Recently, while thumbing through a back issue of Harvard Business Review from Jan 2011, I came across an article that made me stop and take a deep breath. "Yesssss! This is exactly the kind of thing we need- the kind of thing the newly emerging 'Common Man Party' and such like must focus on!"
The article was a guest column by the world renowned innovation guru, Vijay Govindarajan, and the A 300-dollar house!
The problem of affordable housing for the poor had been nagging me for some time now- whenever I look at the new housing projects being launched continually, I am stunned by the meteoric rise in prices across the country. Even in a second rung city like Pune, one can't buy a cheap house in the sub- one million Rupee band. How does that copy, for a populace that won't see half of that much in their entire life time? Are they forever condemned to dwell in their inhuman shanties, the slums, with no clean drinking water, legal electricity, toilets?
The article by Dr. Govindarajan, therefore, struck a timely chord.
So, what is this 300-dollar house all about?
In his article in the HBR issue of Jan 2011, Vijay Govindarajan talks about the proposal he made some time prior to this, in collaboration with another innovator named Christian Sorkar, to build a 300-Dollar house. The house would transform the lives of millions, by allowing them a place to live in dignity, with a community that provided shared access to cell phones,, water filters, solar panels, Internet, and tablet computers. The benefits of modern and dignified living would be made available to millions of people who are so far denied them.
Solving the Problem of Inclusivity through Reverse Innovation
Is the idea new? Not at all, but then how does this one propose to succeed, when others that preceded it fell by the wayside? According to Govindarajan, this one is different because it looks at doing it through collaborative approach involving governments, NGO's, as well as MNCs. But crucially, it plans to employ the mechanism of reverse innovation.
And what is reverse innovation? Quite simply, it turns the innovation process on its head, by employing stuff that is tried out in India and China first, and then bringing it back to the developed western world. This approach saves huge costs!
So- the next question is- Is this charity? Far from it, avers Govindarajan. There is a fortune at this bottom part of the pyramid that could amount to trillions! It needs enormous leaps in engineering economy and innovation to realize workable designs which suit the purpose. And the designers are careful, after the Tata Nano experience - see ref 4 below- to ensure that the fact that it is cheap doesn't become a stigma.
Corporates have come forward enthusiastically to take part in the century. In India, the Tatas and the Mahindra group have taken on the challenge of producing affordable community dwelling units.
In 2011 a competition was organized in collaboration with Jovoto to get design ideas for the project, and there were several entries worth working on. Incidentally, the team that won was from the Mahindra and Mahindra group.
The latest on this is that the 300House project group is now working in Haiti on a public park project and looking at ways to construct low cost housing to replace the ramshackle shanties there.(ref 6)
So, what does the future bode for such projects? I for one can clearly see the writing on the wall- that the problem of inclusive development is going to be bigger than ever, and economical engineering, technology and scientific innovation is the only way to ensure that the progress of the 21st century doesn't leave billions stranded.
And so- this is the club to watch out for – the affordable tablets like 'Akash', the affordable car like the Nano, the affordable house- I will be keenly watching the development on projects like these, and will be looking for opportunities to participate in them. Will you be doing likewise?