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Praveen Nahar on Ecodesign and Development in India
Jeremy Faludi, 23 Aug 06


A couple weeks ago I talked with Praveen Nahar, a professor at India's National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. He had a lot to say about eco-design and appropriate technology projects happening in India, as well as insights on general trends relating Indian development to the rest of the world.

First we talked about the and GIAN ("Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network"), which we've mentioned here before . Both are fantastic organizations to spread and commercialize grass-roots innovations from rural India; they concentrate on finding inventions that make rural life or farming more prosperous and sustainable, and helping to develop and commercialize them. They are effectively angel investors and venture capitalists for appropriate technology around the country, and their only limitation is financial resources, there is no shortage of great ideas.

Praveen said that the amount of innovative thought happening in India is huge; he argued that it is inherently easier for people living in India to think outside the box, because the culture contains so much diversity and so many extremes. First there are the economic extremes: high-rise office buildings can share the same street with tin-shack markets whose vendors sleep on the sidewalk at night; water buffalo share the road with BMW's; dung fuels many fires while compressed natural gas fuels all the buses and rickshaws of Delhi. Then there are the cultural extremes: over two hundred different languages, with several different alphabets; most of the major world religions rubbing elbows with each other; regions that for hundreds of years were independent nation-states; the legacies of Persian and British colonialism. All these factors expand an ordinary person's experience of what is possible and what is normal. Thinking outside the modern industrial Western box is as easy as thinking inside one of the dozens of other cultural-economic boxes piled all around. Also, I've noticed that poverty forces you to be creative with your resources, making things instead of buying them, improvising patches and hacks when the proper repairs are out of your price range. Even wealthy, educated engineers have some of this mindset rub off on them by living in a place where they see such hacks and improvisations every day.

In addition to innovative design ideas, he spoke of how creative some organization structures and processes are. For instance, it is common in Mumbai for husbands to be at work during the day and for wives to make lunch at home and have it delivered to their husbands via a "Dabbawalla". These delivery services use no radio dispatcher or other infrastructure/technology, and are almost entirely staffed by delivery boys who are illiterate and barefoot; yet they navigate the convoluted streets of Bombay to deliver lunches with just one mistake per six million deliveries--Forbes magazine declared that they deserve the six-sigma quality control rating. How do they do this, and could it be used to streamline or improve the processes in companies worldwide? (For more info on the fascinating, and communistically-organized, dabbawallahs, see the Wikipedia article, Cubilog, or their own website, Looks like they're starting to embrace high-tech with SMS, too. The Six Sigma Institute has a great article on how they do what they do.)

Sometimes, however, sustainability and development initiatives are too influenced by the West without enough critical thought at home, Praveen said. For instance, the Confederation of Indian Industry's green business center in Hyderabad was rated the greenest building in the world by the US Green Building Council. It may be the greenest by American building standards, he said, but is in fact significantly less green than many of the forts and palaces built hundreds of years ago, using clever techniques unknown to modern US or European green architects. Instead of researchers in India studying what the best solutions to problems are, Praveen said they generally take existing standards (like the US Green Building Council's LEED rating) and do the best job they can of them. Perhaps this is a necessary step, which will get the rest of the world to notice and respect sustainability innovations in India, before it starts to forge ahead into new ground. But perhaps the very fact that India is starting from a very different place than the developed West should be the jumping-off point instead.

A success story he mentioned that is uniquely Indian is Amul, which is purportedly the world's biggest co-op. (The UK's Co-operative Group has grocery stores, banks, funeral homes, and travel agencies, but Amul has 2.4 million producer-members in 11,000 villages.) As the Wikipedia article on it notes, Amul was the instrument that drove the "white revolution", which created a national milk infrastructure, providing both better nutrition and more farmer income across rural India.

Praveen said there is a tension in India between sustainable design innovation happening from the bottom up and from the top down. Government bureaucracy is large and ponderous, and although it has many successes, it can often misfire or unintentionally suppress budding progress; as a result, much of the engine driving development in the country is messy, chaotic, and even illegal, functioning less like a finely-tuned machine than a roiling cauldron. However, it bears a strong resemblance to other explosively successful areas like silicon valley. One of the speakers at Doors of Perception last year, Solomon Benjamin, described the same thing and how it changes even the urban landscape in India. But perhaps this is just what the country needs, and what many places around the world need for economic development--to start from the ground up and build a broad base, rather than being propped up by government programs. I suppose it depends whether you trust small businesspeople and the larger world market to be socially and environmentally responsible, or trust government to be consistently corruption-free and effectual. It will be interesting to see how things continue to unfold there.

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cool man' you seems to be damn concern... :)

Posted by: robert on 24 Aug 06

You can read more about the Mumbai Dabba-walla's lunch delivery service here which also provides links to a couple of other sources on this innovative and highly effective system design.

Posted by: Meena Kadri on 24 Aug 06

Dear sir,
Response to the situations, by the diverse human culture present in india,,,,may be intuitive response! ,,is that wht u want to say as eco-design?,,,,Could it be a sensitive,humane side of design. and may be overlapping contexts provide us these opportunities..!
yeah, ya've done real good analysis of the dense matrix of indian culture..this could become an example model if resolved further ,,, thanx

Posted by: vijay kshatriya on 24 Aug 06

Thanks for the URL, Meena. Praveen was also nice enough to correct me and say they do in fact have their own website these days, too, and even a Wikipedia article about them.

Since they're so fascinating, I've updated the article above.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 24 Aug 06

Thanks for the URL, Meena. Praveen was also nice enough to correct me and say they do in fact have their own website these days, too, and even a Wikipedia article about them.

Since they're so fascinating, I've updated the article above.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 24 Aug 06

It is very analytical and factual presentation of the present scenario in India. Good job.

Posted by: Punam Singavi on 24 Aug 06

Some of the intriguing and incredible Indian examples cited are well analyzed on general trends and initiatives in India. Keep it up Prof. and great going!!!

Posted by: Shirsendu Ghosh on 24 Aug 06

Interesting article. I disagree that LEED (a building standard developed in the US) isn't relevant to India. Praveen states that Indians should use design techniques developed centuries ago, but the buildings being constructed today in the boom towns of Bangalore, Chennai, Gurgaon, etc require modern environmental technologies and systems. India is building modern infrastructure, and LEED is designed to "green" that modern infrastructure. I agree, we can learn from traditional design, indeed we need all the tools available, but architecture has changed, and we need to use tools designed for modern architecture.

Posted by: Abhishek on 26 Aug 06

Thanks Jeremy for introducing Praveen to me. Although we have been friends for last 15 years and had been in to many intriguing discussions earlier in our school days, I was not fully aware of his knowledge on this topic. Your article did educate me.

Good Luck Praveen.

Posted by: Salil Joshi on 1 Sep 06



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