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.

Men in women’s fashion — the gender imbalance we don’t talk about

A few weeks ago, rumours abounded about Tom Ford possibly returning to Gucci, after Frida Giannini’s departure. While there is no doubting Mr Ford’s all-round creative nous, from couture to perfume and makeup, and film making, it would have been disappointing if he did return to the role. In the event, Ms Giannini was replaced by Alessandro Michele.

The technology industry isn’t the only gender-imbalanced industry in this world. Women’s fashion world redefines the imbalance between the customer base of women, who spend but where value appropriation is disproportionately made by men.

It is men, who overwhelmingly own stakes in, invest in, and lead companies that serve the women’s fashion market. For instance, Richemont, that owns Net-a-Porter, Chloé , Azzedine Alaïa, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier amongst others, fields, at the time of writing on March the 8th, 2015, a board consisting of 18 men and one woman! Doing better is Kering (formerly PPR) led by Francois-Henri Pinault with a board of 11 of which 4 are women. Kering owns, to varying degrees fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta amongst others.

Men are also overwhelmingly the creative leads in many of women’s fashion brands. Here is a roll call for the uninitiated — Nicolas Ghesquière at LVMH, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane at St Laurent Paris, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the eponymous brand which is fair enough but he was at Hermès 2003-10, Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, John Anderson at Loewe, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and John Galliano having recently returned with Maison Margiela (he was earlier at Dior).

Which makes it worth celebrating Miuccia Prada at Prada, Donatella Versace at Versace (with Anthony Vaccarello at Versus), the incomparable Vivienne Westwood, Jenna Lyons at J Crew, and Hermès’s 2014 appointee Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.

The magazines that serve women’s fashion market, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to name but two, are owned by corporations – Condé Nast and Hearst respectively – where almost all board directors and senior executives are male. Hearst has one female board director, Condé Nast‘s imbalance is tipped by the presence of Anna Wintour, the well-known industry heavyweight.

In fact only a minuscule 3% of creative directors in advertising, that drives women’s spend, are women. A staggering minority no matter how one looks at it!

I should however point out that mainly British women are in charge of some of the most influential fashion magazines including Glenda Bailey and Justine Picardie at the Harper’s Bazaar respectively in the USA and the UK, and Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue respectively in the USA and the UK. Thank goodness also for Vanessa Friedman, Suzy Menkes, Jo Ellison, Christina Binkley who witness, document and report on the fashion industry from the front row and beyond!

So why is it that when we talk of gender imbalance, we get stuck at the technology industry and Silicon Valley?

Why not start at the obvious — where women are spending money but where the value appropriation is overwhelmingly not made by women?

It’s not the pipeline for sure. A good 71% or more of the graduates of Central St Martins, the alma mater of late Alexander McQueen, and a reported 74% of the graduates of London College of Fashion are women. The number is 77% for women students at Parsons The New School for Design.

The industry is also traditionally not seen as no place for women.

But the industry does keep up with the tradition of notable wage gap between men and women, so much that there are no women in the top-20 highest paid executives.

So while we sit in the middle of Paris Fashion Week and mark another International Women’s Day, we ask yet again — what gives?

And more importantly, as we seek that elusive goal of gender equality — can we make it happen?

The theme for #IWD2015
The theme for #IWD2015


On walls and winning

Walls fascinate me. They signify territoriality – such as firewalls keeping desirable people or data in and keeping undesirables out, or even the Great Wall of China. They signify power and imbalance of power – such as Hadrian’s Wall of yore or the Israeli West Bank barrier of today. They are about creating political and ideological enclosures – such as the Berlin wall, that fell 20 years ago today.

But walls are not all evil. Walls support roofs that make ordinary houses as well as world-famous monuments. Walls can be the expression of a known graffiti artist (see below) as well as an enigmatic one’s; walls can start debates although debates can be stone”walled”.

Graffiti Exhibition, Tate Modern, London: August 2008
From the Graffiti Exhibition, Tate Modern, London: August 2008

In inspiring poetry, songs and popular culture expressions, walls have always been about resistance and anger, whether Pink Floyd’s widely-known The Wall or the 1970s Hindi film Deewar (the wall) that established the ‘angry young man’ persona that made the brand Amitabh Bachchan.

For businesses, firewalls may be used to protect competitive advantage and trade secrets, to an extent. Walls may also be a means of extracting rents – such as paywalls trialled by mainstream media, albeit with limited success.

Businesses however now face the borderless (as far as censorship by some country governments will allow) world of the web. The walls separating companies from customers are coming down as companies and customers engage in conversations on blogs, microblogs and social networking sites. Old walled gardens, such as the AOL’s are going away while new ones are being erected, such as the Apple’s walled garden on which opinion is divided.

