Introduction and Thoughts on Building Local

We are a group of master’s students in the Strategic Design and Management program at Parsons The New School for Design. As part of a course on Design Innovation and Leadership, we are exploring the economic and social impact of reverse and open innovation. We will be using this space to evaluate examples of innovative projects and their impact in emerging markets, and to share our thoughts on related readings and events.

Earlier this week, we attended a discussion with Douglas Rushkoff, author of ‘Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.’ In his book, Rushkoff criticizes the way our economy has been set up for maximum (and unsustainable) growth, regardless of its social and cultural impact. He calls out our current investment culture, which encourages entrepreneurs to abandon the generative potential of their businesses in favour of unrealistic valuations and buyouts. Instead, Rushkoff urges us to build smaller, local and more resilient companies that create tangible value for our communities.

The discussion ended with a thought provoking debate about next steps. Is it more impactful to shed light on the flaws in our economy and pose the right questions, as Rushkoff does in his book, or do we need to build easily replicable models to enable real action? I tend to agree with Rushkoff’s approach. I believe teaching people how to think and ask critical questions has greater long term potential than simply giving them predesigned models. In the context of the current investment economy, I immediately thought of the “tech startup” as a potentially damaging replicable model in India.

The rapidly growing, highly valued tech startup is the image of entrepreneurial success in America. Young entrepreneurs in India are following suit with the booming tech landscape in Bangalore and, at least for now, grocery delivery seems to be among the hottest new services. Consider that in a country where we buy food almost every day from the fruit and vegetable seller on our street, or the local convenience store in the neighbourhood market. We can also call them directly on their cell phones and they deliver right up to our doorstep, if they know (and like) us well enough. Why do we need an app to do the same thing? Why are we trying to remove the human relationships from this daily exchange?

A more valuable initiative is the Amazon Chai Cart, where independent sellers and small business owners learn about expanding their sales online over cups of tea. This is a more bottom-up approach of introducing online shopping and services in a market where people are otherwise accustomed to daily human interactions for everything from groceries to cleaning the home. It maintains the strength of local businesses and community relationships, accelerates learning for small business owners, and introduces e-commerce in a context-specific manner.

I consider Rushkoff’s questions an important first step towards building more resilient and community-oriented businesses. Replicable models may be easy to distribute but, as Rushkoff suggested during the discussion, we must begin to imagine a multiplicity of models existing concurrently, rather than the one-size-fits-all idea of industrialism.