Saturday, March 12, 2011

Innovation that India really needs- A Few Questions

The world cries sustainability. India has just begun. The world consumes 400 kg process iron per person per year and 40 kg plastic per person per year. India consumes just 10% of both of these. Even China is far ahead in consumption. The world over, design companies, marketing companies and consumer R& D departments are focussed on bringing the GREEN agenda to consumption. Should that be the sole focus of new products in India?

The world's leading companies operating in India or planning to enter India are looking for Indian nuances of innovation. India has gone through the phases of 'closed economy'- only Indian products (Ambassador) to 'residual economy'- (Dumping in the Indian market, whatever is out-dated elsewhere), to 'At par Economy' (launch new products in India simultaneously-like A-Star of Suzuki), to 'India first Economy' (Toyota Etios). More and more companies are pouring millions of dollars to figureout the real needs of Indian consumers, beyond the apparent glamour of 'foreign brands'. ‘Indian usability and Indian aesthetics’, though still REFUTED by our very own Indian companies, are the terms doing the rounds in the marketing strategies of foreign companies focussed on India.

A simple case is that of the water purifier- Aqua Guard is now a household name. Kent introduced the RO system to Indian consumers. Unilever joined the water purification bandwagon with cheaper 'Pureit'. Tata found an age old formula which costs nothing (ashes of rise husk) to kill the bacteria in water and made 'Swach'. While technologies have come full circle, the consumers' task flow' or how people actually drink water, is still an untouched area. Not to talk about traditional beliefs and science of using 'copper' and 'tulsi' as additives for building bettera immune system. Aesthetics of the products is a different story altogether. Modular kitchen is now almost invariably filled with consumer durables and gadgets. Is there a place for Indian aesthetics here?

Infrastructure too, is changing at a fast pace now. Bridges to roads, to hospitals to modern offices to malls- India is changing, though at a more sedate pace than the way China changed so far. Korea did it many years back. USA did it almost half a century back. 'BEST PRACTICES' is the formula being applied everywhere in this sector. Since the West has done all this already, we just copy the formula of specifications, project management, even team constitution and the resulting aesthetics. Everything is being replicated to the last detail. Large residential complexes in cities give you a sense of déjà vu .You could be located anywhere else in the world. An oddity in the scheme of things is probably a 'temple' in the residential complex, which is surely not a 'best practice' from the West. However, some details are omitted - universal design- for the elderly, disabled and children. It costs extra money to provide anti-slip tiles in bathrooms, to build ramps all over, provide hand rails for support in the walkways, provide clear signages, build dedicated lanes for pedestrians and build emergency response systems for the aged. A society racing to out-do the West is caught in the half-baked recipe of its current generation. Do we need to talk of Indian aesthetics still?

Outsiders consider India to be exotic, full of mysteries, diverse and colourful. However, our research recently showed that the average Indian is moving towards pastels in colour preferences. Rural India is imagined to be the one consuming the ‘cheapest', 'low- tech' and 'jugaad' products. However, research is showing something else. 'Cheap copies' of branded products that retail giants pass of under their so-called private labels, is a short-lived phenomenon. Indian consumers are coming back to the ‘around-the-corner’ shops again; they have certainly not died out. McDonald’s and vada-pavstill co-exist, and the market is still growing for both of them. 'Standardised' v/s customised is also co-existing. Local FM radio jockeys now speak in three languages at a time- Hindi, English and a regional language. Indian companies are acquiring companies abroad, changing the identities and bringing ex-pat CEOs.Their identities are being designed by foreign design studios, to be consumed by Indian consumers and yet, the responses on the call centres they run have the same apathetic, optimised for efficiency replies. Indian government is taking a progressive stance on RTE (Right to Education) and making sure that education becomes inclusive, while also hob-knobbing with idea of caste based reservation in higher education and private jobs.

There is an innovation delirium the country is passing through. Japan was just hit by an earthquake and a lot was lost due to the tsunami that followed. I reality though, much was actually saved due to the high preparedness levels of that society as a whole. It is not technology alone. A SYSTEMS THINKING approach along with die-hard attitude for perfection are two panaceas to emerge wiser and saner in this 'fuzzy front end'. Those with half-baked recipes referred from the west, past or the immediate are likely to go groggy soon.