A Question of Answers

An event like Design Public is a live happening — what will unfold and what it will lead to can never be known in advance. One reason we keep hosting and holding this event is that it keeps teaching us something new. This last event in Mumbai was particularly ambitious, and somehow a mixed affair — intense, diverse, too short, too long, productive and yet uncertain. It’s always great to meet up with leading thinkers in the area of design and innovation, this time including M.P. Ranjan and J.C. Deihl, with fellow travelers like Aparna Piramal Raje and Maryanna Abdo, and to make new allies in the form of Vikas Bajaj and Niranjan Rajadhyaksha. Mumbai was a new geography for this event, and we’ve had the opportunity to connect with a number of new organizations through it, including Monitor, Acumen, Omidyar, Tata, Mahindra, Godrej among several others.

At the end of the second day of the event a rather senior retired Naval Captain walked in on our concluding panel. The conversation was floating along a rather high register, as we acknowledged that while there were no immediately actionable outcomes from the event, the progress we could report was that we had a better understanding of the scope and scale of the challenge of utilizing design and innovation approaches in different sectors. The Captain raised his hand and demanded more: what exactly were we going to do about anything? The youth in rural Maharashtra were underqualified and underemployed and otherwise restive. There were problems of energy, of water and sanitation, of food security and rural poverty, our cities are a mess. What does the panel have to say about all this?

Some among us felt the urge to shut the old man up — he hadn’t been with us for the past two days, how could we answer him in a sentence or two when we’d been grappling with these questions for the better part of two days? I think others of us might have acknowledged silently that the man had a point — if we had a ready answer to offer it would be forthcoming in a clear and simple response. Actually, we had no answer. Only a problem, better articulated and widely agreed upon, but still a problem: how do we use design and innovation approaches to solve problems in India? What should be the engagement model? Who should own the problem? How do we get more people exercised about the question?

I remember thinking back to the opening of the conference the day before. One of the greatest sources of satisfaction for me was the high threshold of understanding that our participants already had about innovation. Building on this existing knowledge we shared our own approach to structured and systematic innovation, using the example of our work in healthcare at the Bihar Innovation Lab. We then asked participants to break out into four challenge tracks to explore how this approach might be applied within their own sector.

When we reconvened at the end of Day One to compare notes, I asked teams to talk about any new ideas for engagement models that had emerged through their deliberations so that we may use design and innovation strategies more effectively to address the challenges of each track. Some participants had new ideas for strategies for engaging government. There are R&D budgets out there, people said, if only we can go out and access them. It is a problem that government seems only capable of commissioning research through its existing system of the IITs. Anirban Ghosh said no, we don’t have an answer to the difficult question posed, but that the question was pressing. Vish Palekar suggested that perhaps we needed to delve more deeply into each challenge track separately and with more research data and background knowledge to be able to make progress, much as we had with case of healthcare.

Vijay Kumar “IVK” Ivatury, who has been with us for several events called us out for being too ambitious: we wanted to bring together industry with innovation with social benefits, he pointed out, an alignment which was perhaps one too many parts. At this stage in India we should still consider it a significant achievement just to align any two of these goals.

Despite the uncertainty and silence in our public conversation, there were many small ideas emerging in the breakout sessions that our innovation leads will working on developing through further dialogue and engagement with each participant. We’ll be creating a series of white-papers that amalgamate the best ideas from the conclave and from the breakout sessions as a way of exploring new partnership opportunities and new ways of solving grand challenges through innovation. My sense is that each of those white papers will set the stage for a different Design Public event: Design Public Water, Design Public Cities, Design Public Energy and so forth, at various times of the year through 2013.

The concluding plenary led by Aparna Piramal Raje, the one that that senior retired Naval Captain happened upon, sought to bring together so many disparate strands from the many sessions over the two days. Manju George from Intellecap talked about social innovation in the context of World Economic Forum deliberations and Anant Shah from the Gates Foundation reiterated the need to propagate User-Centered Innovations using models similar to the Bihar Innovation Lab. Many of the rest of us also sought to contribute to the difficult conversation about what we have learned and where we can go from here. Aparna finally offered a summation of the two days to the effect that there must be a further search for answers to these questions and that is what we can continue to expect from the Design Public process.

In some ways this fourth edition of design public has served as a natural watershed along our journey. We have refined and honed the questions we want to ask and the direction we want to take, and will now have to adopt new strategies to make further progress. Different strategies for public, private and social innovation approaches appear to be warranted, each of which can be expected to contribute to the social good in different ways. In particular I’ve been able to think more clearly about the future of public innovation in India, using the model of the Bihar Innovation Lab. We must martial new interest and purpose for replicating this model in other states in India, we must find support for this effort at the union, we must find a funding mechanism for it, either from the union government’s budget or else from one of the organs of the Global State. This is a pressing priority, without which we will not see innovation and social benefits, those two critical pieces of our work and thought, actually aligning.

In all events, I feel we have a continued responsibility to propagate knowledge and understanding about innovation techniques, methods, approaches, processes. The Adianta School for Leadership and Innovation, which we also launched at the Conclave is one additional means for us to achieve this. We will also continue to do this through the Design Public Conclave, its related events and this blog. Stay with us…


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