Design Innovation in India

Uday Dandavate, founder and principal of the design research firm SonicRim
Uday Dandavate, founder and principal of the design research firm SonicRim

Trained as an industrial designer, Uday Dandavate is founder and principal of the design research firm SonicRim, where he specializes in helping international clients understand people, cultures, and trends in emerging markets. Uday is a key figure behind the Design with India initiative, which occurred on February 5, 2007 at the Asia Society. The IDSA/NYC and the Asia Society brought together a panel of global leaders from the fields of business, culture, education, and design from India and the United States. The goal was to identify the opportunities and challenges for design innovation between US and Indian companies, professionals and consumers, and how to create a framework for a successful partnership. After the program, Uday spoke to Flora Zhang.

Would you start by telling us about the idea behind Design with India? How did it come about?

The idea for Design with India came up on an online forum called Design India. It's a Yahoo group. It started off as a small group and has grown a lot over the past few months. It's moderated by a man named Sudhir Sharma. It's a very active forum, with about 1,100 people from around the world. Last year around this time or a bit later, while we were having some very interesting discussions about issues related to design policy, I made a suggestion that since fewer than 1,000 people were benefiting from this very active and inspiring discussion, maybe we needed to do a road show and take the discussion offline. Everybody liked the idea. Online they all started talking about, "Oh, let's do this... where should we do it?" So I said, well, we should do it around the world, and I can take the first initiative and do it in New York. They liked it and immediately I contacted the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), who is the national body of designers in America, and they were very excited. I approached Vishakha Desai and asked if the Asia Society could collaborate with us on that, and specifically I mentioned that in today's world, cultural issues are dominating international relations. And we see designers beginning to play a big role in helping people preserve their identity through objects of everyday use. There was an opportunity to use the message of both culture and design as elements of great relevance in international and public policy. Vishakha liked the idea and liked the platform. She said, "We are interested in looking at culture, business, and design, and its intersection." We met with Judi Kilachand and Yoshie Ito from the Asia Society. We brought in people from IDSA, Microsoft, and CII; that's where it started. At the same time, the board of IDSA met and they suggested that they talk to some of their members. The members said that if you're talking about India, then it should first happen in India and then happen here. They were curious to go to India. So we decided that we'd do a global kickoff session of this initiative in India and then do mini-road shows around the world. The first session took place in December in India. We developed a platform called Design with India and created a logo and everything for it. The logo was designed by Elephant Design. The next session happened here in New York, and we want to take it further now and to other countries.

So this is a new venture for you.

Yes. Since India is receiving a lot of media attention, we want to take advantage of that media presence to discuss how design can participate within this new presence India has, and then begin to define some role for design in the global economy.

Why is it Design with India as opposed to Design in India?

India's presence is everywhere today. Not just in India, but a variety of cross-cultural communities are present wherever globalization is happening, not just at an economic level, but at social, cultural, all the levels. It has an impact on people having the benefit of the best brands from around the world. From that context, we are already at ground level working with each other, and it's just a matter of capturing that reality, articulating it, and making people aware that India and Indians have also moved on and have evolved in its intellectual power and its cultural relevance in the modern lifestyle. India wants to engage people of other ethnicities in experimenting with new cultural expressions which come from cross-cultural interactions. So that's why it's not just about India doing something to sell itself or trying to invite the world to do something for them or help them; it's more about making a bold statement that in the world today, it's not about two superpowers or one superpower dictating what the world should do, it's more that we have a presence in each other's lives and create something collaboratively. It's about being creative through collaboration.

In terms of collaborating with India, is there anything unique to the Indian mindset?

I would not like to claim the Indian mindset as unique as opposed to something else, but I would definitely say that in the evolution of mankind, some societies have taken shape later, whereas some have a rich history of cultural happenings. In that process, countries like China and India have both advantages and disadvantages of tradition and culture. They are also eager to invest in modernity. I have always said to my designer friends that the way that I understand design and culture is that people are constantly going through changes as they migrate, and as they interact with new types of people and new ideas. In that whole process of change—especially because I'm professionally involved in studying trends, lifestyles, people, and cultures around the world—I find that when people embrace change, it points us to trends. But then as they change, they still retain something of their past, and that is what I call culture. Culture also changes but it is still tied to their past and to their roots. I think as change happens between the tradition and the culture, we retain the trends that bring us closer to new opportunities; somewhere in between is a new identity, a new expression, and a new experience which is constantly evolving and rich. That's where I feel this reference to the past that adds uniqueness through participation of multiple cultures is where the present becomes more exciting.

