The design challenge called Indian traffic [1]

India’s traffic problem is real. No, seriously. Indian drivers makes Italians look tame and Londoners look like novice drivers.

(C) Image from the Hindustan Times

India also has the dubious superlative distinction of having the highest number of deaths in road accidents in the world. The government of India publishes data on road accidents which will make the most hardened person’s eyes water.

I suspect Thaler and Sunstein may weep if they saw how spectacularly any design nudge fails on Indian roads.

Lanes, what lanes? Where available at all, a three-lane main road commonly will have been made into five or six or seven chopping and changing lanes.

Traffic dividers are an easily ignored suggestion, not a design element to separate streams of traffic by direction. Most dividers sooner or later find themselves broken to create illegitimate U-turns for vehicles. No prizes for guessing what this does to vehicular traffic flow! But hey, don’t get upset. Keep your hair on — that car or truck coming at you in the opposite direction is on the wrong side of the road indeed. You need to act and save your vehicle and yourself.

Then there are roundabouts. In normal circumstances, in areas with higher vehicular than pedestrian traffic, roundabouts are more efficient than traffic lights, in keeping traffic moving. Not in India. There seems to be no priority for anyone. Everyone enters it as and when and the space is negotiated (sometimes not). And pedestrians try and cross junctions in the middle of that traffic.

Since I mentioned traffic lights, I feel duty-bound to point out that almost nobody respects traffic lights, especially red lights. It would appear red lights are mere suggestions! Indeed a friend stopped at a red light only to be told off by a driver: “You stopped at a red light? Why?”. One morning, at 7am, a state transport corporation bus nearly rammed into my car because it was trying to turn right on a red light, while my car was turning right on a green light. There but for the grace of who-knows-what go I!

The corollary to that behaviour at traffic lights is this shorthand used by many:

Green – Go. Amber – Go Faster. Red – Go if you like.

Many traffic lights now use timers. Contrary to the design intent, the times serve as an excuse for speeding or revving. Putting timers on lights to show how many seconds to red or to green has only had the effect of turning everyone into Mad Max, either speeding through or revving, depending on whether the light is about to turn red or green.

Then there is the non-use — perhaps non-awareness — of car features.

Hardly anyone uses car indicators to indicate whether they intend to turn or intend to move left or bright. Particularly if you see a driver/ rider on your left, revving while you are waiting at a red light as is customary, you can be certain even before the light changes fully he/ she will cut across in front of you to turn, of course, right! Or not. But the trick is you will not know till you start to move.

Many cars have their side mirrors either absent, or permanently folded to prevent them from breaking. Cars often move past each other at a distance smaller than the width of a side mirror so there is a finite chance of the side mirror breaking. But the effect of no-side-mirror on driving is anyone’s guess.

How about flashing lights? People driving from opposite directions in a narrow street flash their lights at each another. The translation? “I am here, make way for me”. People also flash lights at the drivers ahead of them. Same translation.

People honk constantly — not to draw attention to their presence in case another driver makes a sudden move. But to indicate “I am here, make way for me”. Sometimes people honk in stand-still traffic. That is totally incomprehensible, but then again, what about the list so far is comprehensible?

Lax laws mean seat belts are compulsory only in the front. At the back therefore, most car makers oblige by hanging seat belt straps, but no plugs to plug them into. Not good for passengers in the back seat.

Finally there is this.

The driving chaos does make one’s heart stop for a moment, when an ambulance with flashing lights and sirens is waiting to be given way. Nobody does — indeed can, for where does the traffic move after making three lanes into five or six or seven — give way. I was told that there are many, who paint fake ambulance signage and use flashing lights and sirens to get ahead. The result is that now nobody believes it is a real ambulance. Such “enterprise” and non-standard signage means you really can’t tell if a vehicle is in non-ambulance use or for real.

The distrust of the fellow citizen, whether driver or pedestrian, is evident wherever we look. Combined with a poverty mindset, that makes zero-sum thinking the default and that imbues every action with selfishness with no regard whatsoever for the larger societal impact of one person’s choices, this distrust makes for a lethal combination on Indian roads.

