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Doors of Perception, in Delhi
Jeremy Faludi, 22 Mar 05

Doors of Perception is a biannual conference put on by the Dutch ministry of Education, Culture and Science; it is a collection of designers, technologists, and other creative people from diverse fields. This year it is held in Delhi, and the theme is “Infra”, meaning infrastructure, but it’s about a range of ways in which technology and innovative design or ideas can help international development and general worldchanging. The first day’s most interesting presentation was by Solomon Benjamin, a researcher/consultant from Bangalore...

Benjamin described how the most innovative places in India, the places where new technology and manufacturing starts, are slums. There is almost no infrastructure, and certainly no help from government; in fact, most activity is underground in order to avoid taxes and general governmental disapproval of things that weren’t part of their plan. These entrepreneurs have no capital, evolving their own methods of financing; they also have no IP law. And yet whole clusters of interdependent companies sprout up making things that are found nowhere else in the country (computer cable mfr.s were his main example).

And it turns out this phenomenon is not unique to India. He pointed out an example in New York, and I would say the same is true in reverse of Silicon Valley--its explosion of innovative companies created an unplanned, unregulated city-sprawl. It’s not a slum, but it does have the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the country. This brings home the point that innovation causes social problems as well as benefits.

Benjamin’s talk reminded me of a characteristic of many non-industrialized nations that I think will push India ahead in the future: everything here is patched, hacked, and customized. You have to do that, because there’s insufficient infrastructure to support the products you use, and because people’s needs are always far beyond what they can buy. As a result, everyone here is a hacker, meaning everyone is an innovator. Normal westerners don’t have the hacker mindset, because products already exist for their needs, and any need can be solved by a purchase; the people who push the envelope only do so because they enjoy it. (This is also why normal people in the industrialized world depend on branding to express themselves, rather than making their possessions into personal folk art like people in the third world do.) Having everyone in your country start with a hacker mindset will help you leapfrog from cheap-labor-source to vital-technology-hub.

The barrier to such leapfrogging is infrastructure, and as technology become more self-contained, more mobile, more peer-to-peer, infrastructure becomes less and less necessary. Ironically, the playing field gets more level the more advanced technology gets. (Not linearly, and not universally, but enough to be hopeful.) As another speaker, Ezio Manzini, phrased it, we’re starting to see the existence of “poor-to-poor” networks, and we should do as much as we can to facilitate them.

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Comments

Jeremy ... wish i was there too. Just couldn't take time out for Doors. You know i was once doing a study on truckers and the light and heavy commercial vehicles market and what we found then was that the fancier, more sophisticated trucks weren't doing well for one simple reason - the absence of spurious (and hence muchhhh cheaper) spare parts, and roadside mechanics who handled repairs at very low cost. The sophisticated machines couldn't be ''hacked'' as easily!


Posted by: Dina on 22 Mar 05

Great update! Keep 'em coming!

So bummed that I had to cancel going. Sounds like it's every bit as amazing as I expected.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 22 Mar 05

Actually, this ties in well with the post about the hacker workshop. Manzini also referred to it in his book about sustainable scenarios: the handyman shop.

This is a scenario set in an urban environment in which you'd have a handyman shop in the neighborhood where you can go to with your dead consumer electronics or houshold contraptions. In this center you'd find access to repair tools, replacement parts, interactive technical support. So you would put in your time in return for:
-reducing waste,
-strengthening your personal capacity,
-promoting neighbourhood co-operation and community,
-and taking back some control on the stuff that surrounds us (um ... that tag-line ... ?)

Awhile ago, I fantasized about a real-world implementation of this, in which you'd have dead electronics as a raw material, enthusiastic designers/engineers/handymen and -women as labor, and open-minded cooperative local customers as ... well, customers.

It'd be post-hardware design, PHD, in which the added value would be in the engineer/designer's intervention, in collaboration with the customer, in the fact of making the most of what is there, cradle to cradle style, and not so much the hardware/material.

Um. Something like this.

Take care y'all. Oh--we need another acronym.
WC doesn't work.
WoCa ? WoCh woch

Serge


Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 23 Mar 05

Just saw Jer at the conference. I popped in to check out a couple of projects but will do most of my networking at the party tonight.

I'll try and report/photoblog the shindig tonight...


Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 23 Mar 05

Thanks for the report, Jer! Looking forward to more.

Serge: love the idea. It's pretty typical that defunct computo-electronic junque ends up in the hands of artists, kids, and underfunded non-profits ("unkind in-kind") for repurposing.

How could we make it take off in a big way in places like New York, where "mainstream" electronics repair shops are pretty much a thing of the past?

(Or, if you're like me, you hang on to your broken boom box for a year because you can't bear the thought of all that material ending up in a landfill--only to finally put it out on the street and hope someone who knows how to make it work again will pick it up and fix it.)


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 23 Mar 05

Emily,


Thanks.

Yes, I do hold onto broken stuff. I have a cupboard in the studio here that is quietly filling up with dead electronics.

Natalie Jeremijenko and I often talked about the idea of actually doing something along those lines. We were looking at a way to build a powermeter display, and this box of full of dead electronics seemed like a perfect match: there's an old Newton 2100 which seemed like exactly the platform we needed ... and so came about the idea of creating added value, reducing waste and reclaiming technology by having a pool of techno-activists rescusitating all these devices and turning them into something useful.

Not surprisingly, this idea, like many, never moved past the mental creation stage...

All the best,


Serge


Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 24 Mar 05



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