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India, A New Frontier For Innovation And Design.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on November 30, 2006

Niti Bhan is giving a speech at the upcoming Design With India conference next week in New Dehli and she posted a second draft on her site. I’m posting it here because it is an important statement about India, global warming, green tech and opportunities for growth moving into the 21st century.

November 29, 2006
Second draft of my talk
The Chartered Society of Designers, UK had recently issued a statement following Sir Nicholas Stern’s Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change highlighting the opportunities for the design industry in light of this global crisis. They said, in summary,

As a profession we influence products of all sorts and buildings and the energy they use. In design development and service design we are also able to reduce the energy used in delivering them. But in order to do so the designer must posses the knowledge needed to deal with such matters. This will involve collaboration, new working methods, knowledge transfer and a new attitude to design research.

If Stern is taken seriously then designers will see new opportunities for their services, they will need to adopt a business language in order for design to become embedded in the range of businesses strategies and to take a seat in the boardroom, and they will enter new overseas markets which need to invest in products that allow them to trade in carbon emissions. For those economies that are loathe to invest the figure suggested by Stern for fear of inhibiting their rapid economic growth, design and innovation will be paramount in ensuring they are not disadvantaged.

The world is now looking to design to provide answers to complex problems and sustainability issues - as resources become increasingly scarce - and I think that Indian designers can lead the way in the search for answers. I believe that as designers, we are comfortable with ambiguity and have learnt to make order out of chaos. And as Indians, we are comfortable straddling the disparity of urban and rural markets, understanding that products and services need to withstand a wide variance in infrastructure and environment, the diversity of our multicultural, multilingual nation and finally, the daily understanding that there are millions among us who are overlooked, underserved, and often have very little or nothing at all.

This is a corporate social opportunity for Indian industry and the design community. We have here the foundation of a cooperative movement that could conceivably create health, wealth and the freedom to choose. Not just for a fortunate few, but for the vast majority across our nation. What is the current landscape in this area globally?

A few data points come to mind, the increasing shift towards social design issues, the need for responsible design and development of products, and of course, the increasing awareness of our shrinking resources etc. All of these point to the search for solutions for everyday problems [what designers do best] but within the tightest constraints possible. Minimal footprint, the optimum solution - a balance between materials used, energy consumed yet elegantly solving the problem at hand. Operations Research provides the trick - I’m not saying the Carpenter’s Problem should be applied directly, but if you look at the concept of solving for the optimal solution within the constraints and inequalities given, then one can derive a similar concept when considering the next source of innovative thinking and new product solutions. Furthermore, the concept of rapid prototyping within the design constraints can be mapped on to the shaded area under the graph [representational of concept only]. Where do we find these ideas and answers?

There are already numerous social entrepreneurial initiatives that are based on innovative business models that create wealth and opportunity even for the poorest - from SEWA to ICICI, eChoupal to the Jaipur foot - all of these and more provide micro finance, healthcare, cooperatives and information tailored to their needs. Design studios already work with disparate segments assisting in augmenting the quality of their user’s lives - Icarus designed a solar powered lamp, etc etc [will fill in] but this opportunity is for more than just the design industry. Sir Nicholas Stern stated in his presentation that this could not be left solely to government and that individuals would not take it seriously if business did not play its part.

What I propose is that take Prof Anil Gupta’s work at the National Innovation Foundation, where teams of field workers keep their eye open for inventions in their travels through rural India and expand this into a global network. Numerous ingenious solutions have emerged, and as they have been developed under the most adverse conditions, are as ecologically sound as possible in terms of materials, recycling, energy etc consumed. Why can’t multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers, marketers and others from industry look to developing these concepts emerging from the bottom up? Take these rough ideas and prototypes and reform and reengineer them for markets across India and the world? With a combination of good design, native ingenuity and an innovative business models that incorporate micro finance opportunities, cooperatives for small business owners - example etc Add to this our technological and informational capabilities on the world wide web and create a flow of information and value to AND fro between the haves and the have nots. Create our own markets, for our products, within the constraints - something we’re already good at - of the increasingly resource constrained Earth.

This “mash up” as they say, where information meets technology meets rural innovation can arguably provide a solution to not only India’s most pressing needs but also to more pressing problems facing all of us in the world today. A two way exchange of information that empowers, permits cocreation and connectivity, communication and commerce, will ensure that the next inventor in remote Bihar who develops an amphibious bicycle would not need to travel cross country to be noticed, funded, or noticed globally. India herself would have put him on the world map.

To follow all the important events going on at the Design With India conference, check into Niti’s blog. If you still have time and the price of a ticket, get on a plane now and fly there. If only to hear Sam Pitroda give an amazing speech. You don’t see many countries make a wildly successful entrepreneur the Chairman of the Knowledge Commission of India.

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Reader Comments

amit sharma

December 2, 2006 04:59 AM

I don't think concepts like rural Innovation work too well in India. I have personally spent time with people trying to see the innovation potential of ideas like the amphibious bicycle mentioned in this article. My conclusion is this:

Most of these projects tend to user-driven Inventions. Not Innovations. They are not backed by any kind of market analysis. Someone makes such inventions because its useful for him (occassionally her). And there is no force of business enterprise behind the commercialization efforts (which are quite often govt. funded).

My solution is to follow a more lessez faire approach in social innovation, such as what we try to embody at doSomething (

niti bhan

December 10, 2006 05:55 AM

dear bruce,

Thank you. As you know, I've been out from the 6th at Aditya Singh's The Ranthambhore Bagh tiger sanctuary resort and the two days there only brought home to me the need for increased connectivity and communication for the rural parts of India.

I am back in Delhi today and should have reports on both the conference [at Core77} and on my blog - the rural opportunities and value creation, over tonight.



December 15, 2006 05:22 AM

niti says-"As you know, I've ........India. "

hi, If Brucee know why are you wasting pixels here!!


December 24, 2006 02:42 PM

I don't think we've got anything to worry about the so called rise of the creative class from the emerging markets, they're too busy holding themselves down.

Mark Charmer

January 4, 2007 02:38 PM

Niti / Bruce / Amit,

I've just been reading Charles Leadbeater's forthcoming book on "We Think" and the following paras stood out as relevant here (it's online so you can have a peek if you want - I'm not on his payroll!).

"Histories of innovation invariably focus on the race to invent something and end when the invention goes into production, as if the interesting part of the story is complete.Yet what makes an economy more productive is the
rate at which a technology spreads and how cleverly it is used. Invention is just the starting point for a much longer process, in which most of the value is created by people applying technology. Obsessed by when and where
technologies were first invented,we pay too little attention to how technologies are adapted, extended, remodelled and re-used. Periods of rapid invention,when lots of technology is being created, rarely correspond with periods of
rapid productivity growth.That usually comes much later – often thirty or forty years later - and because consumers in their millions have helped one another to work out what a technology is for.They incorporate the technology into their lives, itself a vital part of the innovation process.

Today,more people that ever can be involved in that wider process of innovation in use.Thanks to the falling costs of technology, cheaper communications, rising educational attainments and longer life spans,more people have more time and capacity to be creative, if only in small ways, than ever before. Ideas do not just flow down the pipeline from the back room boys to consumers. Increasingly ideas are flowing the other way: the consumers are increasingly a source of creativity. In the process they stop being mere consumers and become participants and contributors.The idea of the consumer and indeed mass consumption as the basis for economic activity might have to be rethought. Instead we should start to think of ourselves as contributors and participants."

All the best, Mark

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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