How, if at all, can design address the great Indian traffic conundrum?

Short, flippant answer would say, with difficulty, and over a very long period of time.

Why? Well, that is the next post.

Luxury’s other heritage challenge

“You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”

This well-known Patek Philippe tag line tells its customers that the brand’s heritage could be part of their own as they bequeath their Patek timepieces to their future generations.

Patek Philippe Generation Ad campaign

One can, of course, buy pre-owned Patek Philippe time pieces from dealers, or at auctions where the brand commands huge prices, which Patek no doubt monitors. The presence of complete documentation, including owner history and service records, adds to the heritage angle, hence the price tag. Patek also supports collectors’ clubs and offers to service any Patek, no matter what its journey to the present owner has been.

Brands such as Vacheron Constantin engage actively with not just the customers, who already own their watches but also those, who aspire to own a Vacheron timepiece one day.

That said, there are brands, who do not really do much for, or with, collectors.

Hermès comes to mind.

While active in developing, protecting and promoting its own brand image, Hermès famously does not support collectors’ clubs. There is still a brisk trade in second-hand Hermès scarves, bags and other artifacts. It is often difficult to verify if these goods are authentic or counterfeit, or even stolen (although the latter may be rarer).

Most established luxury brands’ own stories focus on the brand heritage. It is fascinating — and puzzling — however to see how little luxury brands do to honour (track?) how their customers create a story about these brands, steeping the luxury goods in their own family’s heritage.

This is a missed opportunity.

To create a luxury brand with longevity beyond the next season has to go beyond the brand extolling its own heritage. The stories that live on have to make sense, and be meaningful to those, who own and wear the products created by that brand.

And while everyone can participate in the democratic medium of the web, oral traditions and stories of familial heritage can still help preserve exclusivity for luxury brands, most of whom are still struggling to make up their mind on the matter.

Indeed one has to ask whether the idea of a heritage driven European brand of luxury has economic viability now that most of their growth is coming from Asian countries, many of whom boast a rich heritage going further back than any European brands!

Can lazy — even arrogant — brand marketing as luxury marques, reliant on their European heritage legacy, do now continue?

Don’t mind me though!

I have a simple curiosity.

I am just keen to hear from someone, whose family bought Hermès equestrian gear and riding equipment 300 years ago, and who is still wearing Hermès couture or carrying Hermès bags today.

(Thanks to Barbara Houdayer for the Twitter conversation, that sparked this monograph.)

Brands and the coattails of success

TAG Heuer congratulates its beautiful rebel – MC Mary Kom into the Semi Finals of the 2012 London Olympics.

The glamorous TAG Heuer Woman shares Mary’s restless and rebellious nature. Like her, she excels at her game, knows how to win, and how to celebrate. Creative, confident, always plugged in, she never stops building on her achievements and pushing herself to be better, but she also knows how to relax and have fun.”

Says the TAG Heuer brand page on Facebook.

This is Mary Kom, who now needs no introduction. Do click on the link to see Ms Kom looking beautiful and resplendent indeed.

Did you do a double take on seeing that photo? If so, join the very large club. To feature as a TAG Heuer ambassador, Mary Kom has to be airbrushed to look like someone she is not. Yes, being adorned and looking gorgeous is a woman’s right and privilege. But when that adornment makes Ms Kom’s appearance and not her performance or character the centre piece, one has to wonder about the O word in brand marketing. Objectification.

Objectification is central to “celebrity endorsement” in brand marketing. Picking a person to represent a brand’s abstract, often fuzzy, promise is the purest form of objectification. It also happens to be, in my view, the epitome of laziness and paucity of creativity in brand marketing. That is how TAG Heuer, that uses film actor Shahrukh Khan as a brand ambassador in India, now thinks Mary Kom is a fit for their brand. Yes, it is ok to take a few moments to get one’s head around what Shahrukh Khan has in common with Mary Kom.

