The Design Observer Group


Posted 01.29.13


John Thackara

An Open Design School for India



Image from http://openwear.org/

In recent months a working party in India, chaired by Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovation, has been developing the plan for a nationwide network of 20 Design Innovation Centres, an Open Design School, and a National Design Innovation Network. The latest public version of the plan is here: Download pdf

During this process, I was invited by Abhimanyu Nohwar to make a short statement to the group by way of a ‘useful provocation’. Here, below, is what I said:

Good morning, everyone,

Sixteen years ago, when Sam Pitroda spoke at our Doors of Perception conference, whose theme was “speed”, he told us that connectivity is as much about the design of clever business models, as it is about tech.

The Public Call Office (PCO) concept, he told us, which enabled hundreds of millions of people to gain access to telephony for the first time, was a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure.

That one talk persuaded me and my colleagues in Doors that, when it comes to sustainable design, we in the north have more to to learn from India, than India needs from us.

But I also remember how Sam ended his talk to our room full of designers. He pleaded with us: “Life has become too fast” he said. “My world is overloaded. I get 100 faxes a day. I like speed, but please: simplify our lives”.

Well, we got rid of the faxes — but I’d be surprised if life feels simpler than it was then — for Sam, or anyone else in this room.

Therefore, in the interests of keeping things simple in today’s discussion, at least, I will not comment on what the Open Design School should do, in the sense of curriculum, or structure.

Instead, I offer three thoughts concerning how to think about it.

My first point is that the Open Design School should not be about “preparing students for business realities”. It’s task, surely, is to help 550 million young Indians create the next economy, to replace the one that’s killing the planet now.

Second point: the most important task of an Open Design School not the distribution of pre-cooked content — however eminent the cooks (or the online professors). Value lies in what cannot scale — which basically means people, real-world contexts, and the interactions between them. They are unique. What’s needed are platforms to enrich and support those interactions.

Content distribution is secondary — a lesson I draw from the PCO story. Your task is to scale the platform, but not the content.

My third point concerns implementation. How are you to get started?

My answer is: it has already started! A million people are busy out there, right now, innovating new solutions to meet daily life needs in new ways.

The best and easiest way for the Open Design School to get started is to talent-spot these innovators, and then figure out how design can help them improve. That step alone will give us a huge to-do list of new opportunities.

And not just opportunities. With Open Design as its approach, India’s ODS can enable far more people to collaborate than they are able to do now in the in closed professional silos of traditional design schools.

Open-ness transforms relationships among the people who make, use and look after things. That’s why the Open Design School is in the treansformation business, not the problem-solving business.

And do you know what? With this document, as it stands, India’s Open Design School is ready to go! And the world needs it — so please don’t hang about.