The Confederation of Indian Industries, the Industrial Designers Society of America, New York chapter and the Asia Society held a strategy session on Monday at the Asia Society in New York. The event was a follow-up to the 6th Annual International Design Summit in New Delhi. Uday Dandavate, Founder and Principal of SonicRim, Global Design Research, partnered with Deb Johnson, Director of the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable/Social Enterprise and Chair of the IDSA/NYC to organize the event.
Rather than a conference, the Design With India Strategy Session was a thought-provoking participatory panel discussion exploring the challenges and opportunities for applying design methodologies with and for Indian companies, professionals and consumers.
Mary McBride, Principal, Strategies for Planned Change, moderated the discussion between the distinguished panel of design and business professionals on stage and in the orchestra, and the audience, both in the auditorium and participating via webcast. Mary Boone of Boone Associates meticulously captured the points raised by taking real-time notes that were projected on stage and given to participants to take home.
Three topics sparked the discussion: 1.The challenges and opportunities for companies and designers to collaborate with India. 2. Identifying the real stakeholders in the process of innovation. 3. Defining the elements involved in collaboration between stakeholders. Bruce Nussbaum, Associate Editor, BusinessWeek, stated that "what you need are people who can see around corners--visionaries who look far into the future" He proposed that India is doing just that, for example, by designing low-cost services, such as specialized healthcare procedures and pre-packaged telecommunication services, at reduced cost to reach a larger market. Frequent references were made to C.K Prahalad's The Bottom of the Pyramid, a study of mutually beneficial opportunities for companies to gain profit by providing prosperity for the poor. Niti Bhan, Principal, Bhan LLC cautioned us against equating rural dwellers with those at the bottom of the pyramid. It was agreed the products and services that add to income generation rather than those that simply use disposable income were of high importance.
Bunker Roy, Founder of the Barefoot College gave a compelling presentation on programs in rural Rajasthan that train craftspeople, whose traditional skills have lost their marketability, to become solar engineers, who build and maintain solar power units to electrify villages. When asked what India wants for itself, he replied "recognition for the traditional wisdom in the villages." In his opinion, anyone who really wants to work with India should go and live in a village for a few months doing nothing but observing and absorbing.
This sparked much debate over the challenges of designing in a nation with 650,000 villages that aren't named on GoogleEarth. A country with 650,000 different types of pickle, where regional dialects change within a 30 mile radius. A country with the largest middle class in the world, around 600 million strong and growing.
Designing with India, not for India, implies that the nation's sheer diversity and circumstances demand a collaborative process among all the stakeholders in question--designers and users from the myriad communities discussed.
Uday Dandavate, in closing, called the theme of the evening "IndiaInside", referencing the IntelInside concept. India is perhaps not a Superpower in an international power struggle, but in his words, a Superinfluence. "In every taxi, every rocket, every call center, everywhere there is an Indian inside. We have no interest in talking of power, but of influence." Certainly there was an overarching call for a co-creative design process that respects India's rich culture, diversity and the resources that provides.
The evening didn't yield many hard and fast conclusions nor specific actionable plans. It was more exploratory in nature, raising topics and questions that got people thinking. On the one hand, it may have sacrificed depth for breadth. Designing with the bottom of the pyramid is a strategy session unto itself; the growing middle class is another; the demographic pressures facing designers is yet another. On the other hand, this was the first Design With India event in the US and plans to make this an annual think tank event are in the works. It was the beginning of a spirited dialogue that we're looking forward to continuing.