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My Speech At The Indian Design Summit.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on December 16, 2007

I just spent a remarkable week at an event that, in effect, launched the modern design movement in India. I’ll be blogging about it over the next couple of days and will start with my keynote speech that opened the CII-NID (Confederation of Indian Industries—National Institutes of Design) design summit. The conference marked the launch of a National Design Policy in India, important less for the Indian government’s new backing for innovation and design (although that’s important—we don’t have anything like that in the US) but more for the Indian design industry’s newfound vigor and strength.

India is clearly taking off, moving beyond it’s IT growth based, into manufacturing and services of all kinds. This is the moment to get in early and if you are a US or European consultancy in innovation/design/design thinking you need to be in India today. And if you a global corporation in just about anything—from making cars to selling financial services, you need to be there right now, at the beginning. Think China 20 years ago. I think India’s acceleration may well be faster than China. In fact, I think Chinese companies better get into India as fast as they can.

Here is the speech that I gave. Let me know what you think

of it. Feedback please.

Speech at the CII-NID Summit. Dec. 12, 07

Thank you Gita. I am honored to be here in India, the country which has designed some of the most innovative business models in the world for super-efficient eye care hospitals, inexpensive cell phone service and small-size consumer goods. They were designed specifically to provide services and products to people at the Bottom of the Pyramid, but these innovative models created in India are being copied as we speak around the world.

As we proceed over the next two days to discuss design, design theory and innovation, we might keep in mind that globalization and the spread of information technologies are giving rise to a world economy driven by knowledge. Where once capital and labor gave us value, now talent is most precious commodity on the planet. Where once efficiencies in production gave us profits, jobs and taxes, now the ability to design and innovate increasingly generate wealth in society. And where once research & development, and the most advanced universities were concentrated in the West, they are now spread more evenly around the world—and so is innovation. This is a good thing, for we must learn from each other—and smart business people and government leaders are doing just that. That is, in fact, what we are doing here at this design summit.

This is a perfect time for India to be launching a new National Design Policy, some 50 years after the Eames White Paper on design to Prime Minister Nehru. The field of design has evolved much since that time and the power of design to change our lives for the better his risen sharply. I would argue that in recent decades, the secrets of the design process have been revealed, deconstructed and reformulated as a powerful methodology of creativity. Many people call this design thinking. Others prefer the term “innovation.” Call it what you will but we are seeing design shift from its traditional—and still vibrant—role of form giver to a significantly more important role as organizational strategist. Everywhere in the US and Europe, you hear corporations and, increasingly, educators, health care managers, transportation officials and even mayors of big cities asking for people trained in design thinking. The power of design has exploded and design has become transformative. I believe this new formulation of design has major implications for Indian economic and business policy. It could form the basis of what I call a High-Low Design Strategy for India.

Let us take a moment to do our own deconstruction of design and see why it is becoming such a powerful strategic tool. Design has always been about the user—be it the consumer, the patient, the student, the reader, the media watcher. Today, understanding the wants and needs of the user is perhaps the most important driving force in business. The era when companies invented new things and threw them into the market at consumers is fast ending. This is especially true as individuals everywhere demand high global standards for their products. People are also demanding more control of their products and services. They want the ability to customize their cell phones and adjust their tractors. C.K. Prahalad coined the term “co-creation” some time ago and while CK is not a trained designer, his conceptualization is pure design thinking. When CavinKare looked at consumers in rural Indian villages, it saw their need for shampoo and other products in the context of their limited incomes. It then designed small sachets at low prices to satisfy them. This is design thinking. It’s not about designing the color of the sachets but about designing the model of the business.

Design is also traditionally about collaboration and integration. Working with other people across what we call silos these days and integrating information to solve problems has always been a strong suit of design. Now, with the growth of social networks and collaborative innovation, design is ever more powerful. I would argue that the rise of social networks, which combine both user-generated content and user-focussed organization, is a major force today for the new centrality of design in business culture.

Design is also about being generative—it doesn’t just choose among the existing, it creates the new. Design isn’t about maximizing efficiency (although it certainly can do that), but about maximizing possibilities. It is about seeing old problems with fresh eyes. You have millions of people who want phone service but have little income? Find a way to charge them small amounts by the minute—and a cheap, quality cell phone with simple functions needed by these consumers.

The design process also allows us to operate in ambiguity. It helps us see around corners. Globalization, technological change, terrorism, global warming—there are huge forces causing immense change in our lives. In fact, there is so much change that many of us live life in constant beta. Look around you in India. The change is startling. Design thrives in ambiguity. It has the tools to explore unknown places, not simply make the known better or more efficient. Again, this is another reason why design is in such demand today.