Apple’s walled garden is flourishing while the Berlin wall came crashing down hurting communism irreparably in the process. So what gives? I think the answer lies in one word: Change. Apple brought about, drove and is continuing to drive “change” while the GDR was resisting it.

So, as a business leader, walls are worth a ponder. Which walls will you erect and which ones will you raze? Your ability to cope with the fast-paced change around you may well depend on these decisions. What will you choose?

And on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, here is the Scorpions song that encapsulates the message so well it is worth a nostalgic (not ostalgic) listen.

Obama's Nobel Prize: Lessons for Business

To say that all hell broke loose on Twitter, when the annoucement came in on late morning on October the 9th, is to euphemise. For once, world peace was achieved as a chorus rose in unison wondering why Mr Obama had been given the Nobel Peace prize. Jokes at his expense flew around, without fear of people being labelled “racist”. I confess I contributed too. People wondered how it could be an award for future performance, I called it his “anticipatory No-Bail”. Several Alice In Wonderland references were inevitable but I spare you those in this post.

Mr Obama is the President of the United States, one of the world’s largest democracies and an economy with an eye-watering deficit, fighting two seemingly never-ending wars away from home, facing-off with Iran after tough talk during the elections, and facing tough fights regarding healthcare and other reform at home. He humbly accepted the award and promised to donate the prize money to charity.

So what lessons can a business leader learn from the episode? I see three main things of varying importance depending on one’s business and its place in society.

Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid (or sometimes, just say “no”!).

Awards can be irresistible even to the most limelight-eschewing people. Indeed many industry awards require business leaders (or their PR departments) to nominate themselves/ their companies for the scrutiny of a deciding panel. Notably the deadline for this year’s Nobel peace prize nominations was within two weeks of Mr Obama having been in office.

But whether one accepts an award humbly, like Mr Obama did, or with a wild celebratory party, the main question to consider is if it is well-deserved or simply a case of the business lapping up its own PR.

If it is not well-deserved, customers and other interested parties will soon let the business know. But if PR is the objective, then, provided you did not self-nominate, saying “no” can garner as many headlines as, if not more than, accepting may. Could Mr Obama have said “no”? Possibly. It would be precedent-setting but no more than the prize itself being given for expected performance in the future.

Can you imagine how much more discussion and positive PR about Mr Obama’s humility and general wonderfulness as a human being and a leader might have come if he had said “no”?

Celebrate success, not potential.

Companies hire business leaders for their past successes and their future potential. The salary may be negotiated based on both, but bonuses are contingent on actual results, for delivering on the promise.

Can you imagine giving your “Business Development Star of the Year” award to a new recruit, however senior she may be or however wonderful her prior record in the industry? What possible impact could such a decision have on the morale of others on the team? Does such a decision burnish or tarnish the team’s view of the leaders’ judgement?  From many perspectives, it is wise for business leaders and firms to celebrate success, not just potential. This is one of the reasons why the Nobel Peace prize being given to Mr Obama has generated so much unwelcome buzz.

A funny and poignant mnemonic to remember this golden rule comes from another Nobel Peace prize recipient, Al Gore, who famously said in a speech: “I am Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States of America.

Engage with your publics but do not become the instrument of their appeasement.

The Nobel is unlike any other prize. It is decided upon by a committee nominated by elected representatives of a country. It is generally given out ex-post and not in anticipation. Some scientists wait 3 or 4 decades to gain Nobel recognition. Two things – both political – stand out about this year’s Peace prize.

In the history of the Nobel prize to date, with 800 prizes awarded, only 12 black people have been given the Nobel, of which 8 were for Peace, 3 for literature, 1 for economics and none for Science. Why is this worth a mention? Because much coverage of the prize deems necessary that Mr Obama’s racial heritage be mentioned.  Wangari Maathai, a former Nobel Peace prize recipient, speaking on BBC’s News 24, also said that it was one of the reasons why Mr Obama’s prize was well-deserved. Mr Obama probably does not want to be the poster-boy of the Nobel Committee’s “race-inclusive” decisions. Especially at a time when he is at pains to say that race is not behind his policy measures being opposed at home. But having been given the prize, he is caught in the middle of this politically sensitive issue.

Further, I am not sure if describing the Nobel Peace prize as a “call to action” is very smart. As a visionary statement, it is all warm and fuzzy, I agree. But as a pragmatic step, it sounds like a mere prize is going to be allowed to influence, however subtly, a sovereign state’s foreign policy! The Nobel is unlikely to win him plaudits and friends inside his own country. His current battles and his real publics are at home, not in the wilderness of Europe.