Nor is the post-Olympics upsurge in luxury brands rushing to sign up medal winners – particularly in emerging markets – a compliment to brand managers.

In a mature market, brands sponsor and support promising athletes. When a sponsored athlete succeeds, the brand can stake a legitimate claim to associating with that success. In the UK for instance, RBS has sponsored Andy Murray since he was 13, when he was a relative unknown playing junior level. Like athletes, brand building isn’t an overnight success of TAGging along to someone else’s, but actually investing in it. But is that what is happening in the emerging markets (emphasis on markets)?

Mary Kom wasn’t entirely an unknown before the Olympics. Even if women’s boxing isn’t your thing, heck, the Intelligent Magazine did a superb piece on her stardom before the Olympics. Did the five-times World Champion Mery Kom not strike TAG as a woman who “excels at her game, knows how to win“? Or was her life story not an example of her “pushing herself to be better“? Her close shave with poverty can’t have been much about how to “have fun” but TAG could have eased all that by promising her support before she became famous. Instead of sponsoring her when she needed help, the brand now wants to ride on the coattails of her success.

Of course, emerging markets are less about brand building and all about reaping the rewards from the “markets” overnight. Aren’t they? Investment? What investment?

The Power of Us

Summer in India brings not only juicy mangoes but also the prospect of frequent planned and unplanned power cuts. The euphemism “load shedding” tries to hide the fact that the grid is unable to shoulder the demand for electricity. This demand is rising with India’s rapid economic growth. This economic growth also means that fewer and fewer Indian citizens have the time to take their utility companies to task for failing to deliver a reliable power supply. However they do now have the means to have spent a reported US$ 22 Billion on power back-up equipment such as inverters that store power in a battery while there is supply, or generators.

This is my third summer on Twitter. Come summer time, my Twitter stream floods with persons complaining about power cuts in the middle of a workday stymieing productivity, or in the middle of the night interrupting resting hours. On May the 4th, after seeing a few tweets, I suggested: “May be you guys SHOULD tweet #powercut with location. The infographic will highlight the need for investment. To many people.” Within a few minutes, an enthusiastic techie, Ajay Kumar had created a site with an Ushahidi backend to track such reported powercuts. Within seconds we had our first report – from Gurgaon, a new, modish town which is in the national capital region but whose powercuts are legendary. It has not stopped since. These reports mainly came from Twitter users reporting power cuts with their locations  and a hashtag #powercutIndia. In the first 24 hours, the hashtag reached an audience of over 98000 people with over 157000 impressions. In the next couple of days, Ajay and I took the decision to move to a proper own domain – www.powercuts.in. On the website persons can also report anonymously; this allays privacy concerns and security risks that were highlighted to us early on by some Twitter users. Soon a design firm provided us with a logo and is now developing the website further. We set up a Facebook page and one of India’s leading dailies, Times Of India, wrote a piece on the project.

From idea to execution, to the actual build-up and success Power Cuts In India is a crowd-sourced, open data project. This means everything we do is out in the public domain. The Wiki details in one place all the work and credits. An open document collates ideas on how to improve the data collection and what possible uses it can be put to. At the time of writing, we are testing SMS based reporting and smart apps for smart phones are in development. Purely on voluntary basis from enthusiastic donors of their expertise and time, who believe in the project.

Naturally there has been curiosity as to why so many of us, including Ajay and I, would give so much of our time to collate this information. Typically I have been asked why such monitoring is needed, since everyone knows how bad the power situation is. The short answer is that situational awareness allows specific responses. Whether from government, from utility companies, from investors or from citizens themselves. One of the most recent examples in another – admittedly acute, not chronic like the power cut situation – setting was seen in Libya.

For me, the project is a beautiful example of how the power of social media can be harnessed to take a simple idea into execution and how web and social technologies can build a resilient backbone for a project. The rapid prototyping and release of the website by Ajay deserves a special mention too. And with rapid prototyping come iterations and incremental changes.

