Tuesday, January 29, 2008

LEGO: A Toy for all Ages – Can it be localized for India?

LEGO is today 50 years old and it is a great design event. Innovation knows no boundaries and here in India too we need to celebrate the 50th birthday with an appropriate response that is fitting to the occasion. What could this be? I will get to that shortly.

What is LEGO? Why are we celebrating it?

To answer this is not a simple task since it is not one product but a multitude of things to a multitude of people and as a system of components that make up the whole it can be used and enjoyed by all ages and genders or almost by all ages and genders if we go by the age recommendations on the boxes and the instruction manuals that accompany each kit that has been sold in the market ever since it was introduced to the world in 1958 by its inventor designers. I quote here the Time magazine report on the toy and the company:
I Quote.. “.It was at 1:58 p.m. on January 28, 1958, that then-Lego head Godtfred Kirk Christiansen filed a patent for the iconic plastic brick with its stud-and-hole design. Since then, the company has made a staggering 400 billion Lego elements, or 62 bricks for every person on the planet. And if stacked on top of one another, the pieces would form 10 towers reaching all the way from the Earth to the Moon.” UnQuote
see the full story at the TIME website titled “Lego Celebrates 50 Years of Building”, By LEO CENDROWICZ Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 at this link here.

I have been fascinated by these kinds of modular construction kits and building blocks ever since my childhood when I had access to a variety of Meccano and the large Montessori blocks which incidentally were manufactured in my fathers toy factory in the 50’s and 60’s in Guindy at Madras (now Chennai). The factory was called Modern Agencies and made wooden toys and school furniture and teaching aids. The LEGO blocks however started appearing in India through product imports that slipped through the stringent import control Raj in India in 70’s and in larger measure in upmarket toy shops the early 90’s at the beginning of the era of economic liberalization in India. But for that hindrance we would perhaps have seen this product in India in my fathers toy shop as well in its hay days when it stocked over 3000 varieties of toys, dolls, games and teaching aids, all playthings that would make a child excited and fulfilled. My father’s business policy was to carry and sell only toys as playthings which had educational value and he used to frequently tell us – “my shop does not carry plastic buckets and toys, which was the format for most other toy stores in the city with the exception of the India’s Hobby Centre, which carried stocks of aircraft models and a large variety of toys. Unfortunately in the late 60’s through the mid 80’s when I had access to the shop located at the corner of General Patters Road and next to the now extinct Wellington Cinema as well as the right to take home any one that I liked, very privileged indeed, we did not have stocks of LEGO, my loss. However my daughter was more lucky since I was able to indulge my interest in the toy kit and obtain several sets of these multi-dimensional blocks with the excuse of educating my daughter when I returned home from my professional visits to Hong Kong, Singapore or Japan to further my interest in bamboo and design. Lucky girl. She still holds on to these sets although she has graduated from NID and is working as a designer in Bangalore these days. Perhaps LEGO was partly responsible for her choosing design as a profession besides the fact that she lived on campus at NID, which is the hothouse for design in India in any case.

In 1991 I had shared my daughter’s LEGO blocks with my students in the systems design class and used this as a case study of a great modular system that affords many insights into the making of good design. The blocks are well made with fine fits and tolerances and they are non-frustrating for the child since they work and provide hours of fun in imaginative play in a continued state of creative expression, wonderful. The assignments for our students that I now reflect on was set in that year as an analysis of an existing system so that we could through our study discover properties and principles that would help us in the design of our own system, in this case modular furniture systems, since the two students were from the Furniture Design discipline for whom the class was on offer. Aruna Venkatavaradan and Harkaran Singh Grewal were the students in question and both of them were assigned the task of carrying out the analysis that would lead up to the making of an informative and insightful document. Aruna’s document is thankfully available in the NID Resource Centre (now called the Knowledge Management Centre) titled Lego: Analysis of the toy as a System. Through her analysis she discovered the principles of modularity and inter-operability of the blocks on offer as well as looked at the multiple levels of organization that was used to make and offer variety and affordances to the child the ultimate user of the toy. She had categorized all the blocks using her own nomenclature and from this built her description of the toy as a system. Aruna discovered that the various block and their features could be classified and organized under a system and structure in the following manner.

