A city can hold such power over the imagination, over memory, over one’s consciousness and sense of self. In 2002 I was invited by John Thackara to speak at the Doors of Perception conference in Amsterdam, an event that changed the direction of my work, changed my sense of my self and my goals, and gave me a new kind of vision or perspective from which to proceed. There is something very uncanny about being back here, a decade later, as if to give an account of what I did with myself in the intervening time.
The city itself has grown, with large new quarters of the city and new public works looming over the Amstel river. It is beyond picturesque, as ever, and it still wears the mantle of Europe’s design capital, albeit with more competing contenders than a decade ago. A local design firm named Design Politie was hosting a major international design conference, What Design Can Do (WDCD), and along with fellow speakers from India, Brazil, the States and Europe, we were to be hosted and feted every night, on the river, in post-industrial fine-dining restaurants, and at the Municipal Theater, right on Leidseplein.
There was a time, just a decade ago, when one could not easily have a public conversation about design in India. In those gone-by days the Doors of Perception was a kind of oasis, or even a knot in space-time-culture, when one could have a global conversation of a kind that was not available locally. It seemed so important to me then that I worked with John to bring it back to India, and we did three events together, in 2003, 2005 and 2007. The events were culturally significant, perhaps, but it was not the right time for them in India. We never made enough money on them, and it seemed a herculean task to keep whipping up public interest in this thematic, when the zeitgeist was invested in other things. This time around, at WDCD, India seemed oddly to be over-represented, with the organizers of three major Indian design events present: Aishwarya Pathy of the India Design Forum, Rajesh Dahiya of UnBox and myself.
I told a story that began, of course, with jugaad and our analysis of it, that ran through our understanding of emerging economies and the difficult relation of design to such environments, and then of frugal innovation and its limitations. I talked about the CKS Innovation Cycle, and how we offered people a way to think about innovation without having to already know and understand the discipline of design. I offered a half-dozen definitions, including of course of design (the iterative description of a possible solution to higher and higher degrees of fidelity) and innovation (the design of things that do not yet exist). And then I showed how all this was accomplished, using the example of our Vaccine Delivery Box (thanks Divya!).
The one thing I didn’t do, unfortunately, is to offer an actual timeline of the intervening decade. It is said that good public speaking involves going back to ones presentation and thinking over the things you should have said and didn’t — just like the proverbial batsman returning to the pavilion, rehearsing the stroke that should have been and wasn’t. So here goes, a clickable timeline of the past decade, a limited account of what we did with our time in India’s interesting decade just prior to its innovation turn: