Archive for October, 2011

Entrepreneur King; his Pink City & the Future

October 31, 2011


Maharaja Jaisingh – 1688 – 1743 – (photo taken from the murals of the Jaipur museum).

Maharaja Jaisingh was an exceptional king. Amongst many of his great achievements in the 18th century was building of the city of Jaipur, which is still intact, vibrant and fully operational. But he built this city with a purpose. He wanted it to be a great trading center rather than a fort like city which was the prevalent style during those days.

And he hit upon a very novel idea. He thought to turn his subjects into micro entrepreneurs and traders so as to transform his desert kingdom into a wealthy and flourishing one. With this in mind he built small shops within the city with wide roads for transportation of goods. He also wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing. Therefore all buildings were made out of pink colored stones from which the city got its name the ‘Pink City’, where none of the buildings could be built beyond a certain height.

It was a rather exceptional idea to rent out these newly constructed shops in the heart of the city to commoners rather than to noblemen of his courts. He charged them a very small rent in exchange of letting them run their family business from these spaces for commerce. Even after 200 years of their existence the value of the rent has gone up to measly sum of Rs 30/- a month (under $1). The idea was not profiting from the rentals but letting people learn and do business and add wealth and cultural value to the princely state of Jaipur. A casual round of the place shows us the great variety of trades and professions the people were engaged in, most of which continues till this day. Businesses are passed down from one generation to the next. Artisans (read freelancers) flocked to this place from all over India not only to enrich the culture of the place but also put a permanent signature of their unique quality at affordable prices.

This had far fetching repercussions and implications on the development of the nature and structure of Indian businesses, some of which are the following:

1. Created a class of astute and die-hard business families called ‘Marawaris’. They hate to do anything other than business.

2. Augmented the concept of ‘family business’, which is the prevalent style of doing business in India.

3. Promise and trust were the cornerstones of doing business where verbal agreements were equally honored like written agreements.

4. Promoted local crafts that pulled together designers, artisans, businessmen, freelancers, entrepreneurs, job seekers all over India especially from Bengal and Gujarat. The impressions of their fine art work of Bengal and Gujarat seem to be all over the place in Northern India, which even found a prominent place in Muslim and Mugal artifacts. Over time people from Gujarat were also sucked into becoming small and big businessmen but Bengalis stuck to their nomadic freelancer and micro entrepreneur life style. In that way they not only became the second largest community scattered all over India but also the eleventh richest community in the world.

5. Preservation of traditional crafts and professions till date, which the British wanted to obliterate with standardization of their products supported by efficient transportation connecting thousands of villages across India. It is in the desert region of Rajasthan that they miserably failed to push their concept of standardized and cheap products carried through an efficient railways system. This happened because British goods did not suit the local needs or matched the culture of the place. Their products weren’t life centric as the traditional products were.

6. This brings up the unique topic of designing ‘life centric products‘. For instance, in these markets, one would find a blanket that weighs about 100 grams, which can be folded into a very small size. The unique life centric feature of such a blanket is that it is cool on one side and warm on the other. Such an artifact is completely life centric to the nomadic tribes of the region. It is light and small to carry and can be used both in the daytime when temperatures soar and in the night when the mercury dips too low. The brass vessels used for storing water serves as another live example of a life centric product. People in the desert have used brass vessels for storing brackish water to turn them into potable drinking water for centuries. So the traders still sell brass vessels so useful in a place used to having scanty or no rainfall during the whole year. Even today, these traders are busy selling such life centric wares, which as I saw kept evolving over time with changing contexts.