The Geometric Module: Form, Dimension, Compatibility
The Functional Module: Hinges, Pins, Tubes, Features
The Marketing Module: Packaging, Economic Groups, Age Groups, Interest Groups
The Semantic Module: Form, Colour, Texture, Terminal Elements, Context
The Ergonomic Module: User Capability, Need, Age Matching, Complexity
and finally
The Economic Module: Production Features, Finished Product Configuration, Set Configuration etc.,

The geometric level was for instance provided by the shape and size of each block, the differentiation level was offered by the colour and symmetry and asymmetry of the blocks, the semantic level was offered by the cultural meanings of the terminal blocks such as hats, flowers and head types that permitted the assembly to carry different meanings for the child and so on. She used the process of sketching and drawing using isometric and orthographic views to analyse each block and then used language to sort and arrange the elements into a meaningful structure and this process revealed the inner structure of the toy and the potentials on offer by each kind of block. Great learning for her as well as for all of us involved in the discussions and debates that ensued.

What can we do in India with the LEGO legacy now that the patent that started ticking on that eventful day of 28th January 1958 when the patent application for this fascinating toy principle was filed by the son of the company founder with the new and improved principle on offer. Many me-too variations have been offered but design and imagination can make a huge difference to bring cultural relevance to the toy, which I believe is a significant one for the era of globalization, and unfortunate homogenization that we now see in all toy offerings around the world. Localisation could well be practiced and Indian themes can now appear from the stable of some enterprising Indian company who may come forward and offer the Mahabharata LEGO or the Warli Lego, to suggest only a few options here, where the semantic layer could be manipulated by the use of design imagination and explorations, particularly since the basic product is now off patent. LEGO International itself offers many Western themes but should these be the only ones that Indian kids have on offer? This is a call for design students in India and elsewhere to take up this challenge and show how the popular and effective toys (just as critical drugs and medicines could be developed from proven offerings) and these can be localized to meet extant conditions in India and other developing countries. I am not suggesting that totally new approaches cannot be attempted, do so by all means if possible, but the world of artifacts in any culture are made up of incremental innovations as well as design imagination and we must recognize this fact and invest our efforts to make the most of our resources and build quality offerings that can reach all our schools and homes.

Let us celebrate the 50th birthday of the wonderful LEGO blocks and kits and help reach these to stimulate the imagination of our children for many years to come. Let us make an Indian “LEGO” today.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Valsan Koorma Kolleri: The Artist and his Message

In conversation with Neha Sarai we explore the making of Valsan Koorma Kolleri the artist and try to fathom his message for society of today. In the process we can also try and discover what is it that art brings to society and what would be the role of the artist in the making and delivering these messages.

Image: Laterite stone is a common traditional building material in Kerala and the West Coast of South India. Valsan has explored the textures and modularity of this building material to create installations that express his philosophy. Here combined with natural wood and a huge dry mushroom found somewhere in Kerala. This installation can be experienced from inside and outside.

I am sharing the notes that I exchanged with Neha Sarai who is assembling content about the work of Valsan Koorma Kolleri the Artist and Valsan Koorma Kolleri the person for use in a new catalogue of his latest offerings. She has asked these questions to many people who know Valsan for many years and it will be interesting to see the overall picture that emerges when all the offerings are made available in an edited publication. My responses have been edited since I met Valsan in person at my office at NID on 10th January 2008 when we reviewed his web presence and discussed specific pieces. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on our long acquaintance that dates back over 30 years now. I could reflect on my first contact with him at NID in the 70’s and later in Madras over many visits and again at NID. This also gives me a window to look at the parallels in art and design and their respective roles in creating meaning in culture.

Neha Sarai: What stands foremost and distinctive when you look at Valsan's art and thinks of Valsan as an artist? What is the element in the work of Valsan that compels attention? What is it that intrigues and fascinates you in the work of Valsan? Where would you place him as an artist?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Artist is a commentator on the state of a society and on its sensitivity to current and traditional manifestations of materials, form and behaviour as a reflection on the unfolding of its culture that is being constantly transformed. These transformations are usually slow and unconsciously enacted but at times these are tumultuous and in the face and it is the artist who helps us and draws our attention to these changes through a statement that would help us juxtapose our own perceptions to the visible and tacit statements that can be felt in the work of the artist, if we care to look deeply and ponder on the intentions and actions behind the work. Valsan is a keen observer of our society in transformation and his work reflects his anguish and celebration of these changes as he manifests these flavours in material and form in his works that can be called sculpture since they are three dimensional and imbued with deep meaning.

Neha Sarai: How do you perceive Valsan Kolleri’s work? Could one speak for instance of his work as series of multiple experiments with an idea over a period of thirty years?

Prof. M P Ranjan: One of the striking themes of Valsan's work is the use of found materials in our society and here there is a bias towards that which is discarded in the course of our day to day living. He has stayed with this theme for many years since I first met him as a young student from Baroda in the mid-seventies. His interest in combining materials places him at an experimental plane and by drawing in found materials he has adopted challenges that require an innovative streak and a perception of possibilities in the discarded which have obviously by-passed the former user.

Image: A large suspended Taurus with a cross-tie as an installation made of galvanized wire and seed pods fallen under a tree at NID campus in Ahmedabad by Valsan Koleri when he had visited the school in the 90’s to conduct an elective for design students. These seed pods have fallen each year since the tree matured but it took Valsan’s searching eye and his imagination to draw our attention to it In such a dramatic manner

Neha Sarai: Could one say he has chosen to work very quietly, almost silently? Yet, his contribution influence has been considerable. Also the ground upon which he seeks his stand is unusual. As a Sculptor who is aware of all that binds him to Modern times, his quest is to go back to roots beginnings, of life and earth. Sources towards which he turns for artistic energy are intensely subtle and mysterious: Earth and Nature. Would you agree? Or, would you see him as a desperate romantic unable to cope with the challenges of our time?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Valsan is a realist in my view and a clear thinker of matters of deep concern at an ecological and human level. I recall an installation that he built while conducting a class at the National Institute of Design, which were made up of the long and winding strands of seed pods that had fallen of a tree at the NID campus. Having collected these fallen pods he proceeded to assemble a Taurus or great donut that was suspended and held in place by near invisible wires as the rotated and swayed gently in the breeze. These pods fall every year and it took Valsan's sharp insights to transform them into an ephemeral statement that still rings in my minds eye and I am sure in the minds of all those who had encountered these at NID.

Neha Sarai: Valsan's chosen art form, to the extent one can give it a definite name could be said to be sculpture. But it seems to me that the art form sculpture as practised by Valsan embraces architecture, environment and the ritual of daily existence. What does this embracement signify? Is this embracement merely a case of juxtaposition, a kind of collage making, or does it acquire in his artwork a kind of inseparable unity?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Yes, Valsan has a quiet political statement for society that is manifested in each of his works and these are clued in to the context of our times.

Neha Sarai: What do the sculptures of Valsan signify for you? How does his persona as an artist relate to your understanding of his work? Where would you place him in the context of art today?

Prof. M P Ranjan: He is a simple man in his actions and lifestyle with a complex mind and a sensitive bearing to social and ethical issues. He is a very fine craftsman who understands his materials deeply and one who is able to get these materials, some unconventional, to bend and meld to his wishes, in his mission inn making new meaning at a higher plane of discourse.

Neha Sarai: As Sculptor, Valsan has sought to converse with architectural spaces. How do you see and respond to his Sakhathan experiment: the drainage series, earth diggings, placement-use of stone and other materials as if placed by and in Nature.

Prof. M P Ranjan: I have not seen these in space so I will not comment on specific offerings. However the pictures of his large works in wire and in stone show a fine understanding of space and form and his value for the natural is evident in the treatment of the materials to show off its texture and material structure as an integral part of the work.

