Even though the world’s production of several items, from gadgets to clothes, has moved to China, the locus of design has hardly moved. Milan remains the world’s fashion capital. Silicon Valley, a champion of designing things-to-come. Both focus more on design than manufacturing.
Design not only adds a greater value to the end product or service but also remains difficult to copy, as seen in the realm of arts, literature, architecture, fashion and industrial design. Plants can always move to low-cost destinations but artists seldom do. That’s why it’s time for India to graduate from a push for Made in India to Design in India.
Let’s understand why Made in India might be what we desire but not what we want. Firstly, the magnitude and cost of China is both difficult and futile to match, and secondly, machines are increasingly becoming sophisticated and affordable, leaving little to differentiate in terms of human ingenuity. Take the iPhone. With several factories in China alone, supplier Foxconn shoulders the bulk of the world’s iPhone demand. These factories have dedicated lines and thousands of employees engineered to work on narrow specialization that can put robots to shame, at scale. Who can match such massive investments and discipline?
India’s recent tryst with manufacturing the iPhone didn’t go that well as highlighted by the December breakout of violence at the Wistron Corp. plant near Bengaluru. We can get work to India, but getting it done is a different matter. While manufacturing may add to employment, the amount of capital it requires for setting up facilities far outweighs the benefits.
India can be competitive if we sharpen our design skills. This transition would require three key skills to be developed: Building an ability to visualize the big picture, working with the local market to develop local solutions, and adopting a more disciplined approach to problem-solving, instead of resorting to improvisation or quick fixes.
It starts with developing a system’s view. While a company outsources manufacturing to India, we must understand who the customer is, how does the product impacts the customer’s life, and what value adds can be conceived. That’s how Singaporean and Korean semiconductor industries evolved from sweatshops to world-class designers. Secondly, appreciating that India has a diverse customer base, and by addressing the unique and extreme needs of Indian niche markets new competencies could be developed. Lastly, embracing a more systematic approach to problem solving, say, by adopting design thinking, which allows for empathy-driven, prototype-based, iterative methods of getting from problems to solutions.
Our organizations and policymakers must seriously consider means to augment India’s skills as a world-class designer of tangible and intangible products and offer a more enduring advantage. All this could only be done by design, not by accidents or rhetoric.
Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy. He’s the author of Design Your Thinking: The Mindsets, Toolsets and Skill Sets for Creative Problem-solving.