7. The business models that operate are built on three vital principles — a) Robustness b) Resilience c) Natural cycles and rhythms linked to patterns of living. They have cleverly blended the concepts of robustness/reliability with resilience into their products and business models. The products are cheap, aesthetically pleasing and reliable over long periods of time. As opposed to concepts of robustness and reliability these businesses, which have stood the test of time, primarily evolved around the concepts of resilience and patterns of living tied to Nature. The businesses were resilient to stand the test of time since they had the innate ability to detect changes in the likes, dislikes and changing demands of the people and times (a sort of collaborative effort) to quickly adjust and adapt to those changes. It means rather than think in terms of fixed and often larger volumes, scaling up, improved infrastructure etc the businesses were in tune with the patterns of living of the masses that varied with the rhythms and cycles of nature. People needed different artifacts at different times of the year hence the supply was not tuned to a pump out a steady constant volume pushed month after month over the year based on average ‘customer needs’ to minimize operating costs to maximize profits but churned out in variable volumes in collaboration with the customers’ patterns of living to meet variable demands at different times of the year. Hence these family businesses never felt a need to grow beyond the space their small shops provided them for the past 200 years. They persevered in adapting, maintaining and creating wealth within the constraints of their given space. I was indeed fascinated by the remarkable business model that not only obviates the need for constant capital infusion to keep one’s neck above water but also creates unimaginable wealth for the families and others. (See a live success story of such operating model being used as a strategy in competitive environment here)


(A glimpse of the old shops running their family businesses in the Pink City, October 2011)

My visit to the Pink City was more than enlightening. I was rewarded by sudden but deep insights in to the business psyche of the Indians and a possibe model that would serve us in the future.

The new questions that arise in my mind now are:

1. What are we doing to preserve these principles in the present context?

2. Can start ups and new entrepreneurs take a leaf out of these old lessons to model their business?

3. How can we create a platform or network of such budding entrepreneurs and make them thrive and grow over the years just like Maharaj Jaisingh did in his Pink City?

4. What we need to do to move from the business models based on robustness and reliability to a business model that primarily focuses on resilience without sacrificing resilience.

5. How can we bring down the operating, inventory and product costs through design rather than through scale ups, speed of operation and the constant need for capital infusion to increase infrastructure to accommodate growing volumes?

6. All our notions about business models and operating our businesses would change once we adopt the resilience model over robustness model. That would throw up hundreds of new questions to be answered.

I have just grown to love entrepreneurs — design thinkers of sorts, who operate in seemingly impossible situations, solving problems with their heart & guts.
I feel this resilient way of doing business through micro entrepreneurs, where individual capital investment need not be high, holds the key to shape and inspire the future economy of the world, which presently is collapsing to its death crying out for a major transformation.
Do you think the same?



Sex & Design Thinking

October 27, 2011

I loved studying this story from a Design Thinker’s point of view. (How the Joy of Sex was illustrated)

The challenge was to bring out an illustrated book on sex, which the publishers feared would not be accepted by the prevailing social consciousness of Europe.

The story has all the necessary ingredients and the intrigue that make up a thrilling story for a Design Thinker providing the necessary excitement to continue in his/her professional journey. I think it is a great story of how the publisher and the author overcame the challenges of the day to bring out something that was not only desirable but also needed to improve quality of life.

I feel this might be a good case study for Design Thinkers to ponder over and learn from.


Insights to be gained:

The important points on Design Thinking, well illustrated by the story, are the following:

1. Design and Design Thinking start out by challenging to change the existing reality. The manner in which it is done is ‘counter-intuitive’.

2. It does so by understanding the present context and the constraints inherent in the context. It attempts to answer the question why.

3. It challenges given assumptions

4. Design Thinking feels, perceives and creates a mental construct through understanding

5. The learning takes place through prototyping and testing.

6. It then comes out with a Solution/Product and documentation

7. It constantly changes, evolves and adapts through ‘becoming‘ matching new realities akin to Nature’s cycle of creation, growth and destruction. 