Neha Sarai: How do you view Valsan’s obsessive concern to reuse-recycle waste and discarded materials? Do you think an artist should intervene and get involved in such situations? Could such an engagement contribute to art and artistic activity in a lasting authentic way?

Prof. M P Ranjan: He is an artist who has a statement for both the social and an environmental domain. This is particularly significant in the world discovering of late the phenomenon of global warming which can be sensed in the messages that are inherent in Valsan’s work with recycled materials and with materials found in nature.

Neha Sarai: How does the idea of reusing-recycling material discarded and thrown away find expression in the works of Valsan. How do you see and respond to his sense of aesthetics and art. How would you situate Valsan: as an Artist or as an Environmentalist?

Prof. M P Ranjan: He is an artist who has located himself in a social and an environmental domain who uses his work to make a statement for society to appreciate. The environmentalist in him is not a visible trait.

Image: Knotted copper wire is like a gossamer garment that is striking in scale and structure with an enticing texture through which one can see beyond.

Neha Sarai: Knotted copper wirework has come to be seen as distinctively Valsan’s. Its endless knots go back to his early work. And yet, one can see in his copper wirework a new kind of intent at work: making specific forms to be read in many different ways. What does this kind of sculpture making signify?

Prof. M P Ranjan: His copper filigree, if I can call it that, is the work of a master craftsman and a thinking artist. These are works that revel in the disclosure of structure with an element of surprise due to their scale and visual quality of its texture. The meta form is a product of the sub-structure and these are located in the knots and triangulations that are not geometric but a stability that is derived from a fine understanding of the principles of structure, very handcrafted and geodesic at heart.

Neha Sarai: A thing can be shaped into forms almost without limit. One could say this kind of infinite possibility mimics the infinity in creation. Valsan’s Prakriti represents-restates the same idea in an entirely different language and material. Does that change-difference in language and material also lead to a difference-change of meaning.

Prof. M P Ranjan: Valsan uses geometric order in many situations as well as form that can be seen as those derived from our culture and traditions. He is able to make a good blend of these to make a statement that is thought provoking.

Neha Sarai: Works like Anima Animus could be seen as representing an idea of time. The same idea may be repeated in other forms. What could this kind of repetition signify?

Prof. M P Ranjan: I have witnessed a phase in Valsan’s work where he explores the meaning of time through sculpture. “How Goes the Enemy” is one of these. When he was located in Madras in the 80’s he roamed the by-lanes of the city and in other places in the South for discarded grinding stones that became the basis for a series that combined metal castings with found stone.

Image: Strong steel springs from old clocks are treated like strands of yarn in a shaped textile and here they have a message woven in the strands, “Time, our eternal enemy in our search for eternal youth?”

Neha Sarai: Valsan’s – How Goes the Enemy – is about time, its constant remaking and reliving. Do you think it also signifies possibilities of linking past and present, speed and timelessness?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Valsan spoke to me about this work and explained how he had collected springs from old grandfather clocks for fabricating the woven part of the sculpture. He understood that time indeed was an enemy in many ways and society does see it as that. According to Keynes, the advocate of the short term economic views “…in the long run we are all dead.”

Neha Sarai: Consider for instance Valsan's exhibit the New Clear Age. The titles of his shows tend to invoke the play of more than one meaning in a word or phrase. Often, such play arises from similarity in the sound of words, differently meant and spelled. Do you see something similar at work in the choice of his materials and techniques? What would you say is the artistic intent and result of such play?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Yes. The play of words is provocative and deliberate.

Neha Sarai: Valsan likes to talk of healing, consolation or just the joy of touch. He has chosen to always keep a distance from political causes and agendas. Yet, his New Clear Age Series carries a sharp reminder that is unmistakeably political. What do you make of it?

Prof. M P Ranjan: His work has always been political but in an understated manner.

