imagination – excludes the viewer or reader from "seeing" the imagination part of the designers statement and therefore it compels the designer to take the idea far down the visualisation and realization path before it can even dawn on others that the idea is truly credible. This means that we may need to create a platform or even a multitude of platforms for design incubation and development that can be accessible to many across numerous areas of application and these kinds of platforms just do not exist in India today, or if it does, it is dominated by centralized administrative controls that stifle innovation and exploration which is critically needed to make the demonstration. Our policies for faculty research and action need to be liberal and this needs substantial change and autonomy for the ‘Maverick innovator” with good intentions and value systems in place to do their innovative work. Some of us have had to battle hard to achieve even a small degree of autonomy of action and this is not a good climate for addressing these complex problems which surround us here in India in an effective manner. We need new institutions and whole new mind set to address these complex issues at hand.

How do we create such autonomous and decentralized action strategies and how do we roll this out across our Universities and Institutes of design action? This will be one of the central questions that can change the current impasse in development approaches dealing with poverty in many parts of India. There are no simple answers but we will need to look deeply at our experiences in the field and build new institutes and strategies that can use the promise of design to find approaches to address these complex needs. The current conviction that we hold is the use of a macro-micro design strategy which has been developed after years of application and we need to do more before we can spread this deep conviction that we hold to others who hold the purse string in our countries where real action is needed today.

Prof M P Ranjan
Design Thinker & Independent Academic, Ahmedabad


  1. Very true, and well said. Everything in this post is absoultely true. NID needs a major rehaul in thinking, in leadership, in education, in everyway. The Governing Council of NID does not do much for design. Making speeches at the convocation really does not count. When there is rot right at the top, it seeps all the way to the bottom.

    The India and the government still have very little idea of what design is. Science, technology, engineering, management are over-glorified in our country, and this will be continued for coming years. There are some positive changes, but they are few and far between. Lets hope for a brigher future. Let hope NID is not just a micro reflection of the macro, that is India, with all the corruption, scams and complete lack of ethics.

  2. I am glad that you have busted the unnecessary glamorization of Jugaad. Jugad, in my view is akin to selling India of Elephant Riders and Snake Charmers. Every individual that I respect for building institutions that have had profound impact on Indian life paid great attention to high values, and quality- not Jugaad. I have always had a lingering unease about selling "Jugaad" as an indian process. Thanks a lot for busting the myth.

    I am increasingly becoming convinced that participation in the political discourse of India is the only way in which design thinking can find any meaningful place in the National Policy. Design as understood by industry stalwarts lacks the Macro view necessary for shaping and implementing a National Design Policy. Design thinking is not about end products but about picturing a national metaphor, a national dream, a national value system, and a process of engaging people in creative modes of participating in their community life. Your writings are immensely valuable in shaping the national discourse. I suggest that you should extend your writings to political and economic publications, or mass media, which have a greater influence on the political leadership. The content and tone of your articles is already gaining a policy relevance. Once you start writing in political or economic publications, you would automatically start thinking about the audience.

  3. This is indeed a wonderful and comprehensive post, Ranjan, and we are all waiting to hear your impressions of the discussion at Davos.

    But in addition to the political, strategic, economic and research aspects you have listed here, I'd like to add one very important one that is often forgotten - a cultural aspect. This is something I have heard you talk about before, and also in the presence of Dr. Harold Nelson, but I feel it needs specific mention and elaboration here.

    India's design culture needs to be dicussed, debated and celebrated in a public and accessible way. We need a thoughtful institution to promote Indian design through cultural channels, both nationally and internationally.

    Publication in peer-reviewed journals is important, but let's please not look down upon the value of publishing in more mainstream channels - magazines, newspapers, and blogs. One magazine is not enough, neither are a handful of blogs.

    Design exhibitions need to go up in our museums, at NGMA, at the National museums. These exhibitions must travel, they must not just promote, but analyse and curate Indian design. They must provide intellectual ballast, and a sense of history, understanding the deeply political and sensitive work that has been accomplished in the last 50 years by our designers.

    Lastly I think we need some vibrant design fairs of our own, apart from the conferences and festivals that take place. Kyoorius Designyatra is a great start, but it is a conference-based event (speakers and panels), and is outward-looking (too many non-Indian speakers.) We also need something for our design industry, along the lines of ICFF in New York, Design Week in London, or Salone in Milan.

    Let's not ride the high horse and sneer at popular media. They have great potential in recognizing new talent, raising the bar in terms of quality, and creating a cultural presence for design in India.

  4. I'm glad you were presenting in Davos. We should model the deep linking of participatory design with a wider project of human well-being. While tactical solutions are important, a broad view may have greater benefit to reduce suffering, IMHO.

  5. dear ranjan
    i can sense and empathise the pain and to some extent pessimism your article reflects .Well ,its somewhat true this tussle of art and technology has permeated the layers of times or spaces not just in our context in india but globally and eventually reflected in the policy formulations which tend to follow a simple yet crude solution of simply bi-secting it . And then the boon or bane whatever we might call of modern world -'consumption' ;unfortunately a invisible guiding force behind all decisions .
    i personally think that just like CK prahalad laid stress on the thinking from below(bottom of pyramid) may be design thinkers and proactive design practitioners who secretly desire ( i am sure there would be quite a few of them )to contribute and change the world in their own ways can look at researching and prototyping their thoughts from the base .ie, village levels while not alienating their current existance .
    I am sure quite a few able design individuals involved in consumption sphere practice this though my observation is that their philosophies are more guided by profit,sale,turnover terms which are tilt the scale in lieu of humane solution .
    I know this may sound utopian,but then arent' all utopias one of the reasons for our future ?
    so may be instead of ministry of design we look at creating collaberative communities at local levels ,following principles involving and evolving and ofcourse leading into tangible solutions .May be these drops would soon create larger ripples .

  6. Very well put professor. The current view by majority in India about Design is more of glamour and less of substance.I hope it changes sooner than later.

    In my opinion, the seriousness from our goverment about design will be more 'post' than 'pre'. Just like allocation of spectrum in 3G or bottlenecks in infrastructure, the realisation would come late that more needed to have been done.

    A step has been made by forming the India Design Council and National Design Policy.The effect of this needs to percolate down faster, else it will be similar to the talk of high GDP growth with little benefit to the bottom most.

    Being a mechanical engineer by qualification and designer by passion, I believe that the ingredients of design education should start from school. Unless the JUNTA is aware about design, things will be more JUGAAD and design will be more policy. Meeting the design needs of INDIA requires a tectonic (social+cultural+economical...) shift and tectonic plates move only from bottom and not from top!

    My only hope and request at the moment is that NID removes the age restriction for studying PG course in product design. I do not understand why age should be a restriction for studying when it is not for teaching. After all, you learn and teach better as you mature. This will be a small but effective change to begin with.

  7. great work..useful information

  8. India and Vietnam are friends !

  9. wow your blog is really nice!

  10. Im from Chennai india and i love teh way you describe India in all your blog posts. thanks for that.

    chennai news

  11. This is actually an awesome work published, Ranjan, and we have all been waiting about the Davos discussion and your impressions of it..

    Let us all know!

  12. Unquestionably believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason appeared to be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed while people consider worries that they just don't know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

  13. Nice Blog.your blog is informative for us.for more information click here site is based on incredible india.this site explorer your knowledge about India.thanx


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