Perspectives on Indian creative culture.

India’s Future of Change

My job at frog has taken me to India three or four times a year since 2005. On each visit, I’ve been struck by an almost tangible optimism that something big is just about to happen—and for good reason.

Since major economic liberalization in the early 1990s, India’s economy has grown rapidly and consistently. India is estimated to surpass China as the world’s largest country by 2030. While other countries are aging, India has the youngest population of any leading world economy, feeding the promise of a vibrantly consuming middle class. And as it opens up even further to foreign direct investments, an estimated US$80 billion of outside money is expected to flow into India over the next two years. India’s future is bursting with exciting possibilities.

That same electric feeling was in the air at last month’s India Future of Change “Indialogues” conference in New Delhi. The two-day event featured an even mix of Indian and international speakers from business, politics, and creative industries talking about the challenges and opportunities facing India in the coming decades. The conference also was the final event for Business Plan and Design competitions.

I was invited to sit on the Grand Jury for the Design competition. The competition was divided into Indian and international categories, with a US$35,000 grant for the grand prize winners of each group to continue developing their concepts. Hundreds of students from 50 different countries competed, with the top 20 making it to Delhi to present to the audience and judges. Three finalists from each group were chosen to present behind closed doors to the Grand Jury. To add just a little more pressure for the finalists, the competition was filmed for CNBC’s “Young Turks” television show.

The visiting finalists were narrowed down to three Indian and three international top finalists. Interviews with the students and judges were featured on CNBC’s “Young Turks” program.


The International Top Finalists

Sachet Syringe (International Grand Prize Winner)
Every year 1.3 million people around the world die from the reuse of syringes within a healthcare environment. The reason? Cost. Within India alone, there are approximately 4.5 billion injections given annually. 63% of these are administered in an unsafe manner, either through syringe reuse, needle-stick injuries, or improper disposal. Oliver Blanchard, from University of Plymouth in the UK, designed a safer, low cost approach to administering vaccines. Oliver prototyped his design and interviewed health professionals to refine his approach to the very familiar ergonomics of administering injections.

Top: The Sachet Syringe with an explanation of the safe injection procedure.
Bottom left: Oliver Blanchard, International Grand Prize Winner
Bottom middle, right: Syringe reuse is a major killer in developing nations. By the time Tuktuki is just 11 years old, she will have received 9 unsafe injections.

Low Cost Surgery Light
In developing nations, power outages or no access to an electrical grid means hospitals are left without lighting. Medical procedures are performed by kerosene lantern, flashlight, and in woefully underlit conditions. Michael O’Brien, from Sydney’s University of Technology, created an easy-to-ship and -assemble, hand-folded sheet metal and LED surgery lighting solution for developing countries. Michael experimented extensively with sheet metal patterns to arrive at a very simple  solution that required no special tools to assemble, adjust or maintain the light.

Australia’s Michael O’Brien demonstrates his low cost surgery light for developing countries.

Bucket Washing Machine
Even though almost half of India’s population is able to afford a washing machine, only 8% of all Indian households own one. Available solutions require electricity, require too much space, or leave clothes too wet. Nektar Solomon, from Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, presented a jugaad-inspired clothes-washing solution for rural families assembled from low cost, readily available components. Nektar’s inspiration came from her personal experiences living in India.

Nektar Solomon created a hand-powered washing solution easily assembled from locally available parts.

Indian Top Finalists

Cerebral Palsy Chair (Indian Grand Prize Winner) -
An estimated 200 babies are born with cerebral palsy every day in India. Because the resulting disabilities vary so widely, wheelchair-type devices are insufficient for most children and do little to improve motor skills. Pragya Singh from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad designed an inexpensive, locally manufacturable chair that facilitates posture changes from sitting to standing to walking and improves motor development for children with cerebral palsy. Pragya designed an assembly that uses low cost, common parts that wouldn’t require mass manufacturing.

Indian Grand Prize Winner Pragya Singh and her Cerebral Palsy Chair

Water-Filtering Washing Machine
It’s estimated that only 20% of homes in major urban areas receive water on demand 24 hours a day. The rest receives it once a day, on alternate days, weekly, or erratically. Washing clothes accounts for up to 22% of home water use. Prasun Chokshi from IIT Kharagpur designed a way to conserve millions of liters of water each year with washing machine with a smart filtering and water recycling system. Prasun probed deep into the engineering issues for the necessary components of the system.

Prasun Chokshi created a washing machine that filters and treats greywater to produce dramatic water and cost savings

Battery-assisted Bicycle
70% of India’s population lives in rural villages. However 74% of India’s workforce is engaged in non-agricultural work. The need for mid-range mobility, beyond what can be covered on foot or by bicycle, is growing fast. Rakesh Sinha, MIT Institute of Design in Pune, created a battery-assisted bicycle to boost the mobility of millions, connecting them jobs and family. Rakesh also showed how the bike’s main components (battery, flywheel, dynamo) could be sold as an add-on kit to existing bicycles.
India is the world’s second largest producer of bicycles. Rakesh Sinha used a battery/dynamo/flywheel combination to boost the mobility of India’s rural and urban working class.

Top: Nektar Solomon presents her bucket washing machine to the judges.

Bottom: The Design Grand Jury: Valerie Casey/The Designers Accord, Collin Cole/frog, Satish Gokhale/Design Directions, and Abhimanyu Kulkarni/Philips Design

As a whole, the international entries were thorough and polished. Problem statements were clear and the solutions were well presented. Each finalist had working prototypes that had evolved significantly from their original idea. But the international contestants were clearly at a disadvantage when trying to evaluate the unique needs and behaviors of India. Without direct access to Indian end users, some concepts missed the mark. This underscores the absolute need for design research as an input for developing an empathetic, culturally-aware solution. You can’t design for India from a distance.

Many Indian entries were ambitious in scale, whether it was retrofitting existing buildings with movable green panels, rethinking the crowded metro system, or streamlining auto rickshaw services. While some ideas had feasibility problems common to any student competition, they all demonstrated a more nuanced understanding of what would work in India. Designers benefitted from firsthand connections to the problems they were trying to solve, and demonstrated a real passion for finding solutions.

But many domestic entries were overly academic and hypothetical. Few actually prototyped their solutions. This resulted in finished-looking concepts with unproven leaps in logic and missed opportunities to test and refine their thinking, or discover even better ideas. Design is a problem-solving process, not a magic moment of inspiration. Building prototypes early and often helps designers examine problems from the perspectives of engineering and business, and gets to better, implementable solutions faster.

It was exciting to see young Indian designers so passionate about improving their country. It was good to see international students eager to take on the challenges India presents. Reaching India’s potential will require fresh thinking from inside and out, a mature design approach, a spirit of innovation, and a deep understanding of India’s unique culture and behaviors. As a design professional, I’m excited to be part of the change that’s coming.


Main image by Maya Imberg, IFC Picture of the Day
Note: Facts and figures quoted in this article are taken from competition entries.
The IdeaWorks, IFC Organizers

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