Designing for billion population market? Think in context

February 2, 2016 Design 1 Comment


There was much talk within the impact sector and beyond about designing products and services for the billion, the global population below and above the poverty line. Within India, the conversations were around designing for below poverty line to the low-income population as one bracket and the other bracket is lower-middle to middle income of the population. This could be applicable to other developing countries too. A good example of a well-designed solution for a billion population is TATA Nano, Ratan Tata responded to the challenge and gave the market what he promised. It led to other challenges and the Nano product has evolved to a different context due to market forces and consumer reaction. The world knows that India has local capital which needs to be unlocked, hosting many billionaires (who need to go beyond fractured “charities”) and high entrepreneurial spirit to build its own ecosystem to solve social challenges and foreign aid is now diverted as trade/ business exchange between the countries. But before I talk about design and its role for billion population market, I want to set the context of the market and challenges in the sector.

desigining for billion market

Is there a market?

–  Technology and globalization leading to aggregation of target markets across India. Consumption growth spreading beyond metro cities and the billion population is hungry for more (dil aur dimaag maange more? Head and heart ask for more?). Start-ups, online businesses are booming, technology and Facebook are aggregating small manufacturers, SME’s to vendors, large/ family/ traditional businesses. This has had trickle-down effect (we are not referring to Facebook J) on social enterprises using technology to bridge poverty gap, offering affordable products & services to underprivileged and under-served population.

– Tier 2 & 3 cities, towns are demanding more, aspirational towards urban India. There is a psychological shift, where the hunger of the world’s largest working population for economic independence is growing and driven to break the language and education barrier. Apart from the rural to urban migration, Tier 2 & 3 town population want to live urban India lifestyle. And Urban India is becoming “hubs” for a globalized India (although in isolation within each city) in terms of lifestyle and society. TATA Nano is a good example, catering to the billion dreams but as soon as the “1 Lakh rupees car” was launched, the aspiration changed. Indians felt it was designed for the “poorer” class that still aspires to have a car. The lower-mid and middle-class population still bought the compact value-for-money car but it didn’t reach the scale or growth which TATA motors expected at all.

– With this upbeat globalization news, global and Indian players see now the real opportunity of designing products/ services that can be at scale. Yet on the ground, the realities of consumption patterns are still fractured, the Indian market is not flat/ homogenized, and the internet has not penetrated like the Chinese market. After the internet and globalization wave, the smartphone wave is slowly gripping the Indian market, yet the inequality of income across India, the diversity in population across regions is forcing companies/ organization to offer products or services that are customized for each region (north, south, east & west or West Bengal, Karnataka, Punjab, Gujrat) .


Challenges and context:


– With our experience at the grass-root level, we have realized we cannot design product or service that are “exclusively” for poor. The aspirations are same, of low-income to middle-class to upper-middle-class Our design solutions have to be “inclusive” in approach and acceptability. That is probably why I have been skeptical about the branding of BoP Hub as an initiative although well intentioned and relevant to impact sector. I found the design conference in Gandhinagar (India) well-structured with a cross-collaborative approach to design for a billion agenda.

– Solving social challenges or making a social impact is different from product/ service that create value. Designers & organizations (more often) sometimes don’t understand the difference between the two. When social enterprises such as D-light selling “lower” cost solar lamps to low-income population in urban and rural areas through distribution channels, it is creating value by making a product more accessible to an under-served market. It might lead to a family household access to cook, a child to study (although ambient lighting is better for their eyesight), emergency situations etc. but it is not direct social impact, nor resolving a social challenge. However, connecting a village to the solar mini-grid system or introducing low-cost integrated energy solutions like Selco India is pursuing, we have a strong design case of trying to solve complex social challenges with a systemic approach. The design brief for challenges like above needs to have the right context and intention for designers to set the appropriate creative process.

– There is a danger of simplification or reductionist approach towards social challenges that exist in India. The complex layers of society, psycho-social and cultural behaviour in India lead to problems and inequalities that can’t be resolved a single solution. Our design approach needs to keep this complexity as a context to design solutions and its impact on target community. I have been through many design and creative toolkits for social impact and the best ones which have worked when a designer who has a good grasp on design thinking and designing process, will intuitively follow a process that is adapted locally, adopted by the target community.

– Indian social sector cannot be always the “prototype” lab for the last 30 years. India before globalization till 2012 was seen a prototype for social impact solutions that can be tested and scaled to other regions within the country and developing countries based on its success. Foreign aid was pouring in, global foundations wanted to invest in prototyping, facilitate non-profits and impact enterprises to grow. Now the world and Indian social sector want success stories beyond prototype, stories of scale and growth of social innovation and impact. How long shall we wait?

