Saturday, March 29, 2008

Business Models for Designers: Learning from the Field

"Business Models for Designers: Learning from the Field" from the DCC class was featured in web portal for Industrial Design and we shared it with our students with much excitement in class.

Last week the undergraduate students of my Foundation class at NID, called “Design Concepts and Concerns”, studied business models as part of their programme of study in order to understand design theory and practice that is included as a core subject at the end of their first year at the school. Organised into five working groups, they fanned out from the Institute in search of small street food vendors located in many parts of Ahmedabad city and each group observed and studied one particular type of food vendor, each using their designer sensibilities and the designer tools and skills of drawing, observation, interaction and interviewing, all done in the field at the place of work, creating a platform for learning from the field. This kind of learning would stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives since design knowledge and insights are usually hard earned from the field through sensitive observation as insights about the future are rarely found in books and other resources that are usually considered sound sources of knowledge in the fields of science and technology.

They had to first break the ice and introduce themselves as well as their project intentions and try to muster the cooperation of the busy street vendors to get them to share their experiences as well as their insights about the business that they managed, all done in a fairly hostile space of the unrelenting street environment, which in many cases is not entirely supported by the local laws and the local and national law enforcement agencies. Last year the Supreme Court of India had instructed the Government of Delhi to take immediate action to ban all street food vendors under the current laws of the land and this had raised an uproar from a number of concerned citizens and activist groups across the country. Karmayug, a local NGO in Mumbai has done very detailed work on the management and facilitation of street vendors in Mumbai since they do serve a real need in the crowded Metro which cannot and will not be met by the organized retail sector in India. However, from these studies it is clear that these street food vendors negotiate an existence in this difficult space and manage to build up a steady source of income and from a start-up mode with very little investment they work hard to establish a credible business and in many cases a lot of good-will and business partners such as their suppliers and their regular clients in the field. Many of these individuals are eventually successful in managing their lives and earning a good living, good enough to tend for their family and give their children a platform from which they could launch themselves to positions of advantage that the parents did not enjoy in their lifetime. This is a great way to beat poverty by using ones own efforts and determination and this is an informal channel that can be used by the under-privileged, the poor and the desperate people living in the edge of the city to fend for themselves when neither industry nor governments can do very much to help them survive or thrive. is a great resource that discusses the various issues that pertain to street food in the developing world or as they say the Global South. The Seminar Magazine had discussed this topic in great depth in one of their issues and the debate is far from over in India and across the world, it seems.

Indian cities are full of such hard working and imaginative settlers who having migrated in search of work from our villages to our cities and they have managed to eke out a livelihood in an imaginative manner with no capital and with a determination that is truly amazing. They build up local contacts, live in slums or shanty towns to start with their city lives and then some of the more successful ones move on to build major businesses across many sectors depending on the opportunity that they find or what they learn through their many experiences in the city. Our Foundation students were assigned to study five such street food vendors by working in teams and the pictures that follow show the presentation that the groups have made after a three day sojourn in the field, deep learning and a great many insights about business in design and the business of design.

Our students looked at the following street food vendors and the pictures below show a glimpse of the presentations made by each group. I am requesting each group to fill in their insights as comments attached to each section and I hope that they will contribute to make the experience a rich and rewarding one for all of us in the days ahead.

1. Street Tea vendors (The Chaiwallah),
2. Omlette makers using chicken eggs (Omlettewallah),
3. Fried Bhajiya makers using potato in pea-flour batter (Bhajiyawallah),
4. Paav Bhaji wallah (Fried Bread and mashed vegetables),
5. Pani Puri wallah (Puffed Puris from wheat flour with a sweet-sour dip)

All of these are favorite Indian street foods, all served from “Laris” or informal carts, by small and micro business enterprises, each run by a poor but determined individuals who is trying to build a livelihood in a harsh socio-economic environment. We asked the student to avoid established stalls run from built spaces and to focus on small street based enterprises which can be seen and understood as a whole business enterprise.

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