The Journey Towards Grand Challenges Innovation

I tumbled into Holland and on to a train racing towards Delft, that legendary source of Dutch Delft Blue ceramics, and home to the Technical University of Delft, whose Industrial Design faculty is now housed in an enormous hanger-like building that stretches across several atria large enough to house airplanes. Perhaps they once did house airplanes, I can’t remember for the jetlag.

Professor J. C. Diehl talks and thinks like a machine-gun: rapid-fire, systematic, ruthless.  He has built a series of graduate studios which have taken aim at some of the largest and most unyielding challenges of our time: global healthcare, sanitation, energy. His students employ user-centered approaches to work with communities around the world to reimagine and redesign things, networks, systems, infrastructure, business models, and entire approaches for the other 90%, shall we say.

I also met with Professor P. V. Kandachar, who has lived in Holland since the mid-1970s, and worked as a design engineer for the now defunct Fokker aircraft manufacturer and since worked on teaching a design-led approach to addressing the problems of the countries that, as he says, used to be called ‘poor countries.’ We had a spirited debate about whose problem the world was and who was going to have to do something to change it. It’s a moebius strip, I offered, where the inside eventually becomes the outside.  We’re all going to have to work together, whether we’re in Holland or in India, to take steps to find solutions that will actually work.

Professor J. C. as he is popularly known, walked me all the way back to the Delft train station, while we kept up our rapid fire exchange. Along with Premsela, along with the Dutch Design Fashion Architecture bureau, along with the teachers and students of T.U. Delft, I hope we’ll be able to build platforms for collaboration and partnership whereby we can exchange people, ideas, skills, resources, and time. The work we’ve begun with the Bihar Innovation Lab and that they’ve begun in their Base-of-the-Pyramid studios is too important and too consequential for it to remain at its current scale — it must scale up a hundred times, before its subdivides and increases a thousand-fold beyond that. We need new thinking, new concepts, new designs, new product prototypes, and new kinds of organizations wrapped around those new concepts.  As we walked back, it seemed to me that a journey of a thousand steps had already begun.

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