We had just finished presenting our Service System Workshop final and I rushed back home to pack and head to the airport. My dog followed me around the apartment, suspiciously watching me while I tried to figure out if I needed shorts or sweaters. I checked the weather in Mumbai, quickly googled the conversion from celsius to fahrenheit, and I stuffed some more short sleeve shirts in my bag.
I stomped on my luggage and caught an Uber to O’Hare ready to kick off the five week Indian Immersion Program in Mumbai. Every year, 10–12 students are selected from the Institute of Design (ID) to travel to India to tackle a design problem with Godrej & Boyce. The Godrej Group is an Indian conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai, and still managed by the Godrej family. It was founded by Ardeshir Godrej and Pirojsha Burjorji Godrej in 1897, and operates in diverse sectors: real estate, consumer products, industrial engineering, appliances, furniture, security, and agricultural products.
In 2011 Godrej took a huge step toward innovation development by creating the Innovation Design Center and bringing on ID alumni Navroze Godrej as executive director of strategy and innovation. Needless to say I was excited.
About half of the group flew over together while the other half had left a week early for stints in Dubai or Hong Kong. I’ll spare you the details of the flight, just know that noise canceling headphones are a necessity. A quick layover in Dubai and we were stepping out of the Mumbai airport at 5 am to be greeted by our enthusiastic Indian teammates and driver.
Before we started work we had a few days to adjust to jetlag and explore Old Bombay and the Godrej Colony, a mixed-use neighborhood developed by Godrej across the street from their offices filled with families, young employees, and always some type of festival or yoga class to go to.
On the first day of work we learned about the 100+ year history of Godrej and their place within Indian culture. We then met with Navroze Godrej and learned about our project for the next 5 weeks. This year’s program focused on the changing territory of retail experience. This space is extremely pertinent as we change from brick and mortar to ecommerce, and connected environments. Manufacturers like Godrej need to stay vigilant if they want to innovate within this developing space.
The individual groups were split up to explore the categories of: home, small business workspace, personal care, community, and luxury. Each team had 2–3 ID students and 2–3 Godrej employees from at various roles in the company ranging from design to business. Being the design methods experts we are, we were expected to lead the teams and teach the design process to our Indian counterparts. Jetlagged and adjusting to our new space we only had 5 weeks, so right after the group kick off we were in the van on our way to start our research with a cold cultural immersion.
Now we were warned about the traffic in Mumbai but nothing could have prepared us for the symphony of horns, entangled lanes of cars, trucks, motor bikes, and the occasional cow wearing shoes. Luckily we had Mauseen. Mauseen has been one of the drivers for IIP for the last 5 years and he was a master at navigating what we saw as a sea of congestion. I thought I might grab some jetlagged Z’s in the back of the van as we bounced from market to market but Mauseen’s van is known for blasting Bollywood hits and accompanied dancing.
During preliminary research we saw a ton of Mumbai, from the illegal 4 am flower market to the new luxury malls that are popping up all across India. This immersion was necessary to learn how to design for the Indian context. As Americans we are accustomed to business conducted more or less the same across industries, while in India 93% of the economy is unstructured. Unstructured is actually an unfitting work in this context. Their “unstructured” economy is intensely sophisticated, intricate, and adaptive compared to other markets, it just happened to run outside of the realm of the government. From a sophisticated system of bartering to a wide arrangement of services there is a reason the largest growing economy in the country is the hardest to understand.
As part of the Small Business team we spent the first week interviewing people ranging from tech startups to small Kirana Store (think bodega in New York) owners about their needs, wants and desires. We recorded and transcribed our interviews, comparing them with our notes and photos to begin defining the problem space. Armed with our copy of ID professor Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods we set out to find some meaning in the madness. We papered the wall with post-its setting our plan into action.
For the Christmas break we decided to travel together to Kerala the most southeastern state in India for a warm holiday. The morning after the holiday party we rolled into the van for our 4 am flight. You would think a bunch of grad students would be smart enough to not schedule a 4 am flight. Landing in Kochi we were able to see some elephants and tour a Hindu temple. On our trip we were lucky enough to have a student that knew all about the history of the region and acted as our personal tour guide. Then we began the bumpy uphill drive to Munnar. I cannot stress how skilled the drivers on these roads are, two full size busses can pass on a one lane road on the side of a mountain if they believe in themselves.
The drive through the mountainside tea plantations was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen. It was seriously ridiculous. The next three days flew by as we saw temples, sang karaoke with an Indian santa, endured an awkward oil massage, and most importantly consumed copious amounts of South Indian Food.
Five days later we were rushing back to the Kochi Airport a little tired, a little tan, and a little oily. We almost missed our flight due to my exercise band being classified as a weapon, but we pitched it and made it back to Mumbai in time to get back to work on Monday.
There is no rest for the wicked and we had to hit the ground running with concept development as soon as we returned. The next week was a whirl of sharpies, half sheets, presentations, and lively discussions as each team drew closer to the final presentation. Along with our group work we were lucky enough to have presentations from some of India’s forefront design leaders: Subrata Dutta, chief executive officer of Fabindia; Krishna Gupta of Truefitt & Hill; Anijo Mathews, professor at ID; Krishnesh Mehta, professor at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad; and others. In the evening we took to the city to experience India even more; dinners at Burmese and Malaysian restaurants, street side sandwiches and paan, shopping for souvenirs, and checking out some of India’s greatest fashion houses like Sabyasachi.
Before we knew it, we had reached the final week of the program. The dean of ID, Patrick Whitney, came over to India to meet with the teams and make sure our concepts were ready for the major leagues. Nights became longer as we approached our final presentation and our the end of our time in Mumbai. Our final presentations took place in front of the heads from all the divisions in Godrej’s Innovation Design Center. Each team presented unique design solutions that will continue to be developed by Godrej.
The program concluded with a celebration for all involved. There was food, conversation, drinks, and freshly made roti. Let me just take a second to explain that you haven’t lived until you’ve had freshly made roti; they throw it like a pizza, cook it on a metal dome and it’s thinner than paper.
Exploring Jaipur and Udaipur
After a quick nap a bunch of us hopped a flight to Jaipur, the Pink City, to see what that was about. Jaipur was exactly what I pictured when I imagined India, bustling markets, great food , and a ton of history. Jaipur is the capital city of the Northern State of Rajasthan know for a leatherwork, jewelry and fabrics. This stuff is cool. I didn’t think I was a fabric guy but we had the opportunity to actually see traditional fabrics be made. We saw a family stamp an intricate pattern on several fabrics using wood carved blocks, an old craft that is slowly disappearing. We also had the opportunity to check out Nahargarh Fort which once protected the city.
The next stop, and my favorite city on the journey, was Udaipur. It would be redundant to say the food was amazing at this point because the food was amazing everywhere we went. Udaipur had its own palaces to tour but at this point I was more apt to lay by the pool or grab a glass of wine by the lake and plan my next trip to India.