Service design for India

Soumitri Varadarajan – Service design for India: The thinking behind the design of a local curriculum | Re-public: re-imagining democracy – english version

It was in the 1970s, a full ten years after the new design schools had been set up in India, that you see a lot of activity on the contextual discourse of design for India. The imported curriculum from the west needed to be realigned to suit a developing country. Two events are significant for us in understanding how this realignment was discussed. One event hosted in London titled Design for Need (Bicknell and McQuiston 1977) has designers from India and Brazil where the focus was upon (a) seeking an agreement that design needs to focus upon ‘need’ (basic necessities) and not wants (consumption), and (b) showcasing projects and experiences in product design in a developing country context. The group is in agreement that design can make a contribution to the less privileged in society by designing new objects. Such ideas of change through technical innovation were at that time also being made popular by the Intermediate Technology movement. The second event happens in India and is a special ICSID-UNDP event that is similarly situated and emerges with a declaration, the Ahmedabad Declaration (NID 1979), that has a more ambitious agenda of transforming society by design. The focus of the declaration is upon the poor, which at that time is more that three quarters of the population of India, as needing design intervention.


the emergence of post-professional society

A really great take on the post professional society. Reproduced here – with the link to read it

in an iPod world – the emergence of post-professional society.

On January 16, 2009, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has announced the grand prize winners of “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” competition that he ran in collaboration with Indaba Music. Ma invited musicians of all kinds to join him in performing Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace). He made the cello track of his recording of the song available to the members of Indaba Music community, a social networking music site that allows members to virtually collaborate to record music. Out of about 250 entries made by some professional, semi-professional and amateur musicians, two musicians – Toshi O. from Canada (although originally from Japan) and Kevin McChesney from Colorado Springs, CO, won the first place prize. They will be performing with Yo-Yo Ma for his next album. The movement of open innovation that started software has found its way to classic music industry.

In his book Remix, Lawrence Lassig has the following quote from American Composer John Philip Sousa.

“When I was a boy … in front of every house in the summer evening you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

A common thread that connects these two stories, separated more than 100 years in history, is the concern about the dominance of professionalism in the society at the expense of richness of everyday life experiences. This is the same concern that was expressed in the writings of John Dewey on art. In Art as Experience, he wrote:

“The collective life that was manifested in war, worship, the forum, knew no division between what was characteristics of these places and operations, and the arts that brought color, grace and dignity, into them. Painting and sculpture were organically one with architecture, as that was one with the social purpose that building served. Music and song were intimate parts of the rites and ceremonies in which the meaning of group life was consummated. Drama was a vital reenactment of the legends and history of the group life.”

But he further notes, the arts that were so intimately integrated into everyday life experiences in neighborhood were slowly removed from the realm of everyday life and transformed into “fine arts” to be stored away in museums. Arts are taken away from common folks and safely guarded and sanctioned by professional curators and artists. In this case, the vocal cord was not devolved. It was emasculated. Dewey notes imperialism and capitalism as two driving forces behind this professionalization of arts.

“The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the propoer home for works of art, and the in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life. The nouveaux riches, who are important byproduct of the capitalist system, have felt especially bound to surround themselves with works of fine art which, being rare, are also costly. Generally speaking, the typical collector is the typical capitalist.”

Last century was the period that was marked with the scientific rationalism and the industrialization of economic activities in the society. The development of industrial technology and later information technology were the engines that carried out these two forces, which led to the emergence of large and complex organizations such as multinational corporations and mega churches. These large organizations as represented by General Motors and Wal-Mart require a large number of professionals who are specialized in a particular task. The emergence of professional class inevitably led to the separation of production function and consumption within the society. In a traditional society, producers and consumers were typically members of the same local community. A farmer buys meats from a butcher, who in turn buys furniture from a local carpenter, who relies on the supply of bread from a baker, who gets his eggs from the farmer. This is the time where Sousa saw young people singing together in the corner of streets.
With the emergence of a modern industrial society, all of this changed. Consumers only consume products and services that were produced by these large organizations managed by professionals. Consumers consume products that were produced tens of thousands of miles away. At work, their roles were radically reduced in scope and skill in the name of specialization. Their vocal cords were emasculated.
Now as we move deeper into the 21st century, we are experiencing yet another fundamental change in the society. We are seeing a profound reconfiguration of the production functions and consumption activities in the economy. The development of information and communication technology fundamentally altered the production cost so that virtually anyone with an idea and will can participate in the production functions. As we see in YouTube, Wikipedia and Linux, consumers are no longer satisfied with mere consumption of products and services. They want to actively engage in the production process. An individual now can easily learn a basic knowledge necessary to design a product through Google, use SketchUp to design the product and send the design to a Chinese firm that can quickly produce a product prototype and ship it back to him. In addition, the proliferation of “higher education” for everyone in the developed countries produced over-educated population who cannot be satisfied traditional jobs and mere consumptions of products and services. They want to be a part of value creation. So has the post-professional society emerged.
What is interesting here the changing role of technology. At the dawn of industrial revolution, the invention of steam engine and the development of modern communication technology led to the emergence of professionalism. Now, the Internet and mobile technology is turning the tide the other way, empowering non-professionals. One technology brought in the era of professionalism, and the other its demise.

Now, the question we must ask is what is the role of professionals in this post-professional society. The work of professionals — whether they are doctors, lawyers, MBAs, or professional musicians — will not wither away in the post-professional society. Certainly, we will not go back to pre-industrial age. But, as the knowledge and tools once available to those with professional educations increasingly available to everyone, we will certainly see the changes in the role of professionals. The significance of the work by Yo-Yo Ma, therefore, is that it might be a foreshadow of a professionals might work in the post-profession society. What he did was architecting innovations by others. He produced intentionally incomplete track and put it out there. He, then, invited others to complete his work. This incomplete architecture of innovation led to the multiplicity of innovations. And, the incompleteness invites the dynamic changes in the innovation.

Alice’s Critical Synopsis extract




All images from here.

Alice Ciccolini wrote up a conversation I had with her a month or so ago. I remember different things about/from that conversation. But in her enthusiastic prose it all sounds marvellous. Have a read:

The establishment of design process as a critical manifestation of design itself has high profile figureheads such as Hilary Cottam, a social entrepreneur whose work for the Design Council won her Design of the Year in 2005 and Davos Global Young Entrepreneur the following year, and her new organisation Participle, the central focus of which is exploring the power of creativity to enable the individual to overcome their own challenges. Design, and the skill of the designer to problem solve, is frequently an integral part of her practice. At the heart of Cottam’s approach is the principle of collaboration between professionals and the public in the re-visioning of public services; key to this is the notion that professionalism’s boundaries are not impermeable, that training confers upon us capacity but not necessarily sole capability to operate within a discipline.

Case Study: Soumitri Varadarajan, Professor of Industrial Design, RMIT, responds to the proposition behind Participle, founded by Hilary Cottam, Designer of the Year 2005.

Hilary Cottam writes of her practice: “I try to tackle some of the more intractable social issues of our day, designing services and solutions that start from the perspective of the individual and the community. … It’s an approach that is both bottom up and top down.

I see myself as a problem solver, inventor, and facilitator. … The project work I do is: collaborative – its about putting people first and working as part of an inter-disciplinary team; innovative – its about creative problem solving and new solutions; delightful – I hope the solutions are covetable and the process is fun; affordable – a promise to deliver something within existing budgets and often saving money; and most importantly practical –simple solutions that really work every day.” [14]

Cottam described RED, the Design Council project that won her the Designer of the Year, as a “’do-tank’: developing new thinking and practice on social and economic problems through design led innovation.” Participle, her latest project, is a small studio focused on engaging with ‘peripheral’ communities such as the elderly and disconnected youth. Cottam writes about Participle:

“At Participle, we do two things: Firstly, bring together the widespread community level ideas and creative activity, and mix it with world-leading experts in any given field; Secondly, drive forward thoughts and actions around developing a new social settlement which can deal with the big social issues of our time. …

A radical new vision for our public services is required. We call our vision Beveridge 4.0. … If we were to distil our approach to developing new types of public services down to two principles we would say firstly it is about motivating deep participation, and secondly about encouraging social connections and contributions. … The freedom to live a better life will be reflected in a person’s capabilities and this is the starting point of the five shifts we propose:

–    Moving from a system focused on needs to one more concerned with capabilities;
–    Moving from services that are targeted to ones that are open to all;
–    Moving away from a financially focused system to one focused on resources;
–    Avoiding centralised institutions in favour of more effective distributed networks;
–    Relaxing the absolute focus on the individual including more of a focus on social networks.”

Participation and contribution depend on a bigger narrative, one that all of us can relate to: a story about dreams, capabilities and aspirations, not problems and needs; a story that starts with our own lives and encompasses others.” [15]

Cottam is a controversial figure in the world of design. Arguably, confirming her as Designer of the Year marked the beginning of Alice Rawsthorn’s demise as Director of the Design Museum, proposing, as it does, a way of thinking about design that moves beyond the more formal understanding of the term as a act of creation within the realm of industry, thinking that proved unpalatable to a board of directors dominated by designers of the industrial kind (e.g. James Dyson). Rightly so, argues Soumitri Varadarajan. “I think the whole world has turned upside down; designers can’t practice professionally, only as artists. Or go the charity route and design for the other 90%, the glorious irony of urban centres designing for the periphery. And fortuitously, then you have Gordon Brown who says “is it true you can design services? Come and redesign our public services” – I can’t think that any other nation would do that.” Varadarajan continues,

“The UK has a strong mechanical background, a strong rationalist way which somehow never gets through to design. When a Hilary Cottam wins a Designer of the Year, it indicates that the funds for research are only available for service design rather than mechanical design. The non-object, the non-aesthetic is not design, it’s a curiously British construction that this constitutes design – because nobody else is picking up or talking about service in the same fashion.

The Japanese agencies are networking focused, not policy focused, which is why they are successful; the UK has taken the RSA and thrown away its historical background and asks it to do all this new policy stuff. Is this a post-professional world? … [Y]ou can see why [some people might argue that when you look at] Australia, because industry left Australia, it was destroyed it in the way that Thatcher did in the UK … [and now] Melbourne is a place where nothing is made, but with a large proportion of industrial designers – they’re like musicians, with only piecemeal gigs, no contracts, so they can’t talk the ‘60s talk about function, they can only do the Marcel Wanders, Dutch kind of thing of furniture as a provocation. Or re-design public services.”

Where do Cottam’s practice and Varadarajan’s response lead the idea of collaborative design? Varadarajan argues that design for industry is in principle always socially engaged since its output is focused on the transformation of the lives of many; he sees the genesis of this understanding of design in the second world war, of the idea of industrial design as a powerful tool for creating “things in the most efficient way, that put everyone at the same level, disturbed class distinctions and took out the idea of design for consumption.” Comfortable with the concept of the celebrity designer when that design is transformational (he cites Jonathan Ive at Apple), he suggests that even in iconic design collectives such as Pentagram, where naming designers was an anathema to their philosophy of “functional design that will make more money for clients who [they were] at service to,” a job always rested one designer. To deny that gave rise, in Varadarajan’s view, to the designer as flamboyant celebrity embodied by Neville Brody, and has taken us to where we are today.