John Thackara | Essays

Now We Are 10 [December 2003]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

In November 1993, the year the web was invented, the first Doors of Perception conference took place in Amsterdam. That was the year in which Netscape was founded. Kristi van Riet (one of our founders) and Chris Remie designed the first web page in Holland. Wired editor Louis Rossetto, a speaker at Doors 1, described the web as "the most important invention since the discovery of fire" - although some argued that the zip fastener, electric toaster, and popcorn machine - invented a hundred years before - were also crucial. You might expect this newsletter to be filled with birthday messages and fond reminiscences. But Doors is ten, not eighty, so we decided insteade to organize a workshop, conference and "working party" in Bangalore. Doors East struck a chord: a front page article in The Economic Times described it as "the most avant garde event that the IT world has ever seen - at least in India". 300 people from the words of software, design, policy, media, and grassroots projects came to the main event, on 11 and 12 December. Full reports of the event will be posted on the Doors website shortly (many pictures are already online) - but, for now, here are some tasters of what was discussed, and what went on.

The theme of Doors East was "designing tomorrow's services". We set out to learn how to design services, enabled by ICT, that meet basic needs in new ways. The leaders of 19 projects from Europe and South Asia joined a pre-conference workshop to swap experiences. We quickly decided that if a service is worth designing, it's worth designing it now - particularly if it contributes to social quality, health, care, and sustainability. So we stopped using the words tomorrow, and future.

"The trick is to think and act rural" advised Ashok Jhunjhunwaller, a promoter of the electronic kiosks that are transforming connectivity in rural India. Even if individual farmers do not own a PC or handset themselves, eighty five per cent of India's 700,000 villages now have functional access to some form of connectivity. 300 million people use the country's 950,000 Public Call Offices (PCO), and PCO revenues currently account for an astonishing 25 per cent of India's total telecom revenues. Sam Pitroda's vision of "an entrepreneur in every street" (which he previewed at Doors 4 on "speed" in 1996) has been realized in vast areas of the country. The brilliant business model innovations were first, to aggregate demand; and second, to scale the service rapidly by involving existing local entrepreneurs. Jhunjhunwaller predicts that kiosk systems as an enabling infrastructure should make it possible to double average incomes in rural India from today's $200 per year to $400.

ITC, one of India's larger trading conglomerates, connects rural farmers, information, products and services, through its eChaupal system. A chaupal, traditionally, is where farmers meet to share news and information. Farmers access latest local and global information on weather, scientific farming practices as well as market prices at the village itself, through this web portal which is in Hindi and other local languages. In every cluster of villages, a lead farmer acts as the interface between computer terminal and other local farmers. ITC claims that the system enhances farm productivity, improves farm-gate price realisation, cuts transaction costs, facilitates supply of high quality farm inputs and the purchase of commodities.

The basic cost of providing conventional telephone and Internet connections in India is about $750 per line. An operator would require a monthly revenue of about $22 to break even. As a monthly payment, this figure is affordable to barely three per cent of Indian homes - and these are concentrated in large cities. To resolve this dilemma, a system called n-Logue uses Wireless Local Loop (WLL) technology to provide multifunctional access to a network of kiosks. n-Logue facilitates relationships among hardware providers, NGOs, content providers, and local governments. Rather than directly promoting and maintaining countless WLL networks, nLogue is developing a network of local entrepreneurs to provide front-line implementation and services to local subscribers. These Local Service Partners (LSPs) set up Access Centres in small towns and rural areas which provide simultaneous Internet and Telephony access to subscribers within a 30 km (19 mile) radius.

Combinations of satellite and fixed or wireless local loops, with relay stations and devices powered by solar panels, are being deployed to connect even isolated communities. So called 'Sparse Area of Communications' is a telecoms priority in India. One CKS researcher described walking for three hours up a hill to a village that was inaccessible by road. When he arrived, he discovered that children in the village were all computer literate - and one showed him a powerpoint presentation. Whether finding a PowerPoint presentation at the top of a mountain represents progress is a moot point. The bigger debate at Doors East was whether proprietary systems like eChaupal and nLogue were compatible with the ideal of an open systems society.

In a light and sustainable economy we will share resources - such as time, skill, software, or food - using networked communications. Wireless networks have the potential to help Local Economy Trading Schemes (LETS) scale up. Sunil Abraham, an internet advisor to NGOs,†told us in Bangalore that local systems of barter and non-monetary exchange, such as Jogjami, have existed in India for at least 500 years. A cooperative distribution system called Angadia, or "many little fingers", enables people to send goods over sometimes vast distances without paying.

A workshop on micro finance and ICT - the use of appropriate information and communication technology to manage and audit asset information - takes place in Delhi next week.22-23 December 2003 New Delhi.

