Beginning with Steve Jobs, design is an essential part of innovation. It is also plays one of innovation's most important strategic roles. Silicon Valley relies on it to preserve its advantage over places that merely "manufacture." The case of India can prove it right; more so, it seems, than Brazil would.
Whether trained in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi or Calcutta, India's engineers and mathematicians have a great reputation. This isn't the case for designers, who are beginning to be seen as a weakness.
"It's not that we don't have designers," says Poyni Bhatt, director of the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), an incubator located in the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, one of the country's most prestigious engineering schools. "But since we have so many companies specialized in engineering and manufacturing physical products, we pay less attention to design."
"For a long time you could sell any product, no matter how poorly designed, as soon as it worked," says Kachan Kumar, president of the local chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a group founded in Silicon Valley to encourage Indian entrepreneurship throughout the world, using the money and experience of successful entrepreneurs. "In the eyes of the middle class, design could be desirable but not absolutely necessary, since you can live without it – and it's expensive. Traditionally, art is reserved for the rich."
"I don't know a lot of young people who want to get into design as a profession," Kumar says. "We have hundreds of engineering schools, but few for design. Fine arts are seen as a hobby, not a profession," he says.
For Mahesh Samat, former executive director of Disney-India, with a background in wine (he owns his own winery, 150 miles outside of Mumbai) and comic books, "India's biggest challenge is the lack of respect here for the liberal arts. We're going to regret the lack of creativity. We don't think different, to use Apple's expression. We don't think out of the box. The film industry encourages paths outside of engineering, but that's the only area where we're creative."
"Indians are beginning to become interested in design," counters Bangalore architect, Prem Chandavarkar. "Before the 2008 crisis, we had 8 to 9% yearly growth, and anything we built generated revenue. Design and innovation weren't necessary. The uncertainty of the financial crisis forced us to change, but you can't just jump into design. It takes time and thought." Indian industry is beginning to face the problem and "in two or three years, things will change," says the architect, who's in a good place to judge, since he's being asked more and more frequently to design spaces that encourage innovation. Consciousness of design's importance is growing quickly wherever I've been. It's even more important since it's not the most difficult area to catch up in.
In Brazil, Recife has made itself into the country's third technology hub due to the quality of its engineers. Now it's betting on "creative industries."
"We're not only focused on technology anymore," says Silvio Meira, president of CESAR (Recife Center for Advanced Studies and Systems), which drives local development. "We have 40 designers and are growing our amount of interdisciplinary teams." For him, as for TiE-Mumbai's Kachan Kumar, design is key for any company targeting world markets.
CESAR is already working with Angolian designers. What would happen if it worked with Indian engineers?