India's Designs on Innovation

Compared with its Asian rivals, India has been slow to make design a priority. But a new national policy commits to doing business with style

In India, design has never been a part of the business lexicon. Now, New Delhi wants to change that. This month, 40 years after setting up the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, the Indian government finally ratified a design policy to make the discipline a national priority.

To achieve this, the new policy envisages a "platform for creative design development, design promotion and partnerships across many sectors, states, and regions for integrating design with traditional and technological resources."

Not only has the NID been deemed a university, the government wants to set up four more NIDs and make design a part of the curriculum in engineering and other educational pursuits. Finer details are still scarce, but with education as the key issue, it will bank on public-private partnerships to foster design.

Design Latecomer

So far, India has only a dozen design programs, compared with 241 in China. There are 300 design colleges in Korea, in contrast to India's 10. While China churns out 30,000 design students annually, India produces just one-third of that number. And while Asia is increasingly becoming the hotbed of design, India is nowhere on the scene.

This policy is the first sign that the government wants to rectify that. It comes at a time when both China and India—with their roaring economies—are among the most happening destinations globally. Says Sridhar Marri, head of the communication design group at Infosys Technologies, "The design-led economic transformation that we have always dreamed of in India can now be visualized on the horizon."

This initiative would put an emphasis on innovation at all levels. Even as Japanese and Korean brands consistently give their western counterparts a run for their money, Indian brands continue to dominate only in their home market. But with Indian companies increasingly displaying global aspirations, the realization that only innovation and design can set them apart from the crowd is dawning.

Crucial Differentiator

"This is a great move from the government of India to express and indicate support for India's design and innovation capabilities in the global arena," says Niti Bhan, a San Francisco-based emerging-markets strategist. "If India takes a leaf from the other Asian nations' books, they have a chance to be catapulted onto the world stage."

Until now design has never been a big concern, but more an incidental function in Indian business. But today, with stiff competition and scores of foreign brands and services invading India, design and product offerings are being touted as the only differentiators in the clutter. "The policy has the power to create an innovation ecosystem in the country," adds Marri.

Driving this system are hordes of small and midsize enterprises that are using design to make their presence felt. Drawing on the vastness of India, with all its cultural diversity, marketers are using design to make a global foray.

Making It Click

Take the case of the Lexi pen, made by a small manufacturer. It has a cap that makes a satisfying click sound when it's shut. With the click denoting the preservation of the object, the pen has been a roaring success in India. Manoj Kothari, founder of Pune-based Onio Design, which designed the product, claims his client is set to launch this product overseas, with certain tweaks. But he adds, "Most of our design has been reactionary rather than preemptive."

And such instances are few and far between, as India is struggling to develop its own Samsungs and LGs. Kothari also points out flaws in the policy—a lack of practical application pointers, for one. "The generic vision statement has a Utopian bonanza built into it. What's missing is a sustained and integrated plan for design and innovation," he says. He compares it to a patchwork of swatches from different world baskets that have been sewn together. "We are using design as a noun, but it should be also a verb for systematic innovation."

At the very least, the policy is an indication that design and innovation are topics at the tables of the nation's leaders.

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