Neha Sarai: The geometry of space and its relationship with lived time seems a continual and critical preoccupation in the works of Valsan. Also, striking in this context is his passionate insistence that the artist remain true to the nature of the material used in a work of art. What are its implications for the idea and practise of art in the work of Valsan, and for art generally? Would such insistence be meaningful, for instance, in painting?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Valsan shows an interest in geometry with a view to understand structure and form. However in his work, which is, hand made it is the organic that holds sway although the underlying structure may be geometric, just like it is in nature, which he tries to emulate.

Neha Sarai: How would you decode Valsan’s use of materials? Is it purely contingent and Incidental? Does it resonate to a deeper purpose and rationale?

Prof. M P Ranjan: It is obvious that the properties of materials hold a key to the way in which it is used in his work. Valsan looks for and enhances the unexpected attributes of material be it texture or structure in a very natural way.

Neha Sarai: Valsan’s recent work is with the metal steel. Texture and qualities of this material are very different from metals and materials he has worked with earlier. Tough and unbending, it shines. How do you look upon his sculptures in steel? How does that work relate to his sculptures in bronze and laterite?

Prof. M P Ranjan: I have not seen these.

Neha Sarai: He has been moving towards organic shapes. Never puritanical in his choice of materials. Always inventive in his use of materials, be it plaster of Paris or bronze. He practices forms like Installation with great gusto. Many artists are doing installations. Does Valsan succeed in bringing to this practice some fresh insight or new dimension. At the same time he seeks to move towards organic shapes. Would you say that these apparent contraries provide a platform to debate art and globalisation?

Prof. M P Ranjan: Yes, he does. Our art galleries are not yet able to respond to the need that art is a process of creation as well as an artefact that can be appreciated in space and time. The first requires the space to be turned into a studio while the second makes it a gallery in the traditional mould, which very few are able to combine in an integral offering. Future works of art may be therefore public performances with the involvement of the society in the making as well as in the appreciation. Valsan’s current efforts to build a space for this in Kerala in the form of the Shilpapaddiam centre would be interesting to watch as it unfolds in the days ahead. I look forward to the maturing of Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s art in this very public space.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Jewellery and Retail Sectors: Design as an Business Service Integrator

Image: Display units at the Jewellery exhibit in Bangalore by faculty and students of Retail Design Experience (RDE) from NID Bangalore. Jewellery is specifically listed as a sector of focus in the National Design Policy (NDP) along with Toys and Automobiles as they are seen by the NDP administration as potential areas of export and growth with huge employment potential. The South Indian Jewellery Show 2008 (SIJS 2008) at the Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bangalore from 18th to 20th January 2008 gave the new discipline of Design for Retail Experience (DRE) at the NID Bangalore Centre an opportunity to explore the use of new and sophisticated materials to exhibit jewellery in a refined setting. Sponsored by the DuPont Ltd. The students and faculty of the DRE explored the material Corian, which is manufactured by DuPont, and through a process that led from exploration to prototyping in the classroom setting they were able to show that design straddles several sectors. In this case the use of a new material for exhibit design that could be used in a high value setting to showcase jewellery in the Trade Show which had the presence of hundreds of manufacturers from South India.

Image: View of the DuPont Corian stall at the Bangalore exhibition designed by NID Bangalore centre. The display stands and the backdrops were all made from Corian and the students and their faculty, C S Susanth have been able to demonstrate the specific properties of the material such as seamless joints and translucency through routed relief motifs that were used to apply these patterns. The Gems and Jewellery sector in India is currently stated to be employing about 4 million people with a gross turnover of USD 35 billion. This is based on a very large labour based gem cutting and setting industry that is trying to reinvent itself to a higher value based on the introduction of design and branded product offerings. Much of the design that was shown at the fair was traditional in nature and there is a huge opportunity to move this to a more sophisticated design driven market. The items on display at the NID designed DuPont stall were all designed by the NID students from the Lifestyle & Accessory Design discipline at NID, Ahmedabad while the Bangalore based students and faculty helped create the exhibit design and the display structures at the stall. The software used to merchandise the products, in this case the contextual use of Corian for the jewellery sector, were also designed with the involvement of the students and faculty from the Design for Digital Experience discipline which is another offering from the NID Bangalore Centre. This exhibit project was a follow-up to the very successful material exploration workshop that was earlier conducted by the DRE at the NID Bangalore Centre on behalf of DuPont. Such material exploration workshops help new material introduction into industry by demonstration of their features and by showing good examples of innovative uses across a number of application areas, and the numerous applications in the retail sector is one such space that was discovered through the design exploration work.

