• Sunday, April 21, 2024


EXCLUSIVE: It is so exciting to see the start-up scene in India, says design strategist Deepa Prahalad

Daughter of eminent business thinker and entrepreneur CK Prahalad, Deepa spoke with India Weekly on a range of issues, varying from design capacity to future of India’s start-ups to women leaders who have emerged in her field from India.

Deepa Prahalad

By: Shubham Ghosh

In 2023, Deepa Prahalad wrote in the journal Innovations published by the MIT Press that nurturing connections between creators and customers is an important yet often overlooked aspect of addressing the persistent global problems of poverty and inequality.

She said while skill gaps can be addressed by individual efforts and targeted interventions, opportunities are increasingly created and accessed through networks. Creating new networks among diverse stakeholders is especially important in light of the challenges business and governments are grappling with worldwide, such as climate change, poverty and secularity.

These words give a fair idea about how much Prahalad, an author and design strategist, can be innovative in dealing with social and economic issues. Daughter of legendary business thinker and entrepreneur CK Prahalad (1941-2010), Deepa’s work focuses on emerging markets and social innovation and she has worked with start-ups and large multinationals. She mentors leading social entrepreneurs and serves on several advisory boards and recently led the design of House of India, a new museum in Balboa Park, the USA’s largest urban park.

India Weekly recently spoke with Deepa Prahalad, who is also an elected member of the International Academy of Management and was ranked 34 on the inaugural Thinkers 50 India list, on various issues ranging from design and strategy and how they can impact markets, social innovation and economic growth; the future of India’s start-up culture to how the teachings of his late father are relevant in current times.

When asked about the connection between design and strategy and how they affect markets and social innovation, Prahalad told the news outlet that design is something much bigger than a concept thought in terms of looks and packaging.

“While many mission statements today are similar, design is often the way for firms to show their execution capability and build trust. Does the product/ service do what it’s supposed to? Was it easy to understand and use? Am I motivated to share it?

A compelling design is often the difference between people telling you that you have a good idea and actually placing an order – which directly impacts profit,” she said, adding that in the realm of social innovation, where norms and beliefs often need to be challenges, design can make the change palatable, and even exciting.

India Weekly also asked Prahalad about the role that design plays in boosting economic growth, particularly when seen from India’s point of view.

Drawing a close connection between innovation and design with economic growth, she said India’s trajectory in the past decade sets an example.

“Design has to be considered at so many levels – how can goods and services be made more affordable and accessible? How can we think about sustainability early on when we have to create at a massive scale? Discovering new approaches to these challenges boosts health, welfare and the hopefully happiness of citizens,” she said.

“This can unleash innovative capacity, which helps boost consumption and trade.”

Stressing that design can also be an important source of ‘soft power’, she said subjects such as films, literature, yoga, ayurveda and food are key ways to build trust and familiarity with a global audience and these connections and relationships are the building blocks of future partnerships and ventures.

“I was so excited to see a ‘Designed in India’ label on a range of home décor products when I was out shopping recently,” Prahalad said.

She, however, said that India’s path will look very different from the west or the export-led East Asian tiger model from the 1990s.

“India’s growth has been heavily weighted on services as opposed to manufacturing and the emphasis on sustainability will have to be considered at the outset. Given the varying income levels in India, designers have to adopt a more inclusive approach. They must focus on relevance first, as the revenue models overseas don’t necessarily work in India,” Prahalad explained.

On India’s start-up culture

Speaking on the future of India’s start-ups in the era of economic growth, she said introduction of new technologies creates both panic and opportunity to have a new conversation about equity and access.

“It is so exciting to see the start-up scene in India from close quarters, as many of them are embracing (and indeed developing!) these new technologies while thinking deeply how they can be used for societal benefit. This ability to understand a diverse set of needs and circumstances is a powerful trait – and one that is prevalent in India.

“Many surveys today say that adaptability is the most desired trait among new hires. India certainly forces people to develop this skill! In this coming era of rapid growth, I hope that this collective mindset continues.”