For many of the service designers who came to Bangalore, ethnographic research is a powerful new tool. But an ethical dilemma emerged: who owns the results of research into a lifestyle? Yves Doz, a professor at Insead, has written blithely about "harvesting lifestyles". The consensus in Bangalore is that we need to think first, and act responsibly, before blundering into communities without their informed consent. Perhaps the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath will be needed as service designers venture into real- world contexts.

The above issue raises the question: what should big companies do, and not, in emerging economies? Speakers from Nokia, Philips, and HP presented at Doors East, and each emphasized the importance of user-focused research in their innovation. But the DNA of these giant companies remains technology-focused innovation. And why not? In a sustainable society, someone has to develop and maintain enabling communications networks and infrastructures - and corporations are probably best-placed to take care of that side of things. Perhaps they should stop even pretending to understand or care about people.

The Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS) - our partner in Doors East - is a pioneer in the use of maps to understand communication flows in urban and rural communities. A conference in Delhi on the subject brings other actors in this fascinating subject together. Map India 2004, 28-30 January 2004.

Millions of dollars worth of management consultants' charts were rendered worthless by a lethal two-minute speech at the Doors East conference. Philip Tabor, in summarising a discussion about culture as rich context, said: "we discussed many deep and interesting things, but at least we did not invent a triangle". Earlier, at least two of the corporate presentations - and one of the research institutes - had proudly shown us concept maps of the world organised as triangles: "Real / Virtual / Hybrid"; "Useful / Usable / Desirable"; "Known / Unknown / Possible" - that kind of thing. Tabor opened our eyes to the absurdity of stuffing the world - which is spherical, in all respects - into a triangle.

India can become the 'food factory of the world' in the next few years. A report published by McKinsey & Co during our visit promoted the†twin concepts of "efficiency" and "innovation" as the basis for Indian strategy in the $640 billion global packaged food industry. "Efficient products at extremely low cost...that's where the heartland of the Indian consumer is going to be" the expensively-dressed consultants are quoted as saying. The likely costs to social and environmental quality of all this efficiency and innovation were not even mentioned in press coverage of McKinsey's document.

In a sleepy hamlet an hour from Bangalore, we encounter villagers standing around a two metre wide patch of ragi, a grain that is used to make dark bread. They have spread the ragi thinly over the road in a neat circle. Six chickens appear to be eating up the grain, while the villagers watch. Why do the villagers let them do this, we ask? It transpires that the chickens are eating tiny maggots, smaller than our eyes can see, which need to be removed from the grain before it can be stored. Neat. And so un-McKinsey.

Fifty fluffy white live chickens, their legs tied together, are draped over the bag of a moped as it weaves alarmingly through the traffic of Bangalore. They don't look freaked out, but one suspects that they anticipate the implementation of McKinsey's plan with trepidation.

Orange, the mobile telecommunications company, has plastered India with huge billboards in which a small boy is followed around by a pug dog. "Our network follows you everywhere" say the ads. This is at least an odd, and probably a misleading, metaphor. The whole point of networks is that they stay fixed, and we move. So why mis-educate people about the fact?

On the road to Mysore, we encounter an agitated crowd. An ancient road-roller has managed to collide with a small minivan. The road roller's maximum speed cannot have been more than three or four kilometres an hour, but the minivan has tried to cut across in front it into a side street... only to find its way blocked. Nobody is hurt, but the minivan is not in good shape.

One hundred years since the first manned flight, roughly 400 commercial flights operate each day in India. This is in stark contrast to the US where, with one fourth of India's population, there are 40,000 flights a day. If India were to emulate the US economy, today's 400 flights would rise to nearly 160,000. This gap makes promoters of low-cost air travel salivate. Environmentalists pray that far fewer of the 5,475,000,000 Indians who now take the train each year will take to the skies as the economy grows.

Around 5,000 participants from over 200 countries attended the World Summit of the Information Society in Geneva from December 10-12. Their participation generated about 10,000 tons of the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming. A clever Swiss foundation called CLIPP sells "climate tickets". These voluntary contributions, which amount to roughly 6.5 euros ($8) per hour flown, are invested in projects that foster the use of renewable energies or a more efficient use of energy. We are going to join.

India is a giant economy and an extraordinary mix of cultures. There are more computer scientists in Bangalore than there are in Silicon Valley. The city has more inhabitants than the whole of Finland, but 70 per cent of India's population still lives on the land. All these lives will change in the years ahead - in good ways and bad. Doors of Perception can play a modest but important role in these changes by promoting approaches to design that foster sustainability and social quality. We can ask pertinent questions, connect people and ideas together, and enable the critical exchange of knowledge between projects. Over the coming weeks, we will develop a Doors East activity plan for the coming years.

Jobs | May 26