New Delhi: Design, in the most constricting sense of the word, deals with aesthetics and objects, but later this week a band of professionals—policymakers, Internet entrepreneurs and management gurus—will converge in the national capital to discuss how the principles of design may be applied to improve Indian infrastructure, create smarter products and boost innovation.
The Design Public Conclave, now in its third year, will see experts discussing public participation in innovation, smarter cities and sustainable urban development.
“We are now approaching a stage where innovation will necessarily involve the creation of new platforms, new kinds of experiences and value and, therefore, the creation of new markets for products and services,” said Aditya Dev Sood, founder and chief executive of consultancy Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS), which organizes the conclave. Mint is a partner of CKS for the event.
Experts and policy makers discuss how design principles can be used to foster innovation, achieve sustainable development and create smarter products
While previous editions of the conclave have focused more on the relationship between the government and the society in fostering innovation, trust will likely be the fulcrum of discussion in this edition.
According to the organizers, the global uprising across the world from Tahrir square in Cairo to the Ram Lila grounds at Delhi were all symptomatic of the breakdown in trust between the society and the government, and people and private corporations. This breakdown, they argue, will have wide-ranging consequences for innovation too.
“The effectiveness of the innovation partnership is reliant upon the level of mutual trust between the partners involved. These same levels of trust feeding into the partnership have a huge influence, if not a predetermination, on the level of innovation resulting from the partnership,” Scott Burnham, a proposed speaker at the conclave, wrote in a blog post on the Design Public website. “Too little trust, and each side withdraws into its own camp, killing any hope of a mutually beneficial, innovative outcome.”
Other experts said that although innovation has become a catchword, there are several examples of ambitious products and enterprises—such as the Simputer, the doomed low-cost mobile computing device, and the Tata Nano car—failing to deliver on their initial promise or not addressing the original need or problem they set out to.
For instance, according to Eswaran Subrahmanian, who teaches engineering design at the Carnegie Mellon University in the US, the Tata Nano, despite being hyped as among the most innovative products out of India, wasn’t an adequate alternative to public transport.
Given the kind of “population congestion” in most cities, the need of the hour was a better integrated public transportation, not another car, he said over email.
CKS presents two case studies— Simputer and Tata Nano—measuring each product idea on the innovation yardstick, and why they failed to fulfil their potential.
SIMPUTER — INDIA’S LOW COST iPAD?
The innovation: A self-contained, open hardware, Linux-based handheld computer. It was meant to be a cheap computer for the masses
Year of ideation: 1988
Year of completion: 2002
The ideators: Simputer Trust, a non-profit organization formed in November 1999 by seven Indian scientists and engineers led by Swami Manohar, co-founder and CEO of PicoPeta Simputers, Bangalore.
What it set out to do: Bridge the digital divide in developing countries where lack of literacy hampers development by using simple and natural user interfaces based on sight, touch and sound. The Simputer was meant to be “a simple, inexpensive and multilingual people’s computer”.
• In 2004, the Amida Simputer hit the market at Rs. 12,450, instead of the target price of Rs. 5,000. It was used in various state government projects, including land record procurement and e-education; for automobile engine diagnostics; tracking iron-ore movement; and microcredit. In 2006, the police used it to track traffic offenders and issue traffic tickets.
• The makers had intended to sell 50,000 units in the first year. But by 2005, only 4,000 had been sold, and by 2006, both Encore Software and PicoPeta Simputers the two licensees had stopped actively marketing the Simputer.
What went wrong: According to a 2006 analysis by Rahul Tognia and
Eswaran Subrahmanian from the Carnagie Mellon University, first, the high cost made it unaffordable for the very people it was meant to serve. Second, the user interface was complicate, and third, the inbuilt applications were of little use to rural users. To this Aditya Mishra, co-founder and director, HeadStart Network Foundation, adds that the creators “just assumed instead that they needed cheaper versions of urban technology”. He says that the Simputer did not have the “missing piece” that brings some real value to the target consumers.
What could have been done:
• Says Aditya Mishra, identify the target audience and consumers of this device, say farmers who need weather and market information, or students who would use it for education. Formulate a hypothesis about what value proposition the device would provide, or what problem would be solved by it.
• Interact with a large number of the target consumers to really understand whether the hypothesis held true or not. The qualitative data thus collated would help ensure that the final product designed would actually be of real value to the people for whom it is intended.
TATA NANO — THE POOR MAN’S CAR
The innovation: The Rs. 1 lakh car, as it was called, was meant to be a car for the Indian masses. According to global analytical company Crisil’s prediction, the Nano was expected to expand the Indian car market by 65%.
Year of ideation: 2003
Year of launch: 2008 (unveiled at the New Delhi Auto Show), and first delivered in 2009
The ideator: Ratan Tata, chairman, Tata Group
What it set out to do: The Tata Nano was meant to make cars more
accessible to the middle classes. The low cost meant that the Nano could offer a safer alternative to the perilous two-wheelers. Ratan Tata hoped to distribute flat packs of parts to rural mechanics and help them become successful entrepreneurs. But due to manufacturing realities, the car is made in a factory in Gujarat.
Tata Nano. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
• The price was brought down by dispensing with non-essential features (such as rear hatch, single windscreen wiper, power steering, air-conditioning, etc.) and reliance on low-cost labour, or “homegrown/Gandhian engineering”, which did not work out.
• When launched, Nano sales were predicted to be 20,000 a month, but by November 2010, it was just 509. Sales recovered to 10,000 in early 2011, but again fell back to 3,260 by July owing to a number of manufacturing and after-sales complaints by the buyers.
What went wrong: There were several factors that led to the Nano’s failure.
• First, the new emission rules by the Union government in 2010, caused Tata to increase the price by almost 50%, which refuted the Rs. 1 lakh USP, and forced those who had booked the car to arrange extra credit.
• Second, the Nano’s positioning as a poor man’s car acted as a deterrent rather than its USP, since many upper-middle class people who could afford it, shied away from it because of what it stood for, preferring to buy more sophisticated vehicles. Few compromises made with the design of the car such as poor interiors, noisy engine and inadequate luggage room also drove away few potential customers.
• Third, there was no real national distribution scheme, and no effective system of consumer finance.
• Fourth, there were certain safety issues raised by the consumers as there were a few fire incidents claimed to be due to poor engine quality. According to Tata Motors, five cars out of the 30,000 Nanos on the road were reported to have caught fire between 2010 and 2011.
What could have been done:
• M.P. Ranjan, former design professor at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, questions the idea itself saying that “someone (Ratan Tata) with that kind of vision should have defined the problem differently, since it is a system (transport) problem that needs addressal”. According to some experts, the car should have been positioned so that it appeals to the target market.
• Effective research ought to have been conducted to understand and identify the transportation needs rather than assume that a lower price tag would be enough.
• Develop a strategy to ensure that the message reaches target consumers and there is potential buyer turnaround.
Source: Center for Knowledge Societies