The Chartered Society of Designers recently released a statement on the behalf of the design industry following the recent release of Sir Nicholas Stern’s Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change. They say:
# 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 possess the knowledge needed to deal with such matters. This will involve collaboration, new working methods, knowledge transfer and a new attitude to design research.
They go on to add:
# 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 business’ 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.
These two short paragraphs could conceivably have been written for us gathered here today. Their message is clear – the world is now looking to design to provide the answers to the complex problems and sustainability issues we all face as resources we took for granted become increasingly scarce. I think that the Indian design industry can lead the way in the search for answers. Why do I think so? 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; we understand that products and services need to be designed to withstand the rigors of the wide variance in infrastructure and environment; we create for the diversity of our multicultural, multilingual nation and finally, we know that there are millions amongst us who are overlooked, underserved and have so little or nothing at all.
This is a corporate social opportunity for not only the design community but for Indian industry as well. We have here the foundation for a collaborative movement that could conceivably create health, wealth and the freedom to choose. Not just for the fortunate few, but for the vast majority across our nation. So, in light of this fact, what is the current global landscape for design and business to work closely together?
A few data points come immediately to mind, the trend towards social design issues – Bruce Mau is working with the Guatemalan authorities to create a communication program that would instill pride in their nation, Designers without Borders are working in Africa on topics ranging from democracy to self reliance and design development in the crafts sector – the need for responsible design and development of products – as evidenced by the Chartered Society’s statement I quoted in the beginning and of course the inescapable fact of global warming and the search for renewable energy sources.
All of these point to a search for thoughtful solutions to everyday problems – what designers do best – but within the most rigid criteria and the tightest constraints possible. Processes, systems, products, that provide a minimal environmental footprint. The optimal solution – a balance between materials used, energy consumed yet elegantly solving the problem at hand. Derived from the fundamentals of operations research, one can look at the concept for solving for the optimal solution given the constraints and inequalities of materials, energy, natural resources available as an analogy for seeking innovative solutions. Rapid prototyping allows us to tweak these solutions within the constraints for the most sustainable model or concept.
Where do we begin the search for such ideas and answers?
We are all aware of the numerous social entrepreneurial initiatives already in existence that aspire to create the value we seek to provide – SEWA, ICICI, eChoupal and the Jaipur foot come to mind – all of these and more provide microfinance, cooperative ventures, healthcare and timely information tailored to the needs of the poorest. Design studios such as Icarus Design of Bangalore have designed a solar lantern, Poonam Bir Kasturi created the Daily Dump, MP is leading the Bamboo Initiative – they are already working with disparate segments with the goal of augmenting the quality of their user’s lives. But today this opportunity or crisis we face – that of climate change – is one that 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 we take the example of the work begun at the National Innovation Foundation in Ahmedabad by Prof. Anil Gupta – where teams of field workers keep their eye open to discover grassroots innovation and inventions in their travels through rural India and expand on this on a larger, cooperative scale. Numerous ingenious solutions have already emerged and as they have been developed under the most adverse conditions, are probably the most ecologically sound – in terms of materials used, recycled and reused, using minimum fuel etc.
We have the skills to take these to the next level of development – whether for export to other emerging markets or even upgraded for developed markets. Why can’t multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers, markets, communicators and others from industry take the bottom up approach – working to take these rough ideas and prototypes, refining and reengineering them for markets across India and the world? With a combination of good design, native ingenuity and innovative business models that incorporate facets of successful elements of sustainability and empowerment such as the micro financing, the cooperatives, the jugaad of our society – we have within our reach the answer to some of the most pressing problems we face today.
Let’s add to this our global reputation for information and communications technology on the world wide web and we can create a flow of information and wealth creating value both to AND fro between the haves and the have nots. Create our own markets, for our own products, that which has already begun – but now leading the twenty first century’s green revolution, so badly required today.
This mash up, as they say, where information meets technology meets rural innovation is what sets all of us here today apart. We can create a two way exchange of information flow that empowers, incorporates cocreation and permits connectivity, communication and commerce to ensure that the next inventor in remote Bihar who develops an amphibious bicycle need not wait for the Discovery channel to be noticed, funded or found. India herself would have already put him on the world map.