When India Weekly tried to learn from the design consultant about policies that can nurture design capacity, Prahalad acknowledged the role that economic incentives play for innovators. She also put an emphasis on appreciation of craftsmanship, sharing of logic behind traditional techniques and celebration of unique talent as the real drivers of design capacity.

Talking about the case of India, she said, “Tolerance – for new ideas as well as some degree of failure is also critical. India is blessed because each state has a well developed tradition in both folk and fine arts – which is unique in itself. Furthermore, most of these are living traditions and we have communities that have generations of knowledge.

“I hope that the recent trend of celebrating local talent will continue and that more direct connections between corporates and these artisan communities will be nurtured, the way brands like Jaipur Rugs has done. Why settle for a minimum viable product when there is such a huge opportunity to have function, beauty and tradition at a competitive price?”

Jaipur Rugs is one of India’s biggest exporters of handwoven carpets and a trusted global brand. The model of Jaipur Rugs is based on the vision of NK Chaudhary, an entrepreneur who is called the Gandhi of the carpet industry. It has an artisan network of 40,000 weavers across 600 villages in five Indian states and exports to more than 65 nations, including the US and Europe.

According to Prahalad, the success of Jaipur Rugs is mainly because of good management rather than technological innovation.

Speaking about some of her design projects, Prahalad said as an advisor and consultant, she helps design efforts by putting up questions, sharing relevant approaches from other industries and trying to understand patterns in consumer feedback.

She cited her association with nonprofits such as Arogya World, which is based in Pennsylvania and works on preventing non-communicable diseases with a major focus on India, and social entrepreneurs such as ModRoof which is based in Ahmedabad in Indi’s Gujarat.

“Empathy is critical, but translating it into products and services is a very complex process. While the resource gap is often obvious, the knowledge gaps exist on both sides. This is precisely why design is so powerful – it forces you to synthesize and create common ground,” she said.

Prahalad, who is also an art enthusiast, said she is inspired by art and loves to take a hands-on approach.

“I have been the head of design for the House of India Museum in San Diego, which is located in the largest urban park in the US. This involved imagining a space to represent Indian culture from the construction phase itself – from selecting floor tile to personally building and painting various items. It’s so gratifying to see the public walking through and often sharing their memories from visits to India,” she told India Weekly.

On father CK Prahalad’s work

When Prahalad was asked about the works of her late father that she considers relevant today, she told this news outlet that the “most enduring and relevant aspects” of CK Prahalad’s work are his bold vision and emphasis on inclusion.

“His ability to direct focus to what is possible as opposed to the barriers continues to inspire me. The idea of keeping a balance between analysis and aspiration has stuck. I believe his earlier work on strategy (with concepts such as dominant logic and core competence) helped people to challenge mindsets and foster growth,” she said.

“Highlighting the efforts and achievements of so many making a difference – such as Aravind Eye Hospital, Jaipur Foot and others in his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, for example, demonstrated the importance of bringing innovation, quality and scale to address challenges that corporates would generally shy away from.

“This helped to change the thinking and focus of corporates around the world and today these organizations are Harvard Business School Case studies!

“I think it inspired a conversation in the corporate world about how to bring their talent and resources to solve social challenges in a direct manner, as opposed to CSR alone. I also think his continued emphasis on moral leadership is as relevant as ever,” Prahalad added.

When she was asked whether there are enough women in her field of expertise, Prahalad said she is optimistic that women will have a bigger impact on design in the times to come since they are by and large caretakers and makers.

Calling for inclusion of women’s voices in development of designs saying they are more practical and intuitive, Prahalad said powerful women role models are already there, including CEOs such as Leena Nair and Indra Nooyi, as well as those who have effectively mobilised women (microfinance, Jaipur Rugs, Lijjat Papad).

She also mentioned the names of leading women designers such as Sonia Manchanda (SPREAD Design), who is now a Board Member of the World Design Organization, saying it is always a pleasure to watch leading women designers from India.

“Her iconic work such as the new Goa airport and Commonwealth Games and role in creating new design methodologies is being recognized around the world. I would also name Rajshree Pathy, founder of the India Design Forum. These efforts ensure that India can contribute to the global conversation about design at the highest level,” she said.

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