Image: Jewellery concepts designed by NID students from the Lifestyle and Accessory Design discipline at nid, Paldi Campus. The jewellery sector has several other areas with opportunity for design action since all the tools and machines used in the manufacture of finely crafted or mass-produced jewellery also need to be designed and with the growing realization of the value of differentiation through branding the sector has opened up new opportunities for the sue of visual merchandising skills and graphic design in the retail space as well as in the print and web based promotional materials. All these applications would need an understanding of the unique needs of the high value jewellery marketing sector and the other opportunities that these provide would include new digital security devices and procedures that could be incorporated at the point of sale as well as in the manufacturing situations. This industry is expected to grow to a USD 60 billion industry over the next 3 to 5 years time according to estimates by the Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council. While design can provide integrated supports for the anticipated growth of this industry it can be used across 230 other sectors, which are as yet not aware of the integrated offering that can be used to bring value to each of these sectors. Besides such industry driven design action we can look forward to new initiatives in the social and public space if the real benefits of design are to reach the Indian public at large. It is here that the Government and public bodies will have to take the lead with making the necessary investments needed to make this happen.

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.

Monday, January 14, 2008

TATA Nano and Design Education Challenges for India

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.

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.

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 pr-inside.com 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 Rediff.com 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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Systems Design: The NID Way

Image: Systems Design: The NID Way _ a Four stage model for dealing with complex situations. (click image to enlarge)
There is a lot of interest around the world for models of design action that can be both responsive to complexity as well as be effective as a vehicle for social transformation which is much needed in the era of massive change and an era of massive concerns for global warming and social equity. Take a look at the attached model that I have called the Design Systems Model - the NID Way. There are four parts at which the work can start but these would need to be explored across all of these as we progress and each provides new insights that help us take the decisions to go forward and each uses a different designer ability and sensibility but we need to be flexible to move from one to the next in quick succession if we are to be able to use this model with telling effect. I have been using this model in my classes for design students at NID ever since it was first articulated in 2001 as part of my presentation to the National Design Summit in Bangalore in my lecture called “Cactus Flower Blooms in the Desert: Reflections on Design and Innovation in India”. You can download the full text paper from here (Design Summit_txt_MPR2001.pdf file size 128 kb) and the two part visual presentation from here below:
(DesignSummit_pic1_MPR2001.pdf file size 3.6 MB and DesignSummit_pic2_MPR2001.pdf file size 4.6 MB)

To support this process of design one would need to find a user or user group and here one can have several alternatives and these could be explored as scenarios of application and come concepts could be developed in order to see how the business side of each offering can be supported. These are all simultaneous processes and iterative processes and not to be seen as being done one after the other. However as we move forward our conviction about what is the correct direction will get better and better till we take some final decisions that can be supported and justified and tested through investments in prototypes and field trials. Try it and see, it is what I teach at NID and I call it the NID way since all students from all our disciplines at NID are introduced to this form of thinking and it does set them apart from the other schools in the world in their approach to design thinking. This is not easy but you can try and get into this way of working and thinking at each stage and you will need to support this process with visual documentation that can be re-examined in the next iteration and recorded as new ideas emerge and are captured on The Design Journey. The key effort would be to see if one can spell out possible outcomes in each of the four areas and discuss it with colleagues and partners in the field with a sharing of the supporting sketches and visual evidence of use situations along with a description of macro and micro details of the imagined situations.