– Currently in the design industry involved with the social sector in India, there are many design firms who “talk” more about design thinking, few reach to the pilot stage and then we have no idea where the process has led to. There are very few design firms that have understood the challenges and constraints well, have focused on contextual design and design execution. When you go through specifics of any design for social impact project, you can actually see where exactly the design has failed, the designer is bluffing, the design was rejected by the target community and project was not funded enough to see its completion.


Design Approach


– Sometimes a well – designed solutions might not work, and it is okay. The social challenges in India are interlinked and complex, so even the best of design solutions overcoming several constraints have been rejected by target communities. A successful prototype or a well-received design solution by a particular community fails when we take it to another community/ region or at scale. And it is okay, it is a continual process of co-creating, renovating, innovating new ideas which are part of every design process in the social and commercial sector. As I mentioned before, till we keep in mind that

the design of a product/ service should also be inclusive in nature and exclusive in aspiration

– There are few good tools for design approach in social sector such as a comprehensive list shared by Lucy Kimbell and NESTA supported a design toolkit.


–  With our project experience, we have found that more than a good design solution for a problem, we need to design ways to “influence” the culture of behaviour. The incentives and motivation for a community to adopt and scale a well-designed solution might be too complex and we might have to design a solution to influence their behaviour to change in order to bring the social value we intended We need to be careful and consider possible effects and “side-effects” on the larger society/ ecosystem due to change in behaviour. Good examples would be to study design solutions in the sanitation sector, or case studies for clean stove designs which were well funded yet communities in Bihar state rejected the prototypes as the coal/ wood fire stoves had other benefits (driving away mosquitoes that allowed families to sleep) which clean stove did not have.


–  A systemic design approach : Challenges/ problems can’t be solved in silos, there are larger influences and patterns of the ecosystem. We see many social enterprises and non-profits in same sectors such as education, healthcare, livelihood, agriculture that can learn from each other’s experiences, collaborate on resources and partner with other sector players to look at challenges from a systemic perspective. There are also very few funders and investors who don’t want to support or fund systemic based solutions which are resource intensive due to immediate impact value solutions can bring due to accountability and mandate. Design thinking can play a big role in this area.


–  Impact centric design approach : Evolving from Human Centred Design (HCD) process championed by IDEO and laid down a foundation for a design approach to social sector with few tools. The human-centered approach allows us to keep users as the focus and gives the design process a new way to look at functional and delightful experiences for humans who will use products/ services. But this was talked about 20 years back, so what now? Sustainability and impact on our environment, society or culture are serious considerations we need to give design process a fresh approach, impact centric design (ICD) is a design approach where we consider impact of new/ improving product or service design on not just human (user) but also on “users”, society and environment. It is not just about the value of final product or design solution but what the impact is during the creation/ production of the solution and after using the product/ service.


Design Opportunities


– Role of facilitation; enabling existing designs and solutions

I have observed that many social sector challenges have existing design solutions, innovative ideas that need to be only tweaked/ improved, contextualised or needs facilitation to make an existing solution more effective. There are sometimes enough ideas and designs which already exist around us, we don’t need to change the world or bring a completely new design idea/ solution. Observing, learning and unlearning the social, economic, ecological and cultural context in India, I see design playing a strong role in the facilitation of impact, enable design ideas and support innovators, leaders and organizations in using design as a tool for sustainable solutions.

impact criteria for nonprofits

– Break the barrier of language through design

Travelling across regions in India, language seem to be a barrier for many grass root innovators, community leaders, and regional social entrepreneurs to reach out the world with their idea and vision. I gave them examples of successful leaders from other countries such as Sweden, France, Japan who never knew any other language other than their native language yet went on to build million or billion dollar companies. They stared at me blankly. Language has been a barrier even for urban city-based entrepreneurs who are unable to articulate, communicate and “convince” the funders, investors, grant makers that their work deserves financial support. Can we design a solution to break the barrier of language? Allow investors/ funders to look at the idea and its value beyond the ability to pitch or market it?


– Brand & marketing through design can be a starting point

The world is moving fast, where attention and retention remain quite short. Brand building has to be taken more seriously by social sector players if they intend to integrate with the competing commercial sector. Brand, communication, marketing/ fundraising and stakeholder engagement will be/ is a key operational mandate for every organization that wants to grow and be sustainable. Attracting the right talent, establishing quality branding and its brand building process is imperative. Design will have to lay the foundation for quality and consistency to create an inspirational brand and marketing of its work.


Introspective, responsible, integral, enlightened and sustainable approach will hopefully become the pillars of design for future. It is interesting to read about the Kyu collective although, beyond the big words, the main focus areas of design facilitation seem to advance the capitalist model of growth lacking a deeper ideology that could give design roots more than antennas. But to begin with,  I don’t see a reason why big banks, VC firms and investors willing to lose millions of dollars on products that cater to thousands than risk with capital than can cater to a billion.