Not Another BRIC in the Wall of Development

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Waxing full-Bourdain about South Indian cuisine, countryside capers, and chaos would be irresponsible with only three months under my belt in Bangalore.  That’s not because I haven’t been paying attention, but because every day is a new contradiction that I don’t have the chops to explain. And there’s no getting past the fact that I’m a white American dude, I still eat peanut butter toast every morning, and I don’t like car horns or heat. That is all to say, my perspective is just about as credible as a Yelp reviewer who calls Olive Garden “rustic Italian”. 

I can tell you what it’s like to get through an average day in Bengaluru (na, people are still saying Bangalore).  Quick tasks happen slowly, but traffic arteries unclog quickly. The toughest days are a bit like pulling a fire alarm at the NYSE during the ’08 crash and walking barefoot from wall to wall across the trading floor.  The opening horn honks at 6AM—resourceful folks are soldering iron scaffolds, dousing pani poori, and transporting wall-mount mirrors on 150cc Bajaj scooters at 80km/h.  It’s a mishmash of chutzpah and get-it-done. 

And this exhilarating, kind of sweaty experience of conquering everyday frustrations is a global currency.  Through all of the peculiar logistics, getting through a day here is not dissimilar from conquering logistical pitfalls back in the US.  Ah, the US—where the Tupperware lid absconds from the cupboard; where the metro time clock short-circuits and makes me late; where the boss figures out what they originally wanted after you’re done with what they originally asked; where the package that you bought tracking for is still in the ether of “local facility”.  This kind of stuff drives me up the wall, I’d argue, because someone built a wall there. 

That wall is institutional predictability—the idea that customer experience is built on recognizable and predictable systems.  I’ve come to think these walls we build limit human ingenuity and efficiency.  “Developed” societies—a classification with even less meaning than “thoughts and prayers”—are built on institutional predictability.  From ball bearings to bonds, value is traded on assurances backed by even more institutionalized assurances.  Someone feels the need to make a promise, a warranty, and we’d sooner buy that promise than the product they’re selling. If you want to go big, you’ve got to get a legal team and set up a CRM platform to respond to angry customers who didn’t get their bespoke razor on a Sunday. 

In my limited experience of Bangalore things have worked differently. I can rarely predict what I’ll get, but 70% of the time it’s a pleasant surprise, and there’s no explaining how it all worked out.

Mine is not a generalizable take on South India, but I actually think Bangalore is a prime setting to investigate the idea that institutions of predictability limit human ingenuity.  Bangalore is home to thousands of startups innovating through challenges at a pace unseen in most countries on earth.  And the direct-to-consumer model seems to be sacred in this industry and this place.  Here, high-tech startups and street vendors alike have a scrappy way of getting a product or service to the customer in the least time with the least overhead.  Whether A/B testing or yelling about veggies for sale, this kind of human-centered design is the opposite of institutional predictability.  It seems to occur naturally when small business is valuable to society.

For all their success in the “developed” economy, Fortune 500s are just now getting around to human-centered design, and it’s really just corporate window-dressing.  In bulky American corporate environments, half of the employees are managing the other employees who are managing employees’ benefits plans.  In contrast, even big companies here in Bangalore seem to be informal-izing just to create that experience that you as a customer deserve a more hands-on (or sometimes in-your-face) experience with the companies you use. Airtel—a global cell company—places their ads on “No Parking” signs at private residences. They’ve put their sim cards in local bodegas. Mechanics mercifully have not conglomerated in high-tech shops, but instead have paced themselves out conveniently where you need them—on the side of road at 200-meter intervals.  I’ve seen maybe 1 tow truck in my time here. They’re not needed.