I decided to make this post since I was asked by a student from a school in Nasik to advise her on her project directions from a distance. The advise that I gave her formed the seed of this post and it is perhaps a way of sharing our know-how with a wider audience in India and elsewhere since the design culture needs to spread quite rapidly if we are to meet the challenges of the massive change that is inexorably bearing down on all of us. I am reminded of a great book that gave me my first insights about the nature of design when I first started looking at design theory in a formal sense as a student at NID in the late sixties and early seventies. “What is a Designer: education and practice” by Norman Potter was a fantastic introduction to the emerging concept of design theory for me and it was published by Studio Vista in 1969 as part of a wonderful series of introductory books on design which found its way to the NID library in those days. I was given a task of reading a book as part of a course titled “Rhetoric” where each student had to select one book which they would read and then present to the rest of the class in an open session at the institute. The book that I had chosen was another from the Studio Vista series called “Transport Design by Corin Huges Stanton. After reading this book my attention was drawn to the rest of the series of very smartly designed books which were not intimidating to the novice and this led me to a wonderful journey of research and discovery, all on my own.

I must thank my teacher Prof. Kumar Vyas for having offered this assignment as part of our programme at NID. Kumar as we all call him is now retired from NID but very active in teaching at a number of design schools and he is presently the Chairman of the Governing Council of the new school, the MIT Institute of Design, Pune. I wonder if Rhetoric was also offered at the Ulm school of design in the sixties or if it was created at NID as part of our own experiments in design education, we will need to do some research to check this fact, but in any case it is a great assignment. However several of my student colleagues failed to either read their designated book nor make their presentation which was a great loss for all of us. I was to learn later over several; years of being a teacher at NID that this was a normal behaviour for our design students as well as our teachers who showed an uncanny contempt for both reading and writing that I quite fail to understand to this day, but I have realized that this is the accepted way in many design schools, at least till now, very sad indeed. At NID this has resulted in very few of our courses being documented and discussed in a critical framework of academic discourse although some extremely interesting design education experiments have been conducted here we unfortunately do not have the benefit of the critical documentation which will permit us to carry out an in depth analysis and evaluation of the validity and impact of these explorations.

Design education is fortunately changing and the deep seated contempt for reading and writing seems to be melting away slowly with the “wikipedisation” of our research but along with this we also seem to be loosing our contact with material exploration and free-hand drawing that were at the heart of design education in the pre-computer era. I wonder when we will finds the balance between the Arts and Crafts style of thought and action and the other extreme of the Science and Technology centric approaches and discover a middle path that is truly the “Design Way” as described by the great book with the same title by Harold Nelson and Eric Stolterman. At NID our beautiful wood and metal workshops were all but destroyed to make way for the new IT enabled visualization and modeling facility called the “Design Vision Centre” and the distancing of the hand with the promise that the mind is faster to the market is a deep change that only time will show what could be the long term consequences to design education at NID. I do not believe that this is an “either – or” situation, where one can easily replace the other, since if we look at the model of the Systems Design - the NID Way, one will see that we will need to be flexible to move from one mode to another in a seamless manner if we are to make the disruptive innovations that are needed in the face of massive change that we are experiencing today. If we are to ward of the massive disruptive revolutions of a political nature which are sure to follow in the wake of massive change that is not met with an adequate and sensitive effort and if we do not in this process manage to invent the alternatives to meet the challenges ahead. Design is therefore a critical resource for human society and this was my core argument when responding to the lecture made at NID auditorium by two design teachers from the Konstfack University, Repartment of Interdisciplinary Studies, Sweden yesterday when they spoke about trends in society and the lessons that they see from Charles Eames and his India Report of 1958. I will elaborate on this discussion in another post since I intend to explore these ideas as we go forward in developing our understanding of design today. In the context of the current model, Systems Design – the NID Way, it is sufficient to see that these explorations in the real world are paralleled by inplorations in the imagination of the designer and all the four stages are explored – implored to arrive at the insights that lead to deep conviction, and it is this conviction that would give us the courage and determination to create a desirable future for all of us. This journey is described in the paper titled Design Journey: Styles and modes of thought and actions in design” which can be downloaded from this link here (pdf file size 270 kb)

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