These are being made based on ideas suggested through our open document. Collective wisdom continues to shape and define the project. We are all aware that this should not become yet another urban India project but also rolled out to villages where issues related to linguistic diversity as well as lack of literacy may be a problem. This awareness is feeding into design and reporting protocol related to SMS reporting and smart apps in development. With mainstream media carving a narrative out of something happening on the web, more citizens in India are getting to hear about the project as evidenced by reports now coming in from more regions than just the metros or individual towns where some of the Twitter users are located. SMS reporting will enable even more persons.

What can a corporate firm learn from our experience so far?

First, social technologies can be unpredictable in their scope, reach and success. When the Power Cuts In India project was rolled out, a Twitter user pointed out she had suggested the idea three years ago. But it did not take off then. However when I mentioned it on May the 4th, it did take off and is now growing by leaps and bounds. This unpredictability of uptake can be unnerving for those, who like to predict both the trajectory and the time line of their “social” undertakings.

Second, when an idea gains traction, crowd-sourcing can be benevolent or damaging. In case of Power Cuts In India, it has been benevolent so far. HSBC’s experience from a few years ago was bracing and different.

Third, “social” is not concrete, fully formed. It is amorphous, iterative. Or in the words of Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke: “Planning is everything. Plans are nothing.” Before launching into “social” an organisation needs cultural readiness. And comfort with amorphousness, iteration and tweaking in response to feedback.

Regardless of where you are, you can contribute to the project by sharing your views here. Or on this post.

Further reading:

An old post on the use of Twitter in emergencies/ acute situations.

Power Cuts In India in media:

Times Of India

PC World

CIO Magazine

Yahoo News

LiveNewsIndia

One India (online in Tamil)

Trak.in

The Daily Dot notes that for all its resilience, the web still needs electricity.

WiredCPU

TechGoss

Paant.com

Geo-spatial World

Social Media Guru

BBC – on Social Media for Social Good in India – features PowerCutsIndia (video)

 

A Passage To India (2010 ed) and the other R-word

When EM Forster wrote A Passage To India, the Indo-British relationship was one of the ruler and the ruled, of imbalances in power. Things are different now in 2010. Britain lags behind and grapples with an economic crisis of monstrous proportions, while India’s economic growth gallops along at 8.5%.

Naturally, all eyes are on David Cameron and his 90-strong high-powered ministerial and CEO delegation to India, billed as a “jobs tour” to which Cameron is bringing a “spirit of humility“.  The delegation led by Mr Cameron confirms how India remains, despite all its frustrations, a potentially strategic customer, partner, supplier and sometimes a competitor to British businesses. As such India’s growth has direct implications for British business, as we in Britain seek growth markets and profits to deal with the continued chill in our home economy.

Earlier this week, the Financial Times, in its editorial, argues that India needs to go for stronger growth (registration required). Among other points, the FT argues for improved infrastructure and productivity, liberalisation in retail sector, furthering liberalisation in the banking sector, and investment in basic health and education.

All valid points indeed.

A fundamental requirement to enable such business is that businesspersons from both countries are able to travel to meet with each other, and not just on high profile trade delegations. Not least because both the UK and India  are nations thriving on the back of the SME sector and their chief executives rarely get to join ministerial trade delegations.

Travel between India and the UK is hamstrung: by the increasingly onerous requirements for an Indian to obtain a British visa in India, and by the sheer volume of visa applications being made by British persons in the UK for travel to India. One area ripe for quick and major reform in both countries is enablement of business travel.

In doing so, the other R-word – reciprocity – is as important as any reform. It would not be remiss of Mr Cameron’s and Dr Singh’s governments to take bold steps to make it easier for British and Indian businesses to travel, and then to trade and collaborate.

Starting with a mutually cooperative visa regime. One that makes it easier for British businesses to find their passage to India in the modern times.

Other links:

Nitin Pai writes: Cameron comes with a different mindset

BBC’s Economics editor Stephanie Flanders: Osborne in India

Dean Nelson on the whys and the what-fors of Indo-British links