A Stranger to Myself – Design Kata 3

October 26, 2011

The idea of ‘motion’ or nomadic life runs deep in our Indian culture. Our rivers travelling endlessly across the vast landscape giving life to the parched lands are personifications of goddesses (symbols of creativity), reincarnations (symbols of state transformations), the timeless whirl of bhikshus and monks wandering for alms (in exchange of advice and wisdom for better living), jhum cultivation obeying the rhythms of nature, clusters and settlements in steady flux of self organizing movements, sadhus (seers) and pilgrims, mobile fairs and haat bazzars (markets), itinerant pilgrims, performers, pastoralists, bards and tellers of myths all embody the notion of ‘motion’ all performing simultaneously on the thin veneer of our ancient but extremely flexible and adaptable ‘culture’.

No wonder South Asia is home to the world’s largest nomadic population always on ‘motion’. Nowhere else is there such a variety of people herded and ceaselessly moving in a self organizing manner giving rise to complex patterns nor can the diversity of peripatetic professions be matched.

Yet in our post modern times the sedimentary have increasingly come to represent the ‘civilized’. The mainstream (the sedentary) stands oblivious to the pull of the wanderers and the scribes and the worlds of the nomads have been circumcised’ to the odd curious enthusiasts. Little wonder, nomads are considered ‘strangers’ where ‘strangers’ in principle are ‘undesirable’ people.

And how does this ‘undesirable’ attitude surface? ‘Indifference’ is the shield used by ‘foreigners’ (the non nomads) when they meet nomads. Insensitive and aloof the foreigner seems deep down beyond the reaches of attacks and rejection that he nevertheless experiences with the vulnerability of a living and tortuous ‘medusa’.

Such a ‘medusa’ painfully brings on an ‘identity’ of ‘being’ something distinct from others with a fixed character of its own. What it fails to realize or let go is that our identity is changed in a nomadic style by the journey we undertake in life where both our ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ towards ‘reality’ is recomposed and evolved. What we fail to realize or give up or let go is that in this transformation every step forward is a step backwards too. Without this necessary stepping back I can’t go forward. The migrant (nomad) is here and there too at the same time. The exile from the ‘nomad’ life can be deadening with the lack of ‘stretching’ and ‘folding’, which every movement entails. Such ‘stretching’ and ‘folding’ is nomadic symbolizing ‘movement’ that can be creative. It can also be an affliction but can also be a transfiguration. Whatever it might be it is a vital resource to create the necessary movement from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’.

If that is so what happens to my identity of ‘being’. My ‘being’ existence is actually non-existent. Is my identity not with ‘being’ but ‘becoming’? Do I live always on the edge of a frontier – a place for separation, transition and new articulation of a state that I haven’t seen or enjoyed before? In ‘becoming’ am I relieved of the odd task of constantly creating a boundary and jealously guarding it against attacks or rejection by constantly stepping back to cross or transgress it?   

I realize that I am stranger to my ‘becoming’ state. What would happen is not know to me. What I would do as a response is also not known to me. In the state of becoming I change myself physically, mentally and spiritually and nothing is known to me in advance or ever would.

What helps me do that? Obviously the mind which itself is ‘nomadic’. I can use it the way I would like in order to evolve, change, be creative and change the course of my destiny. I know the ‘why’ but I still remain a stranger to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in any given moment in my movement.

This video link below shows how we integrate our right and left brains in real situations and how such integration leads to ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. Though I would always remain a stranger to that ‘becoming’ I refuse to remain a stranger to my present moment that informs my ‘becoming’.

One thing I am sure of. Nomadic life – physically, mentally and spiritually – is usually the most gainful and risk free mode of survival as it allows freedom from the limitations of confined space and time created by the limitations of rational concepts, ideas and notions.

Living the life of a nomad is fun too since I would always remain a stranger to myself. It is a practice I love. Rightfully it is a Design Kata since it helps me to create what I want to. The practice is through meditation where both the right and the left are not only integrated but allowed to come into play simultaneously as a contextual response to real situations.

Would you like to join the fun of moving by being a stranger to yourself in the nomadic way?

Stop Looking for Jobs!

