Seventy-five years ago, a new invention called the box charkha revolutionized India. A charkha is the generic term for any spinning wheel or machine, while a box charkha is a foldable, portable version used for spinning cotton or silk into thread. It comes in either the size of a small briefcase or a book and was invented by a clever design team with purpose in mind. It was revolutionary because, by enabling Indians to make their own cloth, it freed them from the British textile industry, which took Indian thread and returned it as cloth at prices Indians couldn’t afford. The box charkha became an enabling technology in a story about social change commonly known around the world; however, few understand the role it played in facilitating this change, and even fewer Westerners truly understand the dynamics of its development. Both are of critical importance today as we work to strengthen the economy, innovate, and grow.
What can innovators and politicians learn today from the introduction of the box charkha? A tremendous amount actually. For starters, many would be surprised to find out that the person behind it was Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, who was not only trying to design a more just society for his fellow Indians but seems to have understood the tremendous potential and power of design as a catalyst for enabling broader change. He led great personal and collective change but deserves further recognition for organizing the design community around making that change a reality.
Many are more familiar with photos of Gandhi spinning in public to encourage men to break gender roles and weave and wear homespun cloth as part of his passive resistance movement. The traditional spinning wheel was large and not very transportable, so Ghandhi called for a better solution to facilitate this important part of his mission. While he wasn’t directly involved in the design of the box charkha—his associate Maganlal Gandhi was the main force behind its development—Ghandhi was clear that it needed to be portable, affordable, and easy to use and maintain if his goal of self-reliance through individual spinning was to be realized.
In the end, Gandhi and his designers developed an ergonomic, hand-powered device manufactured affordably with readily available parts, as well as a housing optimized for portability. It remains an impressive example of humanitarian design beyond its role as a technological facilitator.
Gandhi and his design team provided the means with which the citizenry could compete with modern industrialization by creating mass individual modernization. Today, technology can be a similar equalizer in our search for economic development or innovation, provided these technologies function to empower the individual.
To drive important behavior change, one clearly needs to inspire people with purpose and lead by example, as Gandhi did so well. However, he appears to have understood that without both public support and the enabling technology, change and progress are often thwarted; yet with both, change is nearly impossible to resist. There are distinct parallels and lessons for today’s national and global leadership from this historic design team—on both design and innovation, as well as about people and facilitating change, including:
• The greatest leverage exists by removing barriers to self-sufficiency.
• The power of community, culture, and purpose can unite and inspire with lasting results.
• Technology can be of fundamental importance to facilitating social change; much like modern social media, it can be the enabler by holding power and purpose.
In reality, challenges when organizing societies to lead more sustainable lifestyles, harness innovation, or reinvigorate education really aren’t that different from those that Gandhi encountered in halting exploitative British trade practices. I truly believe that if today’s leaders would shed inhibition, open their eyes and see the world as designers do, they could be more innovative and more successful drivers of growth and positive change. As a social leader, Gandhi articulated a strategy and organized the public call to innovation to facilitate that social movement. However, as a design leader he went further, setting clear and attainable objectives that were surely influenced by his personal familiarity with spinning. As a design leader, Ghandi understood who he was designing for and what he was designing to achieve.
His example has influenced me as a design CEO in three important ways. First, the critical importance of user-based design insight. There is no substitute for intimate knowledge of the needs and aspirations of the users you’re designing for. Second, ensuring proper usage in public was a central aspect of Ghandi’s design challenge and must always guide design solutions. Finally, the value of purpose-driven design, which can guide the inherent trade-offs associated with design decisions, i.e., how to ensure something isn’t over- or under-designed for a particular user group.
Gandhi’s example has influenced me as a person even more, by demonstrating leadership to help people innovate their way out of poverty. Setting clear and attainable objectives is critical, whether getting an education, or investing your time and energy in other ways to have a better future. He also demonstrated that what we do for ourselves, we must do for one another as part of a community. That is why I’m an advocate of investing in the skills, technologies, and systems that hold the potential to create prosperity and improve livelihoods in our time. Leaders today should remember his example and the importance of organizing the design community around making change a reality, and to think like designers while driving the importance of strategic investments.