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In one of our IDEX workshops on Social Innovation, our mentor discussed how fiscal responsibility is intrinsic to players in the informal economy.  If you’re a street vendor, you’ll never go bankrupt.  You won’t take out a loan you can’t pay back.  You won’t make reckless moves because your investors are greedy.  You won’t incur a sunk cost of a poorly-located storefront.  If business isn’t good on that street, you’ll roll your chaat cart to where the action is.  For the customer, that means that the food comes to you.  And for the economy, that means that businesses are only biting off shares of the market that they can chew. It’s worth mentioning, too, that there are plenty of huge companies like Tata, Aditya Birla, Reliance, Ashok Leyland, etc. that control a massive portion of the economy.  Like I said, contradictions everywhere.

Perhaps a way to sum up this idea of human-centered economy (direct-to-consumer, informal-ized big business, etc.) is simply calling it economic efficiency

“Efficiency” really is a shell of a word these days.  If you have to say something’s efficient, it’s probably because it totally isn’t.   It’s like when someone says, “let me be clear,” you know they’re about to vomit a 10-minute meandering lecture. So maybe it’s best to think about economic efficiency through environmental proxies, because the way countries dispose of what they produce is parallel with how they economize and trade it:

  1. Recycling in India (at least of plastics) appears to be the norm, and this has implications on the economy.
      • 60% of plastics are recycled in India.  6.8% of plastics are recycled in the US.  The US is the kid who’s not really cleaning their room; they’re just sweeping all the stuff into the corner before mom comes to inspect. 
         
  2. Re-use is a parallel standard.
      • The standard of plastics disposal also carries over to re-use.  If you need a blender but don’t want to pay sticker price, there’s a recycled electronic store nearby with a cheap, perfectly functional blender.  Compare that customer experience to waiting 4 business days for a blender to be delivered, only to have to call the CRM interactive voice robot and try to explain your deep-seated frustration “in a simple phrase”.  
      • I’ve had to re-use the same Ziplock for 3 months because plastic bags are so hard to come by.  It carries a distinct eau de masala now, but I don’t mind. You pay 30 rupees ($0.50) for a cool cloth bag at the grocery store and try to hold onto it.
        • Further to this point is Jugaad—the Indian “get-it-done” ethos that shapes consumer products.  When the handle falls off the pot in your cupboard, you buy pot tongs, which can grip any pot rim with remarkable leverage and allow you to move, pour, wash, and toss to your heart’s content.  Honestly, given this luxury, you’d be a fool to buy a new pot.
           
  3. Reducing is not something that happens at yoga; it’s something that happens in traffic. 
      • Take your commute on New Year’s Eve. You intended to be at the club by 10PM, buy some drinks, and then kick it with a throng of strangers.  You find yourself at 10:30 sitting in a cab, sweating through your palms. You’re cursing the other drivers. Then there’s a motorcycle that pulls up beside you with a bumper sticker reading “Police.”  He cuts you off, then stops, and you realize he’s not the police.  Another guy gets off his bike and starts looking around, clearly knowing little hope of moving.  Several others begin to turn on sirens, which you again realize are not state-sanctioned.  The driver turns off the car, phones it in. You join the others just hanging in the street.  You never make it to the club, but you’re now kicking it with a throng of strangers. What were you after in the first place? 
        • Reducing personal and vehicle space maximizes efficiency as well. Roads are used to their full potential, each square meter as an opportunity.  If a heavy-traffic road were a super-saturated solution, any minor disturbance would cause the solution to precipitate in the United States, clogging the road solid for hours.  In Bangalore, each micron of asphalt is used, allowing cars to stay in fluid motion.
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The last thing I’ll say will be followed by a phrase I find distasteful: “starting a conversation.”  The idea of having/starting a conversation about something is a phone-in.  Unless you walk away with the Declaration of Independence, the Upanishads, or a sick note from your parents, you probably haven’t gotten much done.  But I know that conversations are the first step. 

In any event, maybe it’s time to start a conversation about the very idea of “development.” I don’t know what development really is, but I don’t think it looks like more CRM systems, more delivery trackers, and more institutional predictability.