A Parable on Innovation

By Aditya Dev Sood

You are tasked with finding ways to design new kind of toilets, ones which will actually be used by those who have no experience using them. The challenge is complex because it is underdefined. Do you change the people or do you change the design? What kind of new design might work? It boggles your mind, just as it has defeated the minds of so many social workers and bureaucrats over the many years since Gandhi made toilet design an integral part of his program for the upliftment of India.

To try to bound the problem you agree to do fieldwork in rural India. Participant observation, to be precise. Early in the morning, you rise from your bedding with your host and take a walk out towards the fields. The light is still soft, the birds are singing, and the leaves rustle in the gentle breeze. You have your bottle of mineral water clutched firmly in your right hand. Your host points out a spot. It is secluded, partially hidden, and with a faint grimace you settle down to the act. It is necessary to understand the point of view that you are trying to change.

On the third morning you are walking back from the fields with a faint smile of contentment trying to remember why you are here. Toilets? Why on earth would anyone want to give up the simple and elemental pleasure of crapping in the fields? We are human mammals, evolved in riverine deltas and migrated to savannas, why do we need toilets? This is the natural way, the only way to betake oneself.

You return from the field shaken in your understandings down to your very inner core and sense of self. Everything you knew about the problem is out the window. Now you are ready to design, not one toilet, but an array of propositions and possibilities, that collectively transform the very way in which we think about what toilets are and what they are supposed to do. Innovation has begun to be possible.

The grand challenges facing our society remain unsolved because they represent an intersection between competing needs and desires for which no solution has yet been found. Once a solution is found, the challenge will become trivial, for an off-the-shelf solution for the problem will already exist: a ‘best practice.’ Until then, we will need the application of design in thought and innovation in action to discover possible, incremental solutions to these socio-technical problems.

To identify those grand challenges facing us, and to explore and articulate how innovation approaches can help us grapple with them is one of the key goals of the upcoming Design Public Conclave.

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1 Response to A Parable on Innovation

  1. Pingback: Design!publiC 2 at NGMA, Bangalore on October 14! |

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