Third leg of the walkabout begins: WHY India and IDIOM?

Why India?

From the start of thinking about the International Design Walkabout I’d had India in mind and close to the top of my list. It had been put in my mind a long time before the idea of the Walkabout itself, as an Indian friend now living in Mumbai had made some comments after my trip to Seoul in Korea.  I had mentioned to her that I had seen many copies of designer shops and brands when I was in Seoul: for example I had seen The Body Shop on one side of a road, and The Face Shop directly on the other side of the street (see images below). I thought, from my Western viewpoint, that it was just copying. But my Indian friend said ‘No darling they are only making things cheaper’. I could see from this point onwards, that my Indian friend had a different viewpoint that changed the way you saw the world – a mindset I very much came to admire and wish to be immersed in.

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In terms of design what interested me about India was not really the elements of social innovation, although I must say they are very interesting – but what I really admired was the entrepreneurial characteristics and mindset that my Indian friend had hinted at, as design and entrepreneurship are becoming common topics of interest that can be learned about in this context. Also having recently seen a summary of research into base of the pyramid (BoP) in Delft (In economics, the BoP is the largest, but poorest socio-economic group. In global terms, this is the 4 billion people who live on less than US$2.50 per day) I had seen amazing models of innovation and business, and with the growth of the middle class I wanted to know: How was India coping with the change? How is the country growing? The question is: What value can you offer people when a country is growing their markets?. I know from the conversations around base of the pyramid in Delft that people in emerging markets are very aspirational, but also that they are very practical in their solutions and still have the mindset of re-use. With limited resources and choices, as I saw during my Brazilian experience, you are forced to come up with more creative solutions.  So what I came to India for, was to explore the Indian culture, their business mindset and to understand the emerging market.

Why Idiom?

During my search for companies to work with in India, I’d came across some amazing companies like Idiom, Quicksand, Elephant and INDI – most of which I’d connected with through producing the map The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Design Research Agencies but also while finding new stories for the Design Transitions book. I found Idiom in February 2012 through my interest in design and entrepreneurship, while looking for a company that could speak on the subject. Upon reading this below passage on ‘Designers Are The New Drivers Of American Entrepreneurialism‘ from fastcodesign website, I was so eager to hear more:

“Another dot is Idiom, India’s answer to IDEO. The cutting-edge design/innovation consultancy has successfully launched 80 companies, out of 100 attempts, over the past six years, with the average launch taking about nine months from concept to profitability. (Idiom calls its process Mind to Market.) By applying the approaches and tools of design to the traditional startup process, Idiom increased the success rate of VC from 10% to 80%.

Led by its cofounder Sonia Manchanda, whom I consider to be the intellectual heir to the great C.K. Prahalad, Idiom is pioneering an entirely new VC model called Dream:In. I was lucky enough to participate in it last year. It goes like this: Hundreds of students were trained to interview and tape thousands of people about their dreams–their aspirations, not their needs. The dreams were collected, categorized, and presented to business people, consultants, and folks like me to help draw up business plans to enable those dreams. Those plans are now in a portfolio, from which venture capitalists can choose by category, by individual concept, or by investing in the fund itself. Each year, students go out, dreams come in, business plans replenish the portfolio. When was the last time we even thought about a radical change in the VC model? This made-in-India idea does.”

After reading this I really wanted to interview Sonia Manchanda for the Design Transitions book. I was intrigued by the fact that 8 out of Idiom’s 10 startups with a design driven approach were successful – but how did they do it? Who does what to make that happen? Sonia kindly agreed to an interview, so during my 10 days back at home in the UK between my trips to Amsterdam and Brazil, Sonia met with Joyce Yee and myself through Skype.  During the interview she described how she had made design make business sense, designing whole new brands and services which have spread throughout India. She described how Idiom can leap frog innovation (to understand more you will have to wait for the Design Transitions book in Autumn 2013), they put India first, are searching for the idiom of India and then looking to go global. They designed their company as an organization, so that their team can eventually step back and let the next generation take over. I found the concept of Dream:In amazing – it was a concept that innovated across different countries, bringing together different people from different backgrounds to come up with new businesses but also new public policies. From the interview with Sonia, I had a need to see and understand what she was talking about for myself. And through our conversations which followed, Sonia invited me over to India following my trip to Brazil. It just so happened that while I was in Brazil a local team had been running their own Dream:In project so I got to meet some people from the project before going to India. (But then there were lots of strange coincidences to come!). I knew India was going to be an amazing life experience for me and I had an amazing feeling that Idiom was the right next for the third leg of the walkabout.

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Funnily enough, the night before I was to travel to India, a programme called ‘Welcome to India’ came on the BBC about modern day India, with some insights immediate and disturbing. There were people panning for gold in drainpipes, a father selling illegal alcohol, but for me they were showing the real personality of the people, the entrepreneurial spirit and their positive approach to life – again going back to what my friend in India had indicated. I really couldn’t wait to get there! And this time I would be traveling light, as I had been advise to get Indian clothes when I get there – so look out for my new look in the next post!

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