And finally, the power of design resides in its unique ability to give form to concept—you make stuff, sometimes incredibly beautiful, wonderful stuff that we all passionately want. But in the realm of design thinking, the ability to give form to theories, possibilities, options, also allows design to speed up the decision-making process. Seeing something, whether it is a model of a product or a video of a service, enables managers to make better choices faster. It gives them more information to take manage risk.

For all these reasons, design is a solvent dissolving education in the US and Europe. To keep up with the growing demand from business for people who can do design thinking, both design schools, or D-Schools, and business schools, B-Schools are quickly changing their curricula and their methods of teaching. You have new schools like the 180 in Denmark and older schools like the Institute of Design in Chicago, the D-School at Stanford or the Rotman School of Management in Toronto radically altering what they teach and they way they teach it. Most other design and business schools are fast following them.

This huge change in design at this moment in time offers enormous opportunities for India. For one, it suggests that a National Design Policy include the teaching of design thinking not only in designated design schools but in top-level engineering and business schools as well. Design as strategy is as important, if not more important than design as aesthetics. Bringing students, professors, consultants and practitioners of design together to teach and learn design is a model that may have application in India.

A National Design Policy that aims High and Low might be optimal. The engine for much of the recent growth in India has been at the High End of the economy, selling services to overseas corporations. India leads in innovation of this kind—linking information technologies together to leverage cost, volume and talent of its English-speaking, well-educated workforce. It is a process of maximizing efficiencies. But rising wages in India are quickly eroding that competitive edge and efficiency in services will soon need to be replaced by creativity in services. That means design thinking—understanding your customers’ cultures, building with them new services that solve their problems, working with teams of people with different specialties outside your own silo, generating many possible options, and finally, giving form to them. This requires a different tool kit, a different mind set and a different form of education. Design and innovation at the High End of India’s economy may be crucial in maintaining the country’s rate of growth. The Cox Report out of London by Sir George Cox clearly shows that companies that use design as strategy outperform those that don’t in the stock market. At Business Week, we are about to come out with a new Innovation Index that demonstrates that companies that drive their growth with innovation perform better in total rates of return and stock market performance over many years.

At the Low End of India’s economy—its huge manufacturing, retail and consumer sectors—design may also provide answers. India has a very strong design aesthetic that may have huge appeal on the global scene. It is vibrant, colorful, emotional, natural—elements that could compose a global “Indian Design” language much the way that “Scandanavian Design,” Italian and French fashion and German “Bauhaus Design” define whole categories of products. I was struck several years ago at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when India hosted the event, at how people were so attracted to the culture of India. The global popularity of Bollywood could be a harbinger of well-designed Indian cars, clothes, crafts, media, foods. Using the more traditional elements of design to grow this huge part of the Indian economy, which employees many tens of millions of people, would have a major impact.

Finally, design may help India leapfrog China and the West by changing the game, not just playing it better. India has shown a facility for business model innovation in health, telecom and small-scale products and services. Moving this to the global marketplace could gain enormous advantage to Indian companies. Businesses are in complete meltdown in the US and Europe, as CEOs and top managers try to demass their organizations and create more agile, collaborative networks of innovation, production and sales. Hospitals are desperately searching for new models. And consumers are demanding very different experiences from producers—indeed, consumers are becoming producers.

In this flux, this dramatically changing business environment, designing new models that offer new value to people, will win the day. This is equally true for dramatically redesigning the models for education, transportation and health.

India has immense innovation possibility. Now is the time to build out its innovation capability.

Thank you.

Reader Comments

Gregg Davis

December 17, 2007 2:34 AM


Your thoughts and perspectives were very much 'on target', as I also attended the CII-NID Summit last week in Bangalore. After taking part in the presentations and dialogs and processing these experiences, I came away with some additional contrasts that might be worth sharing.

There seems to be a clear distinction that India has compared to some others in Asia due to their cultural nature. India as a collective society has historically had many profound thinkers in a range of roles. And this analytical perspective brings the potential for leadership vision to its companies through innovation and design.

However, it is a 'latecomer' to the global drive (at least in scale) compared to many others. And because of this, its players may want to market themselves differently than their other Asian counterparts have done. Taking part through its intellectual drive to empower innovation and design is a clear one as you mentioned. In other parts of Asia, companies have been extremely aggressive with their production ramp-up, pricing, and technology uses, and that drive accounts for quite a bit.

