Design!Public II in Bangalore ― Event Report

Posted by Yelena Gyulkhandanyan at Oct 18, 2011 07:25 AM |
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Design Public, a high-level conclave on innovation, took place in Bangalore at the National Gallery for Modern Art on October 14, 2011. The event was organized by the Centre for Knowledge Societies in collaboration with the Centre for Internet and Society, the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Mint, and others. The conclave brought together industry experts, scholars, and activists to create a dialogue about design and innovation in the public interest. This blog post captures the developments as it happened on this day.

The day consisted of discussions on several related topics, as well as engaging the participants in interactive challenge sessions.

Aditya Dev Sood, from the Centre for Knowledge Societies, kick-started the event with some words about the value of innovative thinking. Reflecting upon lessons learned from the previous Design Public conclave, Dr. Sood explained that while the previous event focused on governance innovation, the second Design Public conclave will reflect on the importance of citizen participation in innovation. After brief introductions of the conclave participants and speakers, the first session on Innovation and the Indian Corporation began.

Mr. Krishnan demonstrated the ingenuity of innovation through the history of the Indian mousetrap, in which he described three generations of mousetraps, which increase in the scale of functionality and effectiveness with each new proceeding product. One of the recurring views that emerged during the conversation was that while the Indian society is highly innovative, large Indian corporations do not generally take part in innovation. Harish Bijoor explained why there is a lack of motivation on the part of Indian corporations to innovate by stating, "what happens to large companies is that they get too preoccupied with success." The comfort that comes with the achievement of success makes Indian corporations unmotivated to pursue innovative ideas. Mr. Krishnan also added that "the Indian corporate is too regimented, which kills innovation. Most innovators are outside of corporations."

A distinction between innovation in India and the West was made, stating that in most Western societies, innovation occurs at the top most resource-rich layer of society. In India it is the opposite. Entrepreneurship happens on a grassroots local level. Arun Pande offered a thought on improving the current trends, stating that large companies can play a role in innovation by collaborating with small entrepreneurs working on social issues. It was agreed among the speakers that Indian corporations need to focus on innovative ideas to tackling some of India’s grand challenges and improving the quality of life for the citizens.

On that thought, the second panel began on the question: Is Innovation in the Public and Social Sectors Possible? Sunil Abraham, the panel moderator, introduced the session by giving an example of modern innovation, speaking about Spice M9000 and the extremely efficient and economic way in which it is manufactured. The device comes with features such as a dual SIM card, radio receiver, a receiver for terrestrial television, two large boom-box speakers, and a projector. Five thousand of these devices can be manufactured in Shenzen, China for Rs 2 crores within approximately 45 days.  

The panel was asked whether academic knowledge and innovation can be incorporated into practical government policies. Ashwin Mahesh answered this question by stating, "the structure of absorbing information from academia is not present in the public sector." The speakers agreed that the government needs to encourage innovation and support its citizens to pursue innovative solution-based initiatives. Rohini Nilekani was of the opinion that "you need solution-based thinking on two levels, the state and local." Mr. Mahesh added that "the government needs to empower small communities to solve their problems and drive things locally, from the bottom-up." The necessity for private-public partnerships was a clear theme throughout the conversation, Pratham Books being given as a successful example of such endeavour. Mrs. Nilekani explained that "we need to break down the distinction between what is public and what is private. We need to work towards a common goal. We need to innovate and design checks and balances to wheel public interest."

The third panel was on The Challenge of Start Up innovation. Aditya Mishra from the Headstart Foundation defined a startup as something that makes a meaningful impact on society. According to Mr. Mishra, the startup ecosystem is problematic in India because large corporations generally do not engage in partnerships with startups. Naresh Narasimhan pointed out that "there is a notion that startup entrepreneurs do not have enough knowledge, so they get dismissed." It was further explained that aspiring entrepreneurs in India do not have enough spaces where networking and business negotiations could take place. Zackery Denfeld was of the opinion that there is a lot of innovation happening in the middle level, but more innovation needs to be done at the lower level. There is a need to focus on smaller start-ups. Design should be done at a higher paste. People should be able to fail fast, learn from mistakes, and start-up again.  

The Theory and Practice of Innovation was the next panel. Upon being asked to give a single sentence definition of design, the speakers provided several enlightening answers. M. P. Ranjan stated that it is human intentions and actions that generate value. Reto Wettach added that design encompasses "methods which help define solutions, and goals which help solve these problems." One of the emerging thoughts from the discussion was that design has a value that is measurable beyond monetary gain. Furthermore, when you take public issues into consideration, the non-designers are just as important as designers. "Everybody has privileged information which they can bring into the synthesis of a solution," stated Eswaran Subrahmanian.

Having learned from each other and the inspiring ideas that were circulating the panel discussions, the participants were given three scenarios for which they were asked to brainstorm innovative approaches and solutions. The scenarios were Online Higher Education, Quality Maternal and Child Healthcare, and Toilet-training for All. During these sessions, the participants were confronted with problems faced by communities in India, which included the lack of higher education opportunities in rural areas, the need for proper and timely administered antenatal care, as well as the need to ensure village sanitation infrastructure. The solutions given to these problems highlighted the importance of a participatory approach to problem solving. Empowering community members and encouraging local leadership in innovative projects ensures their sustainability. 

Concluding remarks on lessons learned and a way forward brought the afternoon to an end. Some of the final thoughts were that consensus is integral in the public space. End users and community members need to be involved in the process of design and innovation. While one must look beyond the government for instituting solutions to public problems and concerns, the role of the government, especially the local government, is also important. All sectors of society need to be engaged in design and innovation. "Persistence and methodology can make us an irresistible force," pointed out Ashwin Mahesh. 

On that note, the conclave came to an end, but without a doubt, the lessons and inspiration gained by the participants will continue on.

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