Co.Design

What Gandhi (Yes, Gandhi) Taught Me About Design, Leadership, And Technology

Long before Gandhi was a political leader, he was a designer who created a loom to help Indians in their daily lives. RKS’s Ravi Sawhney writes about learning from Gandhi’s example.

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.

[Image: jaimaa/Shutterstock]

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9 Comments

  • Angie

    A minor peeve, but a significant one - could you please spell Gandhi right. (not Ghandhi - as in some places) Thanks. Good read.

  • Richard Trovatten

    I don't agree with you that technology holds purpose, to me technology is always a neutral enabler/disabler that shows its effects retrospectively by what behavior it allows - but I love the rest of your three central insights!

  • RaviSawhney

    Thanks for your comments.  Perhaps our definition of technology is different. According to Wikipedia:Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. Are we on the same page?

  • Pranay Kanti Sen

    This writing will definitely inspire the mind of the young people to learn Gandhiji's Idea of designing an independent society free from any foreign control economically and politically.Being frustrated by the corrupt attitude of the Indian politicians young peoples are showing reluctenc in casting their votes during elections which is a great threat to Indian democracy.If young people come forward to contest election after having Ganghiji's idea of forming an ideal society our country must prosper to that extent where no other country of the world ever reaches.

  • Ravi

     This comments bring into the lighter, the greater purpose of design as a tool to affect cultural change and elevate the quality of life. However, politicians here, in India and elsewhere remain unaffected by their consumers (voters) ability to expose corruption. That's today, tomorrow will surely be better.  One can see things improving. Using the internet to expose corruption must have an effect on raising voices. There's an opportunity here to create viral demand and motivation though social media. There's also an opportunity to celebrate contributions making the world a better place.

  • ravisawhney

    Dear Amogh,
     
    Thank you for your comment.

    Amogh, 

    You're very welcome. Design thinking, especially our unique approach,  can help by
    retaining focus on the imperative to address people's needs and as well as
    their aspirations. 

    While some products like the electric guitar we did in
    2005 are clearly not designed for need, to the contrary, many of RKS' most
    exciting products these days are designed to address the basics. We're
    passionate about developing solutions for consumers in many markets, and
    passionate about empowering people. And, even an electric guitar that is used to write music can cahnge and has changed the world, time and time again.

    For example, our work on LaundryPOD was designed to help
    make more water available where most needed, and reduce waste in laundry that
    limits its availability for better purposes. That same work has great
    commercial possibilities in Western markets which is exciting too. Our work on
    KOR has been strategically moving down the price pyramid to now offer a very
    attractive and affordable hydration alternative that reduces plastic waste.
    True we're working on a new smartphone, but one that will help the blind better
    see the modern world, and our work on Ion Proton was designed to help help
    scientists who are helping democratize medical understanding. We've also
    secretly been working on other projects around rapid water purification and
    other disaster preparation/response initiatives harnessing the power of mobile
    platforms, that I can't yet discuss more fully.  I hope you agree we're
    trying to strike a balance that attracts and engages consumers in many segments,
    while working more broadly to address big challenges uninvolved in consumerism
    and capitalism. 

  • Amogh Chougule


    Dear Mr. Sawhney,I really appreciate the time and efforts you've taken to respond.I could see that RKS is taking honest efforts in the direction to reduce carbon footprint. However, I just wanted to make it clear that my comment about your products is more reflective than critical. We have a small design studio in Pune, India (www.neodes.in) and we face a lot of challenges in negotiating between our philosophical inclination and the hard market realities. So for the benefit of the readers and myself alike, I wanted to know from a established design organisation, how they deal with these challenges and how it relates to Gandhian philosophy you've appreciated in the article.A few examples come to mind when I think of how one can apply Gandhian philosophy to modern times. Daily dump by Poonam Bir Kasturi (http://www.dailydump.org/produ.... This product, according to me, has addressed issues like waste management, social entreprenureship, cultural aspects, etc. very well, achieving a long term solution rather than just a 'short term' green solution. Another interesting example is Christoph Thetard's Pedal powered Kitchen appliance ( featured on this blog few months back : http://www.fastcodesign.com/16.... I believe its a philosophical shift in the way one approaches one's needs(energy in this case). This appliance runs on human power and perhaps its a 'healthier' option. It promotes de-centralisation of energy as well, rather than making us depend on the grid. It uses design to make the product look 'sexy' too, making the owner proud.Would like to know your thoughts on the same.Regards,Amogh(PS: The debate/discussion aside, we have some RKS fans at neodes. :-)

  • Amogh Chougule

    Dear Mr. Sawhney,

    Thanx for illuminating the role of Gandhiji as a design thinker. Indeed very few Westerners (most of the readers of this blog) know about his philosophy.

    However, I wonder how would you interpret Gandhiji's fundamental philosophy  of "There's enough for everybody's needs but not enough for anybody's greed" ?
    How can design thinking help question today's fundamental issues regarding consumerism, selfish capitalism, class divide, etc.? 

    Excuse me if I'm wrong here, but don't you think most of RKS products directly / indirectly promote all of these? 

    Regards,
    Amogh, India.