Additionally, to take on a powerhouse role in the global economy, India can achieve these goals more rapidly, and better targeted by partnering with those of us who've been in the role of generating innovation models and design for business solutions in those global regions for many years outside of India.

However, thinking does need to be converted into deeds to create these opportunities (dedicating funds, taking actions to produce innovation models at core levels of business, creating great design solutions, making partnerships, etc), and the true test of the next period will be to see which companies in India put their actions in motion and how quickly they act on them.

It is an exciting change underway in India, and opportunity awaits those who follow through on the door that is open at this time. It should be an interesting period to take part in!

John Arnott

December 17, 2007 11:54 PM


Your speech from India reminded me of a similar situation we had in Canada 40 years ago. You will remember the euphoria of Expo 67, Bucky's Dome, and a coming out for design in NA. For Canadians it was a high point as the federal government had actually showed a growing interest in the impact of design on industrial strategy and economic performance, following the lead of the UK Design Council after WWII. Successive governments have persistently hacked away at this legacy to the point that there is no federal interest in design whatsoever, and the provinces are going in the same direction.

The big question is, does it matter?

Successful companies use design as a strategic competitive advantage and in the field we are all aware who they are and we understand intuitively why. But does it work at a national level?

Some years ago for the opening of The Design Exchange I coined the phrase, "We need a culture of innovation and the climate to sustain it." That dream has gone nowhere. You are familiar with the work and mission of Roger Martin at the Rotman School. That is probably the most active hot-bed in Canada now.

Like many developed nations, Canada has had a long and robust lobby for R&D, and yet only 6% of new businesses use a new technology. Another 6% use some technology. 88% use no new technology! They use design; in some way they change the model.

This is where I think India has a tremendous opportunity. Without the baggage of the R&D lobby that evolved from the Industrial Revolution, designers and entrepreneurs in India can just get on with the business of solving problems and helping millions escape the ravages of poverty.

Please be careful when you lobby for government direction.


John Arnott. IDSA.



December 19, 2007 11:58 AM

Bruce, are you suggesting the U.S. adopt a national design policy, too? Do you think this would best be done at the federal level? And what about the state level, wouldn't this be an appropriate point to start?

I ask this in the context of initiatives such as Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's plans to turn that state into a design-driven innovation capital. Is this having any impact, or does it require Washington stepping up to the plate? What seems to hit the target better?

Karl Groendal

December 23, 2007 12:11 PM

Hi Bruce,

I attendened the CII-NID Summit last year in Delhi and I find it interesting to hear that India is developing a design policy now. Will this include that the indian goverment will support design by becoming a design buyer?
Last year I suggested this to a government official, explaining that this is one of the reasons why Denmark, my home country, is considered a "design nation", cause design has been highly prioritized by government organizations for a long time.


January 5, 2008 9:36 AM


I have what i believe to be a few very innovative design ideas - but to be honest, I am terrified about talking about them.

The reason is I have no prototypes - only ideas and designs - how do I secure my interests once I have explained or displayed my ideas to others ?

Its very frustrating. If any of you know how one can protect an IDEA from being copied can one of you kind souls email me ?
Much gratitude

Jeremy Cane

January 30, 2008 10:17 AM

We need to broaden our perspectives, we are thinking with our blinkers on! below is an extract from William Dalrymple's essay - Why India's Rise is Business As Usual.

The idea that India is a poor country is a relatively recent one. Historically,
South Asia was always famous as the richest region of the globe. Ever since
Alexander the Great first penetrated the Hindu Kush, Europeans
fantasized about the wealth of these lands where the Greek geographers
said that gold was dug by up by gigantic ants and guarded by griffins, and
where precious jewels were said to lie scattered on the ground like dust.
At their heights during the 17th century, the subcontinent's fabled Mughal emperors were rivaled only by their Ming counterparts in China. For their contemporaries in distant Europe, they were potent symbols of power and wealth. In Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, the great Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God's creation. This was hardly an overstatement. By the 17th century, Lahore had grown even larger and richer than Constantinople and, with its two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris.

What changed was the advent of European colonialism. Following Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to the East in 1498, European colonial traders — first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British — slowly wrecked the old trading network and imposed with their cannons and caravels a Western imperial system of command economics. It was only at the very end of the 18th century, after the East India Company began to cash in on the Mughal Empire's riches, that Europe had for the first time in history a favorable balance of
trade with Asia. The era of Indian economic decline had begun, and it was precipitous. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world's GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1%, while India had been reduced for the first time to the epitome of a Third World nation, a symbol across the globe of famine, poverty and deprivation.

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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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