Macro Design for Nation Building

This article is written with the purpose of drawing the attention of policy makers — politicians, government officials, and public policy consultants — to a new way of improving how citizens interface with public institutions, services, infrastructures, and processes.

As the design community in India is mobilizing ideas to co-create a new vision for the expansion of its design education infrastructure, this article aims to help public officials better appreciate the contemporary relevance of design in conjunction with two other practices that have received greater attention and public investment: invention and innovation. Understanding the interrelationship between the three practices will help policy makers plan for and boost creative energy nationwide.

The concept of MacroDesign provides a public policy perspective in understanding the role of design and design thinking. MacroDesign can be better explained by comparing it with the concept of Macroeconomics and its relationship to Microeconomics. Ragnar Frisch coined the term Macroeconomics in 1933. The concept deals with the performance, structure, and behavior of a national economy as a whole. The comparison between Macroeconomics and Microeconomics can be better understood using the analogy of the forest and the individual trees. Macroeconomics is the study of the behaviors and activities of the economy as a whole — hence, the forest. Microeconomics looks at the behaviors and activities of individual households and firms — the individual components that make up the whole economy — hence, the individual trees. Microeconomics takes a bottom-up approach in analyzing the economy; Macroeconomics takes a top-down approach.

The traditional practice of design can be compared to the practice of Microeconomics. It is focused on delivering results to a specific organization, a commercial enterprise, or a segment of consumers. On the other hand, MacroDesign, like Macroeconomics, concerns itself with the development of public infrastructures in sectors such as education, health, energy, transportation, and employment generation.

Making MacroDesign an important part of a national planning process will help cultivate, grow, and harness a society’s creative potential, and will also help serve high-level public policy objectives, such as management of gross national happiness (an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms), building social capital (trust, reciprocity, and networks), implementing the Right to Education Act, managing cultural diversity, and managing international relations and collaborations. Design communities’ ongoing discussions with Indian government officials — especially the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Public Infrastructures and Innovation — have provided an opportunity to the Indian design community to introduce the concept of MacroDesign as an integral part of public policy. Understanding the critical role of design in upgrading the creative infrastructure of a nation will ultimately help put in place benchmarks for evaluating and improving the interface between public institutions and citizens.

Three key domains of MacroDesign are invention, innovation, and design. There is a need to correct the imbalance of governments’ investments in the three sectors. Governments worldwide have traditionally invested large amounts of money in pure sciences. More recently, the concept of innovation has gained high visibility among public policy makers. When a breakthrough technology affects billions of people around the world (i.e., the Internet), it attracts the attention of politicians and public policy makers who want to claim a share of the credit. For example, in a March 1999 interview with Wolf Blitzer, former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, claimed, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Chandrababu Naidu, a former Chief Minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, championed e-governance through computerization of public information systems and, thereby, radically improved the interface between common people and the government. More recently, the President of the United States, Barak Obama, in his State of the Nation speech, turned to the American innovators for help in turning the economy around. Obama followed up on his announcement with a visit to the Silicon Valley. There he met with chiefs of technology companies, including: John Doerr, Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Carol Bartz, President and CEO, Yahoo!; John Chambers, CEO and Chairman, Cisco Systems; Dick Costolo, CEO, Twitter; Larry Ellison, Co-founder and CEO, Oracle; Reed Hastings, CEO, NetFlix; John Hennessy, President, Stanford University; Steve Jobs, Chairman and CEO, Apple; Art Levinson, Chairman and former CEO, Genentech; Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO, Google; Steve Westly, Managing Partner and Founder, Westly Group; and Mark Zuckerberg, Co-founder, President, and CEO, Facebook. Obama stated,

“But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.”

He promised the nation investment in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology.