Let's backtrack for a moment. Can you tell us about your background? Growing up, was there anything that influenced your way of thinking?

I was born in a family that participated in India's freedom struggle. After being ruled by the British for 200 years, India decided, under the leadership of Gandhi, to take control of its own destiny. Both of my parents participated in the movement. They were both very well educated; my father was a nuclear scientist and my mother was an artist with a Masters in psychology. Having been exposed to new ideas, their participation in India's freedom struggle was also driven by a desire to free India from the negative aspects of its past; to free it from some of the psychological barriers that Indian traditions and practices have so that they can participate in the future without those things holding them back. There are many things in Indian society that we need to overcome, both at the economic and social level. So that's what they did all their lives. They were in politics; both my parents were members of the Indian parliament. My father was also in the government; he was the Finance Minister of India for a while, he was also the Railway Minister and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission for a while. My mother actually tabled the private members bill that has turned into a law against dowry. She also campaigned to set up a National Commission for Women. This proposal was accepted, and she was actually appointed the first-year Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, but she declined it because she was appointed by the Prime Minister the day he lost his majority in the parliament. She said that ethically it wasn't correct for a lame duck Prime Minister to make an appointment so she wouldn't accept it. So with this kind of a background, they were both focused on change in the Indian society at a fundamental level. So it was natural that I was basically ingrained into thinking about change and modernity. Not modernity as in the sophisticated form, but modernity in terms of having the opportunity to participate in world affairs with new ideas that develop into current times; new ideas that don't constrain your opportunities either because you're a woman or because of class, caste, or whatever. So that's where my head was when I started design, which is also about change, about managing change, about managing by influencing the physical world of people. I embraced design and I liked it. As I went through my graduate education, I moved from design to design research, which is even more about people and influencing their lives and understanding what they want for themselves, and then helping designers design for them. So that's where both my growing up and my learning through initial education and design practice evolved.

Usually, people go into politics to push for changes. You went into design. What are your thoughts on that?

I think for a long time we have entertained the belief that progress, development, and evolution of mankind is dictated by money. No wonder the profession of economics dominated the profession of policymaking for a long time. It's easy to manipulate, analyze, and understand numbers and project them through the science of mathematics. But what we forget is that numbers are only an abstraction of reality. So I think that if you use numbers to understand reality, as long as you have reference to the reality and to the fact that numbers are only an abstraction of reality, it's okay. But sometimes when people get bogged down with numbers, their reality gets removed from the reality and what you get is just the spinning of numbers. And I think what happened over a period of time was that policy planning became a self-serving activity rather than something that made a big impact on people's lives. In that whole process, the field of economics evolved, and also the field of design—which is a relatively recent field of knowledge—took root, made direct reference to people's life experiences, and influenced life experiences through the objects, images, brands, and everything that is a part of your everyday life. People who had the expertise to influence people's lives through design began to require deeper and more strategic understanding of how to improve people's quality of life. So in that process I've always maintained in some of my recent blogs on Design India forum that most designers are trained to be micro-designers, but they now have the opportunity to be macro-designers and influence public policy. In this background, there's an urgent need for developing educational programs which help designers think at macro levels and tie micro and macro together to influence change and the quality of life for people.

Can you talk briefly about your concept of macro and micro design?

Design has traditionally been a micro-level activity, where you focus on a person, a community, or a home, and develop products or images of communication that suits that person. In some cases, design has been used for public spaces, such as museums, railroad stations, and airports, to improve the quality of life within a space. But as design evolves, I'm feeling more and more that like economists who do macro economics, designers should raise their thinking to a level where they can practice macro design. It essentially means to understand policy implications of altering people's physical environments in ways that influence people's quality of life. So it makes direct reference to policy implication, and it makes direct implication to the impact of policy on the quality of life.

If government institutions or international development agencies take your idea of macro design and apply it, how do you think it will work?

