On Design Public and the Definitions of Things

By Samanth Subramanian

As somebody who works with words on a daily basis, I was struck, during Design Public 2012, by the urgent need to articulate definitions for several terms that are otherwise bandied about loosely — a need, I should say, that many of DP’s panelists fulfilled remarkably well. What, for example, is “innovation”? Are we now hard-wired into thinking that innovation must represent the sort of large, flamboyant leap that the iPhone made in the cellular phone market? Is “jugaad” innovation — and, more specifically, is it the type of innovation that India requires today?

An inability to define these terms becomes a roadblock in itself. It hinders effective communication about needs and solutions, it muddies our attempts to obtain a clear picture about India as an innovation society, and it injects stereotypes into our way of thinking. I recall, in particular, R. Sukumar mock-threatening, during his panel, anybody who brought up, as an example of innovation, the mythical dhabas along the Grand Trunk Road that use washing machines to make lassi in bulk. The washing-machine-lassi-maker has become precisely such a stereotype of desi innovation — a patchwork solution to a largely “rustic” problem.

It struck me also, as I thought back to these panels, that a lack of clear articulation also had a bearing upon the issue of trust. Solution providers and beneficiaries and intermediaries, in India, make up long and complicated chains, chains that often lack effective lines of communication. My fellow panelist, Yamini Aiyar, brought up the memorable example of the school that had no building but that was, regardless, supplied with fire-safety equipment. This was a classic case of lack of communication — of the needs on the ground not being effectively represented at the levels where such decisions are made. It needed no feat of innovative thinking to, in this case, commission a school building before dispatching fire-safety equipment — but it did need the problem to be articulated loudly and clearly, and that had not happened.

Articulations and definitions have to be, realistically, a process involving many stakeholders. A top-down definition — formulated in the highest chambers of policy-makers’ ivory towers, and then forced down the chain — is as problematic as a non-existent definition. We lack, at the moment, the sort of spaces where coherent and holistic definitions of key terms can be assembled. Licking that problem, though, would be a considerable part of the battle won.

*This is guest blogpost by Samanth Subramanian, a journalist who currently writes for IndiaInk, the NYT blog about all things India. Samanth moderated the first panel discussion at the Design Public Conclave, on Trust and the Design of Services and Systems.

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1 Response to On Design Public and the Definitions of Things

  1. Aditya says:

    very elegant little summary, samanth!

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