design innovations in India

I am currently visiting Indian School of Business to teach design inquiry and its application for digital innovations. With Design Inquiry, I ask students to focus on the FIVE key questions:

  1. What inspires you? 
  2. Who are the affected stakeholders?
  3. What are the unmet needs?
  4. What do you want to do to change the situation?
  5. What are resources you need to create and sustain the solutions?

When I teach my class, I typically ask students to identify “extreme” users who magnify the hidden needs that often neglected by the everyday users. Here in India, and I assume it is the case in other emerging markets, everyday users are often extreme users. When you see people hanging on to the doors and windows of a crowded bus, or when you see 8 or 9 people in a tiny little auto rickshaw, or traffic signals that are there merely as decorations, you don’t need to work hard to identify extreme users and discover unmet needs. As my colleague MB Sarkar once said, “the unmet needs are screaming loud and clear”. 

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Opportunities to design new solutions here are abundant. At the same time, students must deal with very tight constraints. They cannot assume that the government will make massive infrastructure investments (of course, the same is true in the case of the US). They have to deal with underground economy of auto rickshaw drivers who only want to deal with cash for an obvious reason of tax evasion. You deal with a large population to whom smartphones are still too expensive. 

Yet, they still envision a public transportation system that is safe, reliable and convenient. In the process, students discovered existing data sources, clever ways to get real-time location information of buses, and ways to leverage crowd-based data. When I told a team to think about how to build initial contents of a customer review database, a student told me, “in India with all these people who are using these systems, it will be done in 10 days”. I am not sure if it will be indeed only 10 days, but I realized that we are dealing with a different scale.

Often the challenge is reframing the problem from one of a large scale infrastructure investment to one of massive collaboration network with cleverly designed incentives to create and sustain the participation of the public. Students are also often trapped by the lure of digital physical artifacts, rather than thinking about digital service that can be delivered through simple SMS technology. Instead of thinking about cheap and reliable SMS services, they want large interactive digital screens. With unreliable electric grid, I do not think that students should build digital kiosks for bus stop and train station. 

If they are successful, however, the solutions invented here — lean, sustainable, and large-scale — can change the way we think about digital innovations in more developed countries. We in the “first world” often complain about battery life of our smart phones — of course, it is because our screens are getting bigger. To power up LED screens on buildings and stations, we need to burn up more fuels somewhere. In cities like Philadelphia, I am not sure when or if the governments at any level will ever spend enough money to renew the aging physical infrastructures to make them smart. So, in an ironic way, places like India is a hot bed of innovations and design. In order to create new solutions for the real problem with extreme constraints, they have to draw on new human creativity, collaboration, and whatever that is available around them.

Somehow the success of companies like Apple have made design a thing of luxury. And that is bad. We emphasize human-centered design, but are we really solving the right problems? Making it easier for us to take photos and “instagram” them million times might be an interesting problem to solve, I don’t think it will make any difference to billions of people who desperately need solutions for their basic needs. We should stop solving what we have dubbed as #firstworldproblems and start solving real problems. Otherwise, design as we know it will follow the same fate of many other clever ideas that business schools and corporates have adopted in the past. That is, to disappear as a fad.


One thought on “design innovations in India

  1. Hello Prof, I am a student in your current class at ISB and my biggest take away has been something from your blog-“We should stop solving what we have dubbed as #firstworldproblems and start solving real problems.” we as business school students sometimes chase the fanciest solutions which don’t apply. Made absolutely apparent with the design problem we are working on it class!

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