It's already happening through participation of some people. For example, I met a gentleman at the conference in Paris who is heading up an organization that's mandated to brand the city of Glasgow through design and art; not just through design of objects, but to create an aura of design, an awareness of design within the Glasgow community, and to articulate it to the world and to communicate to the world in a manner where people are attracted to and understand the brand Glasgow as one that is attached to design, art, creativity, innovation, and a quality of life so that people will want to live in this place, which is a hub of creative activity. Richard Florida, in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has said that people do not always choose to live in places just to make money. They choose to live in places where they like to be, places that afford them a unique quality of life, which is again, not about money, but more about quality of experiences. That's one reason why cities like Austin and San Francisco attract people, because people in those communities are creative, tolerant, and diverse. That's what makes life more meaningful to people and worth living. These kinds of aspirations at the level of a city or a country are a conglomeration of organizations that take this kind of high-level perspective and enable people to be creative and innovative, and this makes design happen. Design doesn't have to be made; it happens as a by-product of synchronization of imagination and creative energy within a community or an organization. To give another example, you can think about all the design activity that happens before the Olympics. The host city develops an Olympic village with the perspective of presenting its history, traditions, and the state of art to the world. Developing tourism infrastructure is another example of macro-design. The cities that are successful in building infrastructure that is sensitive to the experience of tourists through design can have a direct impact on the economy. Design can also help translate local craft skills into marketable products and, thereby, help sustain traditions and employment in communities that are fast losing their opportunities for productive participation in modern life. These are the kinds of examples that help government and policy organizations take perspective from the point of view of design.

So impact through design is a good idea for government.

Yes. In the case of tourism, if you design an infrastructure that affords people a good or memorable experience, it will attract more tourists and will have a direct bottom-line impact on the economy of the country. Bhutan, for example, is the only country that measures the quality of life for its people not by gross domestic product, but by gross domestic happiness. They have created an index for measuring the happiness of people. This kind of innovative approach can actually help policymakers view people's life experiences and their roles and responsibilities in a totally different way. Since design is tied to quality of life, and to the skills and behaviors of people who participate in institutions that create those experiences, I think it has policy implications.

Let's turn to India. What are some of the prominent design innovation trends that you've observed recently in the burgeoning consumer middle class in India?

What we do in my company, SonicRim, is to study people, cultures, and trends, and help our clients mix design and innovation strategies that take into consideration the life that the target consumers want to have. Bearing that in mind, we have been studying people and trends around the world. We're not just focused on emerging markets, but we are focused on the world. What we do see is that the notion of emerging markets is a product of a sense of saturation in developed markets. In recent years, economic conditions have made global companies especially restless about the stability and growth prospects of existing mature markets. Consumer needs are generally fulfilled, primarily through marketing, advertising, and some amount of innovation. These countries are still trying to grapple with opportunities for growth in mature markets. But they also find that there's a vast market in developing countries or emerging markets where consumers are eager to catch up with the rest of the world. Within their means, they want to invest their dollars, Rupees, or any other local currency in things that give them the assurance that they are catching up with the rest of the world. So from that point of view, the opportunity is to understand what quality of life means to people in different countries and communities, and not apply the same framework that we use for offering quality of life in the more developed world. The frustrations and aspirations of people in the developed world are shaped by the infrastructure and resources available to them, whereas the frustrations and aspirations of people in the emerging markets are shaped by their own realities. I think if you want to really fulfill people's aspirations with meaningful value offerings through products, brands, and services, then you cannot do it without first understanding people. And that's what we do. Among many other things, something that's very visible as a trend in emerging markets, including India, is that people are being exposed to world cultures and traditions, and to new innovations that are happening around the world. Technological practices, social practices, behavioral practices, and people have the curiosity and desire to try it out for themselves to see what work for them and adapt things that they think are innovative in other parts of the world to their situation. I think the biggest opportunity for these people is this: here is a consumer who is already satisfied and just looking for a change, versus here is a consumer that is really eager to move on and catch up with the rest of the world. Within the means of their economic power, they're willing to invest in products and services that can give them a sense of improved quality of life.

So you're saying that consumers in India or other emerging markets are receptive to other cultures, influences, and design values. Do you think they feel a strong desire for Western innovations and design values, in which case American and European companies should go to India and assert their design values?

