Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Dutch government WANTS YOU to party!

The residential street of Gashouderstraat seems like any other in the Netherlands. There is a play space at the corner; houses have large windows and cycles lean precariously against anything resembling a post. A few potted plants scatter the footpath. And then it starts to unravel. A herb garden emerges on the sidewalk and we are told that we can access sage to thyme for our evening meals. This community garden effort has government backing. Nothing transforms a space as public gardening – an innovative strategy to create ownership of public property. Although seemingly an oxymoron, the idea of keeping things “public” requires certain privatization or belief in appropriating spaces as ones own. It’s been working across cultures, especially as a means of urban renewal in areas from the Bronx in New York to out here. After all, a sense of ownership comes with responsibility. You live a little longer here and the stories start to emerge of how a boy of 11 collected signatures from this street, as he wanted a play space at the corner. Dutch give bureaucracy a remake here as they apparently responded within 3 weeks to this effort. A children’s park was born. In some ways, this socialism comes with a very capitalistic drive – ownership, private property and freedom to shape your environment. Stretching the time spent here and you realize that it’s not just the material shift in public space but the temporal community gatherings that foster material investment in public space. In other words, the local government doles out petty cash for a street party to foster neighborhood feelings, with the very pragmatic logic that if people are bonded, communal change will be positive. And so we party for social change…Proost I say!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Does Culture fail to Shock?

When moving to a new country, there is much talk about “culture shock,” where inadvertently you discover that not everyone has heard of Shah Rukh Khan, forget Koffee with Karan Johar; where walking is interpreted as a sign of your cycle having been stolen and where Nutella wins over peanut butter as a choice of spread. But the truth of the matter is that this is not really a “shock” to the system as for it to jolt you, it has to confront you immediately.

In fact, momentum and pace is at the heart of such eureka moments, which, contrary to popular belief, creeps up on you at the most unexpected of times or perhaps never! You could be walking by the Marijuana Museum in Amsterdam everyday, oblivious to the fact that there is, after all, a museum on this much-adored weed. This term “culture shock”, although a cliché, is in fact barely representative of what one goes through when one shifts geographies. After all, we don’t just travel with our material luggage, we move with our well-encased worldviews that neatly insulates us from the new surrounds that you plunge into. So it is very much possible to float along for years without actually attending to what could possibly shock you. And when we do attend, it is often at the peripheral observation of confirming your deep-seated notions of how people are, in general, strange. Maybe you even celebrate your normalcy by accepting without much probing into the peculiar ways of the new tribe. Thereby, its not a shock, its an affirmation of all what you’ve held dear for so long.

“Shock” requires us to believe that people are inherently like you. Given that we live in a time of celebrated narcissism, that sensation will need to be earned. That said, if you were a brand manager, you can see why, “culture non-shock but a mild surprise” does not do the trick. We expect a punch but what often we get is a tap on the shoulder. But few, turn around nevertheless.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the cheapest of them all?

Today’s world is the world of consumerism. “Access,” even in the most economically disadvantaged areas is less about the basics. In fact, there is a thin line between what constitutes as necessity versus luxury. The farmer wants a mobile to listen to Radio1 94.3; the housemaid in Bandra wants a TV to watch her favorite soap opera; the watchman in Electronic City aims to get a car one day. With India’s massive consumer base of a billion strong, the economy of scale as a perennial cliché kicks in as predictably as ever. So there is nothing new in the fact that new technologies can become accessible at a faster rate in emerging markets than its western counterpart. What is new however is that products today are being developed from the start to be accessible – in one word –CHEAP. Patience is a thing of the past apparently. The new consumer has made the economy of scale redundant here.

The burgeoning middle class laps up the Tata Nano, the people’s car at $2500, an unprecedented figure for an automobile today. The legendary chairman, Ratan Tata remarks: “Today, we indeed have a People’s Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions,” Mr. Tata added. “We are happy to present the People’s Car to India and we hope it brings the joy, pride and utility of owning a car to many families who need personal mobility.”

And this seems to be just the start. In the hardware world, the brainpower universities of IIT & IISc have pioneered the tablet computer at the cost of a mere $35 with promises of getting even cheaper for the students. And if we cross over to the medical world, we see pioneering innovations of cost effective treatment in major sectors, from prosthetic legs to eye treatment to HIV drugs, an invaluable model to learn for the West where healthcare is perhaps one of the biggest contentious issues of the day.

Best yet, cheap is no longer automatically equated to lower quality. In fact, the demanding consumer expects more apps, more features, and more gadgetry for less. Competition and choice have fueled such expectations, raising the bar for innovators. And rightly so. When we look in the mirror, we now want to see not the present but the future. The question is, who will present the fairest future for us all?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

When in India...swami style reflections in 2011

I left India 16 years ago. With every annual visit back to my hometown, Bangalore, there is a new version of the past created. The past becomes highlighted when the present changes. And changes are aplenty. Roads are constantly being expanded with colossal pillars for the fast train emerging smack in the middle. The guts of Bangalore are being opened up for the NammaMetro, “our metro” fast train, designed to control and digest the 7 million strong city residents. There is constant talk of the “center” being moved, given the construction of luxury gated communities and IT parks along the outskirts of Whitefield to Hosur road, with the future rotating around the new airport shaped after much championing for a new global image for this hybrid city.

And hybrid city it is as 60% of the residents come from across the country and NRIs (Indians who settled in the West) are making their way back to etch their place in this perceived dynamic market and simultaneously be close to their aging parents. The new ambition balances with traditional family values, working well for the Indian economy. On the other hand, the “center” remains entrenched and persists with the small fry shops that I grew up with, small corner comic book libraries, sweetstalls and jean shops surviving the onslaught of the new mall virus spreading across Bangalore. Within the last 5 years, malls have made their presence felt from 3 shopping complexes to now about 40 mega-consumer parks spread across the city. Marks & Spencer, Lush, and Nokia rests non-ironically with home grown stores within these new leisure park spaces, wrapped within the larger experience of masala popcorn and Bollywood in IMAX style.

Everywhere you go, you feel the presence of change. Sikkimese hairdressers, Malayali nurses, to Punjabi business people create the surround sound of the city. New policies emerge to streamline this dynamism be it new bank policies to stricter rules on getting a SIM card for the cell phone. Security measures have beefed up yet India has the knack of displaying ironies in the most entertaining of fashions. Pirated DVD shops, once hidden, now gain legitimacy as they take over a large shopping complex in the heart of Bangalore, selling “original quality” pirated movies of Sex and the City to Salman Khan’s latest big hit, Dabangg. What else? This city continues to hold the title of the “Garden City,” in spite of the systematic felling of trees and the “Pub city” in spite of recent year changes to pub timings to 11am, killing the liquor business to a great degree. Simultaneously, this city is being considered a serious contender from the typical Mumbai hotbed of cultural innovation, for Italian fine cuisine to fashion, expanding its reach beyond the software and call center nodes that represent it. With the New Year, new changes are felt. The city is a beast, consuming and being consumed at a faster rate than ever before. It is a lot to digest after all.