While departments of Science and Technology are often grouped together by public policy makers for budgetary allocations, funding for design (education, research, and promotion) remains relatively low. In this background, the critical role of design in delivering innovation to people can be better explained to the public policy makers by focusing on interdependence of invention, innovation, and design as integral parts of MacroDesign. Investment in science and technology is critical from the perspective of incubating breakthrough theories, ideas, and technologies that have the potential of transforming the lives of everyday people. At the same time, these breakthrough ideas and technologies can become workable solutions for everyday people only when designers apply their imagination and turn those ideas into products, services, processes, and systems that have compelling human interfaces and meaningful forms. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a San Francisco-based innovation company, succinctly describes the value of design:

“Often I define design as getting the interface right between technology and people. If you accept Kevin Kelly’s definition of technology in his recent and excellent book, “What Technology Wants,” then technology means all manmade things including business and political systems. Therefore, design can be about getting the interface right between businesses and people, politics and people, or gadgets and people. We are surrounded by instances where these interfaces do not work; places where they confuse, confound, annoy, frustrate, or miss serving altogether the users (us) for which they were intended. Whether it is navigating our on-line bank account, programming our digital alarm clock, or managing cancer treatment, the experiences we have of our systems too often degrade rather than enhance the human condition.”

Sam Pitroda, Advisor to India’s Prime Minister on Information Infrastructures and Innovation, echoed this perspective during a recent meeting with the Vision First team:

“Every process we have today is essentially obsolete. For example: how do we get admission in schools; how do we get birth certificates; how do we get land records? We need to redesign processes, tools, and technologies if we are going to be really globally competitive and create the kinds of jobs that we need to create for 550 million youth below the age of 25. We have no options but to innovate into things differently.”

Sam Pitroda’s ideas reflect deep understanding of the concept of MacroDesign. He recognizes the designer’s role in building systems, processes, institutions, and other intangible systems with a focus on human needs, human sensitivities, and social and cultural compatibility. Today there is a need to train MacroDesigners who can participate in public policy formulation — not as outsiders or consultants — but as public policy makers.

The framework proposed in this article is meant to communicate a point that development of innovative solutions through MacroDesign will better serve and be more meaningful to people regardless of where the impetus for that solution came from — an invention, an innovation, or the imagination of a designer.

The three rows of the MacroDesign framework outlined on this page represent the impetuses (Science, Technology, and Imagination) that drive the three domains of MacroDesign (Invention, Innovation, and Design) respectively.

The darker cells of the matrix represent home base for each of the three domains based on the primary impetus of MacroDesign. The lighter cells represent secondary impetuses of MacroDesign. The diagram illustrates examples of MacroDesign’s output processes from the past, which have transformed people’s everyday lives in profound ways.

A key to maximizing the returns in public investment in building a nation’s creative capacity lies in incubating ideas in each of the three domains of MacroDesign and in creating opportunities for cross-pollinating ideas between the domains. The United States has made large investments in encouraging a culture of invention through the National Science Foundation and by encouraging a spirit of innovation among developers of technologies. There is an appreciation for developing learning resources at the K-12 education level and in colleges for training people in critical and creative thinking. As a result, the United States has been a leader in bringing breakthrough solutions and ideas to the world. The value of design education in the United States, though relatively much under rated, is beginning to receive attention largely from the private sector. President Obama’s recent emphasis on driving economic turnaround through support of innovation can succeed only if the three domains of MacroDesign collaborate with each other.

Back home in India there is a need to inject investment to cultivate the nation’s creative potential. India’s one billion people are eager to learn, compete, succeed, and live a life of dignity by creatively participating in the affairs of their community. Design thinking and design education will help cultivate a new mindset that will be focused on designing innovative solutions with enhanced human interfaces. The creative potential of a billion creative individuals can take India to an era of renaissance and will encourage them to collaborate with teams from around the world to address unresolved problems of humanity.

India needs schools of MacroDesign and a ministry of human interface where MacroDesigners will have the opportunity to monitor and improve the interface between people and the public infrastructure. This process will require closer collaboration between the inventor, the innovator, and the designer. It will require bringing parity of funding between pure sciences, technological education, and design. An enlightened political leadership can lead India to a new era of transformation through MacroDesign thinking. We can build a public infrastructure that works for common people.