Many business leaders face such dilemmas when engaging with their broader publics. How far should they go before the publics try to influence their decisions or nudge them along inflexible or undesirable strategic trajectories? And how to avoid being exploited to serve the objectives of another firm or organisation?

I am sure others see different lessons in the episode. Feel free to agree, disagree and contribute your thoughts below.

Related reading:

Henrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker on Nobel Surprise;

Democracy 2.0?

The term ‘Web 2.0’ has been in use for over 5 years now, although there is some – irrelevant in my view – dispute about who first coined it. The web as we knew it in the 1990s is often, retrospectively, described as Web 1.0.

Web 1.0 was about static publishing or ‘brochureware’, about one-way communication from the publisher to the user of the information, about one-size-fits-all style of publishing, and where the publisher’s say-so was probably the only source of trust or legitimacy. Web 2.0 is dynamic and interactive. The published content does not remain static – it morphs and evolves through multi-media broadcast, discussion and link-backs, and these morph-operations, so to speak, are used as a measure of the legitimacy of the publisher. In democratising content this way, Web 2.0 can and does generate a cacophony of noises but the possibility of customisation and personalisation enable a user to experience a higher signal-to-noise ratio.

Although the internet and the web are products of federally funded research programmes in the United States and Europe, the web truly blossomed as commercial organisations brought their creative imagination to it. In addition to technological innovation, new ways of doing work were also made possible, although for many Web 2.0 players,  monetisation, or making money, remains a challenge.

Given the web’s origins, it is great to see Web 2.0 being put to great use in a governance and government context. More specifically, Barack Obama’s transition to taking over as the President of the United States.

An earlier post discussed how Barack Obama was successfully harnessing the community-building aspect of Web 2.0 to orchestrate his victory. Now that he is President-elect, a fully interactive website,, has been launched to help his transition.

Upholding the values of transparency and civic involvement, an ‘agenda‘ section outlines the aims of the website. It also outlines the privacy policy, including for children, on the ‘about’ page. The ‘newsroom‘ keeps the American citizens – and other interested people such as me – informed of the developments, complete with video links to public appearances of the members of the transition team. Providing regular updates will not prevent the rumour mills from churning, but it sure can put them to rest pretty quickly. Although the news is listed under ‘blog’, at the time of writing, the blog area is not really interactive, as in readers cannot leave comments etc. Link-backs, such as the many in this post, however can allow the conversation to carry on, in a manner not dissimilar to Seth Godin’s blog. An external link to the transition directory provides information on the people involved in this transition.

The most interesting interactive bits are, of course, the section ‘American Moment‘ where people are invited to share their stories and share their concerns and vision for America, and the section on jobs, where people are invited to express their interest in non-career positions in the Obama administration. Together they balance the emotive or visionary aspects, with the more pragmatic, operational aspects of a building a new administration.

As participatory democracy goes, is a pretty interesting development, a first in any democratic country’s history, a sign that the campaign and the transition are being managed by professionals and not career politicians of any kind. It is worth mentioning that federally funded vehicles are prohibited from being used for political fund-raising so this website cannot be used to raise funds for, say, Obama 2012. But, who says that pre-existing communities, who may have funded a prior campaign, cannot participate in new communities to continue their involvement? This website has the potential to harness cleverly the momentum, the positive energy and the goodwill of all those supporters, who helped bring Mr Obama to the Presidency and who helped raise unprecedented sums for his campaign. If things are executed well during this term and if promises are delivered on, the momentum may well carry into the 2012 campaign and boost Obama’s reelection bid.

As this blog features writings at the cusp of strategy, technology, investment and regulation, two sets of natural questions arise from the foregoing.

First, can businesses learn from this manner of running a transparent, informative and participatory web property? What can they gain and more importantly, what can they lose from such an undertaking? Which large businesses are already running their corporate websites to include all their stakeholders?

Why might some businesses prefer to run brand-oriented web properties? and of course, are harnessing their communities very effectively. Most other efforts, even from master marketers of Procter and Gamble and others in their league, are brand-focused or just plain poorly run. What is your experience?

Second, do you think Democracy 2.0 is a feasible and a scalable model for other countries and cultures too? What factors apart from the demographics would aid greater transparency in national governance and politics? What factors would hamper it? Is the time of open-source politics upon us?

As the world’s largest democracy, India, goes to the polls in 2009, can this experience be replicated? This question perhaps is worth a whole post or more in itself. Meanwhile do leave your comments below.

Related reading:

GigaOm on Web 2.0 gives birth to Politics 2.0

Robert Hogeboom on Web 2.0 Politics: What brands can learn from the 2008 Presidential campaigns

Jack Welch on Barack Obama’s victory: Three Lessons for business