Design Thinking, People, Interview

Invertonomics: In conversation with Architect Goonmeet Singh Chauhan

How can you use design innovation to solve critical issues of the country? By turning them into an economic opportunity.

Despite the recent GDP contraction, the fact remains that India is still perceived as an emerging economic power and formidable partner in the APAC region. While the growth rate, size of the market and the demographic dividends puts us in a favourable position, the fact is there are still problem's galore – whether its economic, social, or cultural.

It is in this context that we spoke with architect, urbanist and author, Goonmeet Singh Chauhan, who has recently released his book Invertonomics: 8 Ideas to Transform India. In the book, he proposes 'Invertonomics' as a new way of looking at problem-solving that inverts problems into economic opportunities. The crux of the solution is a PPP model built on three pillars: Transformation of mindsets, Interventions in the built environment, and Deployment of technology.

Though the book covers eight core issues and plausible solutions, Goonmeet confides that the initial idea was to look at 100 issues. It was later deliberated at length and cut short to eight ideas which are Honking, Clean air, Traffic compliance, Safer cities, the Currency of garbage, Public sanitation/ toilets, Equity, and Office of Bharat. He proposes some pragmatic-- in some cases -- successfully implemented models for tackling them.

This begets a question: Some of these are inherited challenges and others a consequence of decades-old public and policy lapses. Can design innovation be used to solve some of these? Goonmeet believes that a sceptical approach to solving issues is an erroneous start. "In the last 70 years, we have come a long way. When our country got independence, the life expectancy was around 38 years, and now it is beyond 60 years. This means there has been gradual progress that we have achieved. I agree, there is a long mile to go, but we will get there," he says.

He agrees that many of the ideas proposed require a cultural shift in mindset but the idea to expedite it from eventuality to a more foreseeable future. As Goonmeet writes in the book, "In India, we suffer from a lack of connectedness as a society, with no sense of what is important for the collective good. Although citizens follow and obey punitive laws, other unwritten rules that govern conduct in public spaces or intercourse between citizens are disregarded since there is no consensus on what constitutes 'good behaviour' and thus no way to measure or punish those actions that infringe upon it. Therefore, before we can think of restoring order or regulating the public space, it becomes imperative to create a standard set of rules (etiquette) for situations not governed by the law..."

In another chapter of the book, he writes, "This obfuscation of the law has led to an incremental lowering of the median of moral integrity in our country with future generations learning by example and acquiring a sort of flexible morality when it comes to the public domain."

Who will bell the cat?

Garbage issue, for instance, has never achieved the desired result because of the tendency to neglect responsibility and say, 'Who will bell the cat?'. Goonmeet says it has to be a collective effort and can't be hitched up on one person or one section of the society. He opines the issue has to be inverted; the responsibility should move from dependency on garbage collectors to home. "If we create an ecosystem that offers an incentive for garbage segregation, it will fuel a change."

He proposes, "First and foremost, we will set up a Smart Waste Corporation and provide a set of three 'smart' garbage cans, free of cost to each home. The green can is for organic waste. The blue can take in recyclables, such as paper, plastics and metals. A third, orange can is reserved for any non-recyclables such as leather, thermocol or synthetic rubber products. Each can is embedded with a special SIM card that identifies it to the family whose home it belongs. The SIM card also allows cans to be tracked in transit. For each kilo of recyclable material deposited in these cans, the SWC credits the owner with a certain number of points or cash. These credits can be used at stores to get discounts or special deals, or they can even be used to pay utility bills such as electricity and water. The segregated garbage is taken into a Zonal Collection Centre (or ZCC) where it is checked and weighed to assess how many points the account of the owner will be credited. From there, all recyclable materials are moved to third-party recycling units, a waste-to-energy power plant, or sent to the city landfill."

Architect and author Goonmeet Singh Chauhan Invertonomics
Invert the issues to create economic opportunities which will drive a social change. 

In the book, Goonmeet argues that sops have often not attained the desired results due to poor implementation and transparency. Therefore, he feels that it is necessary to have a model that relies on technology and behavioural shift. "Incentives are a great measure to encourage people to do good rather than putting penalties. Often incentive outperforms penalty if the system is robust and transparent. This can perhaps also be linked with income tax and other benefits where you can also get a certain kind of redemption where you can rate better as a responsible citizen."

Consequently, for honking, Goonmeet recommends the use of a smart card that penalizes the driver/car owner every time he honks. The idea has merits. In our country, honking has attained a role of communication language – you honk to warn, to show impatience, distress or even happiness!

Design interventions 

In all the issues discussed in the book, design plays a key role from converting the public toilets to a semi-retail opportunity to using street-lights for rainwater harvesting, advertising and making cities safer.

To make cities more cycle-able, Goonmeet shares a project that is underway in New Delhi. "Delhi has consistently performed the worst in air quality index. The state government has proven to some degree that with public participation, it is possible to put in a model which can reduce the impact on the environment. We are currently working with the authorities to create a 200 Km cycle-able road in Delhi that connects places of cultural prominence and nearly 30 lakes/water bodies." In the book, he highlights the foot-over bridges of Delhi, where design intervention has not only added to the aesthetics of the city but also created economic opportunity for people.

"The foot overbridges become much more and fulfil the promises of city-wide, clean toilets every kilometre, elevators and other universal accessibility features, legit space for the informal sector, canvasses for street art, Wi-Fi convenient shops for clean drinking water and selling of street food. There would be a dedicated space for an all-new Women's Security Force with an Eagles Vantage point, space for beat constables, CCTV, solar lights and visually refreshing flowerscape. Additionally, these new structures that shall animate the roads every kilometre would become symbols of the city's public architecture and draw from local cultural symbols and design vocabularies to become elements of civic pride," he shares.

Cities must be more pedestrian-friendly, he argues. "The first and most important step in the planning of any city is to conduct a pattern analysis of its different fabrics – the morphology of its buildings, high and low vehicular-density areas, public transport as well as pedestrian and cyclist network. The next step is to lay these one over the other to find where the pedestrian fabric is cut or transected by the other fabrics, isolate those areas and then detail them to a high degree to ensure that there are no conflict points," he adds.

As we near the end of the interview, we discuss women security which is today a key concern. As per a survey done by Godrej Security Solution, only 6% of women carry a pepper spray or think of dialling #100 in case of emergency.

"We need to have a holistic perspective on women and children safety," Goonmeet says. "It can be as small. In schools, for instance, the height of safety railings has to be 5 feet and not the mandatory three feet. Similarly, we need to put in a system that makes the safety preparedness of an organization, building, city, etc. transparent for people to make an objective decision. The idea is to create a 10- point rating system called the Index for Women's Empowerment and Safety (IWES), which could potentially be used to measure the quotient of safety and security in communities, organizations, and corporations. In the future, imaging if a job site also mentions the IWES rating of an organization along with the company bio. People will choose to work with organizations which perform better on the rating," he concludes. 

The book is available in paperback and ebook format on Amazon: www.amazon.in/Invertonomics-Eight-Ideas-Transform-India/dp/9353577357 

Paperback: INR 555

Kindle Edition: INR 385