October 23, 2011

As the old industrial world, big companies, despots, tyrants, dictators tumble and collapse along with the old mindset the question of finding traditional ‘jobs’ are becoming rarer by the day. The old model simply refuses to work any longer the way it worked. Governments are bankrupt both for money and ideas. The education system is churning out certificates that are virtually not worth it since the old institutions for which these were meant for now belong to the quickly vanishing tribe of “neo dinosaurs”. Nothing new can be created in the old infertile soil. The old and familiar playground of jobs is now simply turning into a desert.

So with no new jobs being created and with the older jobs vanishing what is left?

What is still left is work and lot of good and meaningful work that fulfill local needs and local skills. Recently back from my holiday trip to the wonderful land of Rajasthan this is one story of a man who started a movement called ‘barefoot college’ in Rajasthan. My insights weren’t any different from that of his. The nomadic life that underlines the character of the place is probably the most efficient and effective way to live in this world now.


What we probably need now other than such barefoot colleges is the creation of effective and efficient net-worked economy of micro enterprises.

During my holiday trip to Rajasthan, I saw hundreds of opportunities for work and earning that are not being presently tapped into for survival, sustenance and prosperity.

That simply too much of an opportunity to pass up!

Why not Design Think Micro Enterprises created by outliers of the society and turning them into strong profitable entrepreneurs with Design Kata being a way forward to groom up such a class of entrepreneurs.

It might simply change the ways by which we live and work. It might also change the world and our societies and our whole outlook towards life to lead more sustainable and coherent lives.

What do you think?

Designing a Business is Counter Intuitive

October 9, 2011
As a child I found great fun solving the maze problems published in the Sunday edition of daily newspapers like ‘The Statesman’. The task was to rescue a boy or a rat trapped in the maze. I quickly learned that it was never a clever idea to start where the ‘victim’ was. Stating from the ‘exit’ was the easiest way to solve such problems. It was counter intuitive but effective. The great mathematician Euler when he was in class 3 or 4 astounded his teachers by the way he solved the problem of adding the numbers 1 to 100 in less than a few seconds. All he did was to mentally line up the numbers 1 to 100 as in a series. Below it he placed another series in the reverse order, i.e. 100 to 1. When he added up the numbers for each pair it was exactly 101. So it was 101 repeated 100 times, which gave him a total of 10100. This he divided by 2 to gave him 5050, which was the solution. Well that was also counter intuitive. Now suppose there are 100 male tennis players who want to win the Wimbeldon men’s single title then how many games must be played in the tournament? We can find the answer by working from the beginning to the end, starting with 50 first round matches followed by 25 matches and so on. As it turns out the other way is to work backwards. Since there must be 99 losers for us to obtain one winner we must then have 99 matches. Now that is also counter intuitive. It is the same with designing buildings. We dont start by designing the kitchen and then the bedrooms working our way to designing the entire building. We do just the opposite. We begin with the overall concept to formulate the vision and then work our way down to the details of each space having specific functions. This is also counter intuitive. It is exactly by a similar counter intuitive method we design businesses. We can’t start with what all we are going to sell and how much we are going to sell to exceed our break even point to start making decent profits and then analyze competitive intelligence to check how the market dynamics would change over time.

Surely that is not the way a business is designed. You must have guessed it by now. We design businesses in a counter intuitive fashion. We start with the ‘vision’ of how the business would look and be like. Once that vision is fixed we then work backwards to fill in the details. That too is strongly counter intuitive!

What may we learn from Oxford Interview Questions?

October 6, 2011

Oxford University, considered one of the toughest universities to get into, invariably challenges potential students with interview questions that push them to think on their feet, think independently and laterally and show an ability to apply theory thereby showing their real ability and potential.

Some of the questions are:

a) Is violence always political?

b) Does ‘political’ means something different in different contexts?

c) Why do lions have manes?

d) Why ladybirds and strawberries have red colors?

e) In a world where English is a global language why learn French?

f) If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death and therefore nobody did it, would that be just and effective law?

Compare this with the Indian education system that is geared towards rote learning rather than cognitive development and imagination.

Do we need to change?

How do we practice this style of learning?