Yes and no. They are receptive to new ideas, but new ideas that suit their conditions, their mindsets, their comforts, and their practices, not new ideas that enforce a change that is not required. I think from that point of view, when Western companies or global companies approach societies such as India, China, other Asian countries, and Brazil, they need to keep in mind the fact that their behaviors, their practices, their associations with culturally rich or meaningful objects of everyday use are driven by history and habits. You cannot just impose a brand or a technology that is successful in another country for another mindset, another tradition, and another behavior in this culture. That's where cultural sensitivity becomes immensely important. To understand people's frameworks of mind becomes important. I'll give you an example. There's a book called Geography of Mind that looks at how Asians think differently from Americans. The author said that a Western or American way of thinking and the Asian way of thinking can be explained by the two philosophers of these two cultures. The Western way of thinking can be explained by the thinking of Aristotle and the Eastern way of thinking can be explained by the philosophy of Confucius. The Aristotelian way, or the Western mode of thinking, is driven by the tacit belief in the concept of agency, which means a belief that you can control your destiny and you're responsible for your destiny, whereas the Confucian, or Asian way, of thinking is tacitly driven by the concept of harmony, where people's focus is on living in harmony with their family, community, or society as an abstract concept, and not about setting and meeting individual goals. These two distinctly different frameworks of value motivate people to take individual momentary action or choices that are different from each other. For example, in a Western mode of thinking, productivity, speed, and efficiency are critical goals, whereas in the Eastern way of thinking, balance, connection with family or to network of friends, and peace are core goals that people have. Unless your products or brands direct or address people's aspirations along these fundamental societal goals, you're likely to miss out on opportunities in the consumer field. So that's how these countries need to understand fundamental-thinking frameworks, cultures, and behaviors, and then fine-tune their brands.

How has liberalization affected local designers and businesses?

At the political level there's a belief that the key to progress is liberalization. That's like a simple equation that's been accepted at a political level, and no matter which party comes to power in an election, they seem to address this notion and almost position themselves either for or against the notion that liberalization is good or liberalization is bad. I think this notion has been defined by international trade agencies to promote international trade; by international development agencies and economists who believe that a top-down capitalist model is going to work. In some cases it has proved correct. There has been development on the Western mode that's happening from the top down. So you see a lot more malls, you see a lot more skyscrapers appearing in Pudong and in Gurgaon, India. These new habitats of the modern world become symbols and showcases of modern-day policies dictated by this way of thinking. So it has created an excitement amongst professionals and designers who are making more money and finding more clients who want to invest in these icons of the modern world. But at the same time, if you take a humanistic view of the down-level realities, somehow it happens that through progress, modernity, and technology, more and more people are finding themselves outdated in their skills from the demands of the new technology and production process. There is a great sense of unease around the world and a fear of the loss of jobs and opportunities to apply skills that they've devoted a lifetime to learn. It looks like things get done quicker and more efficiently and things look better, but at the same time, people seem to be unsure whether it's good for them. So there is that little unease amongst people who are not necessarily direct beneficiaries of the new modern icons. That's where designers have the opportunity to see how to keep larger populations engaged in making and sustaining community living at three levels—international, national, and community. I think liberalization in that way has created consumerism, which is not good in my opinion, but it's opportunistic for traditional designers. But it also created its own problems, which have posed new challenges to both socially and culturally oriented designers. So depending on which side of the philosophy you are positioned—the side of consumerism and modernity or the side of humanitarianism and sustainabilit—there are great opportunities available for designers today.

Final question. What is your vision of the world in terms of design values and assumptions as brought on by globalization and the role reversal West and East—that is to say, the shift in core consumer markets?

First, more people are migrating. There are more and more intercultural communities forming and, as a result, there are some people who are adapting to intercultural lifestyles. For example, the city of Toronto is considered the most intercultural city in the world. On the other hand, there's also a sense of insecurity and loss of identity because of modernity, which is leading to homogeneity. I think the symbols of modern life, like malls, food courts, global fashion brands, the MTVs, and the McDonalds of the world are in some way forcing younger generations to seek connection to universal values and universal expressions. But somewhere deep inside people also feel disconnected from their roots. While there is this progress happening at one level, there's likely to be some conflict, violence, and anger, and that could be a big challenge that the creative community will face. I think the biggest challenge will be to help people understand intercultural communities and how to live in them. If you just look around you, open any newspaper anywhere in the world, people are killing each other because of their inability to culturally adjust to each other. People who are being creative are also those who are able to draw inspiration from cross-cultural opportunities. So there are going to be two paths—one which is leading to disaster, and one that is leading to more opportunities for creativity and innovation. I don't know which one will succeed. It depends upon how carefully the policymakers manage the evolution of diverse communities.

And how they work with designers.


Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Interview conducted by Flora Zhang, Producer, New Media.