When I first visited India 20 years ago, the country had fewer design teachers for a population of more than a billion people than had Wales – whose population is three million. The supply of teachers seemed to be stuck because India had just one national public design school: the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.
NID had (and has) extremely smart faculty and students. But their number – 400 or so per cohort – is tiny in comparison with the 60,000 elite students who attend the country’s Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) – and who have played such a major role in the global IT boom.
It’s good news, then India’s new National Design Policy, which was published on Friday, decrees that four more National Institutes of Design, on the pattern of NID, will be set up in different regions of the country.
The new policy also encourages the establishment of departments of design in all IITs, the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), and in prestigious private sector colleges. The objective is to spread quality design education to all regions of India.
So far, so good. But I was shocked and dismayed to find no mention of climate change, sustainable development, or resource efficiency, in the press release describing the Cabinet’s “vision for a National Design Policy.”
The emphasis of the vision is on “making India a major hub for exports and outsourcing of designs.” This does not sound like the basis for a post-waste, post-consumerist, sustainable economy.
Frankly, if it ignores sustainability, India’s new design policy will make the global situation worse. A lot worse. 80% of the environmental impact of products, services and infrastructures is determined at the design stage, and India is a global industrial power.
Along with other friends of Indian design, I have been arguing for some years for a “leapfrog strategy” in which India jumps directly from a resource-guzzling productivist model to a more advanced, sustainable – and competitive – services-based model.
Doors has been arguing this case in India for six years. The focus of our first formal event in India, at NID in February 2000, was on the transition to a services economy. We expanded this discussion in Doors East in 2003, and at Doors 8 on Infra in 2005. The theme of Doors 9 on Juice, in two weeks’ time, returns once again to the leapfrog idea, this time on the context of food and energy.
India’s new design policy suggests that we have not argued well enough.
The leapfrog hypothesis is doing much better in China. Ezio Manzini, a pioneer of the idea, was on the front page of the Peoples Daily a few weeks ago on just this topic. Senior Chinese policy makers told us, then, that they are looking to develop a fundamental “transformation of our economic growth model”. They said they expected design to play a crucial role in this tranformation.
On a third reading of last week’s announcement from the Indian Cabinet, I discovered a nugget of hope near the bottom of the last page. Item xvi.11 of an Action Plan to implement the Policy says a proposed new India Design Council should “Take effective steps towards ‘cradle to grave environment-friendly approach’ for designs produced in India so that they have global acceptance as ‘sustainable designs’”.
This reads more like an afterthought than a ringing endorsement for design’s biggest opportunity in 200 years. But it’s better than nothing.
Will India’s design education fall further behind? I doubt it. India’s designers are fast on the uptake. Give them the tools – in the form of the promised new institutions – and I’m confident they’ll adapt them to the task of One Planet Economy design.
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