Earlier this month, global innovation company 3M opened its first design centre in India—the fourth in the world after St Paul (in Minnesota, US), Milan and Tokyo, with China next in line. This design centre in Bengaluru’s Electronic City signals 3M’s growing commitment to the Indian market, which it entered 30 years ago.
With worldwide sales of over $30 billion (around ₹ 2 trillion) and operations in about 70 countries, 3M is on the cutting edge of contemporary design, covering industrial, healthcare, safety, energy and consumer products. In India, its turnover for the year ended March 2017 was ₹ 2,507 crore. With over 1,600 employees in offices across Gurugram, Kolkata, Pune, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, the company has been working to improve the lives of millions of Indians. Speaking to Lounge at the inauguration of the centre, Eric Quint, vice-president and chief design officer, elaborated on 3M’s plans for the future. Edited excerpts:
How would you describe 3M’s design philosophy?
If you are an R&D company with 85% focus on B2B, there’s bound to be an emphasis on functionality. Nowadays, you expect it to be an implicit quality of any design solution. But in order to differentiate ourselves, it’s crucial to see how we relate to technology and our customers. In the end, you want to have a creative experience with your customers through your products. I talk a lot about humanizing technology—whatever we do has to make sense to people. In 3M, we have 46 technology platforms and thousands of products, but we need to form an emotional connect with our customers. The design process needs to address their desires and needs. So we are investing more in customer research—which is not so much about asking questions, but actually observing customer behaviour. Designers try to understand how people use products, and then create a value proposition with our technology. For me, the challenge of innovation is about selecting the best ideas—it’s not about the number of ideas we have. We can only pick the best ideas if we understand customer behaviour, the technology base, and business models.
What is your sense of the Indian market? How does it compare with other Asian nations like Japan?
We want to work local for local, that’s why we are in India. Countries have different cultures, belief systems and values, which we have to take into account. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an “Indian customer", because India is huge. There are so many flavours, in terms of behaviour and values. We know there are challenges here that are different from Europe or the US. In a country like Japan, there is less diversity, and also the culture is more transparent. In the end, customer insight is linked to behaviour, and this is where you bring in psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists into the design process.
What has worked for 3M in India?
3M decided 30 years ago to invest in being in India and build long-lasting relationships with government and industry to try and improve the lives of people. To succeed here, you must have empathy for Indian society and recognize what’s important to it. Public transport, pollution and air purification, respirators—there are many areas into which we have moved in three decades.
Which segments have worked particularly well in India?
The industrial sector and the automotive segments have done well for us. Safety is a big concern, especially after the Smart City initiative. Healthcare is slowly catching up. Depending on the maturity of a country, 3M offers a range of solutions but India still has many challenges in infrastructure. Design for sustainability is a big theme for us as well. Every time you make a product, you have an ambition to make it better in relationship to its sustainability footprint. We work with the automotive industry, for instance, to create sustainable products and lightweight solutions through our glass-bubble platform.
How has Artificial Intelligence (AI) influenced design?
AI and the internet of things are asking for a different approach in relation to the staggered product innovation programmes. To use AI successfully, you have to work collaboratively because there are many stakeholders and you co-create with them. It’s an ecosystem. In the past, business was very much based on the product transaction model. AI will now give you opportunities if you are able to understand the ecosystem and bring in data that can enable digital solutions—to help drivers be safer and use their cars better, for instance.