A Partnership of Contrasts: Why the Dutch can be so important for India and vice-versa

I visited Holland for the first time when I was 19 years old—en route to America for higher education. At the time, I was struck by the order and efficiency of this well-planned society. Yet people didn’t seem to be constrained by this order—they could enjoy all kinds of freedoms. Despite the structure, there was a sense of community and harmony in Holland. This experience allowed me to appreciate and understand the country even more on my next visit.

Openness and Collaboration
Returning to Holland last October, I realized what makes the Dutch such compelling designers — their openness to criticism, their passion about design, and their humility. They enjoy the process of design and often produce work with a sense of humor. The highlight of my visit was to see how Dutch designers collaborate with designers in different fields, and how those collaborations yield groundbreaking and evocative results. This open exchange of knowledge and ideas is what fuels the daring and conceptual nature that has become synonymous with Dutch design today. This type of collaboration enriches the designers and their fields.

The Dutch are unique in their desire to engage the user in an emotional and intelligent way. This connection and involvement comes from a particular sense of compassion for others in the community. It generates design that is stimulating and meaningful to the user.

The student work I saw in Holland was thought-provoking and advanced in its thinking. Indian educators could learn from Dutch design schools to challenge and inspire their students in ways that they do not today.

A Partnership of ContrastsWhy the Dutch can be so Important for India, and Vice-versa
Geographically and culturally, there are no two countries as different as India and Holland. Yet there are many reasons why our differences can be used creatively for mutual benefit. Dutch openness and knowledge-sharing can work well with the Indian zest for entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Dutch see things in a logical and balanced way, free of the hierarchical baggage of caste, gender, religion, etc., of Indian culture. If the government and society in India could adopt this line of thinking, we could reduce the corruption and related problems our society faces.

The Dutch have a unique understanding of problem-solving in fields such as urban planning, architecture, and design. Since India is growing at an unprecedented rate, with a potentially negative impact on society and the environment, the Dutch could play an important role in helping us to understand, articulate, and communicate changes in our society and patterns of living.

Dutch designers are good at talking to their clients and involving them in the design process. In India, clients often have a limited understanding of design. This affects the outcome of the project. We could learn from the Dutch how to interact with our clients, to make the design process a collaborative exchange.

At the same time, India has much to offer Holland. India’s powerful spirit has grown out of its ancient civilization. The varied people and cultures that coexist in such a vast country are what make India unique. India’s philosophical traditions—the Vedas, Ayurveda and Yoga—have contributed to a sense of balance and harmony with nature for centuries. There is much to be learned from the Gandhian principles of simplicity, slowness, and community. Simplicity is about the idea of less is more—consuming less and that which doesn’t harm the balance of nature. Slowness is about progress in the eastern sense—moving forward, but without harming others or nature. Community is about being compassionate and understanding the needs of others.

In India there are many grassroots development initiatives taking place with the help of NGOs and non-profit organizations that are independent of the mainstream corporate economy. This movement is not only more effective in alleviating poverty; it also enables development to happen in a way that is  not detrimental to nature. Western economies could learn from these initiatives.

Future Collaborations
By promoting a culture of compassion, self-criticism, and humility, the Dutch can help India to develop its own design language. Indo-Dutch partnerships could take shape in the following ways:

Hi-Tech to Smart-Tech
As a growing power, India has the chance not to make the same mistakes as the West. We need to measure progress in a new manner—to move away from the Western model of a corporate, profit-driven economy, toward one that measures growth that is intrinsically linked with the preservation of our planet. For instance, if you could choose between purchasing a faster computer in two years at the risk of losing a certain species of bird or, waiting five years for the next improvement in computing and preventing the extinction of this species, which option would you choose?

Partnerships for a Better Standards of Living
The role of design is to find an efficient path to improve our lives. The lives of many Indians are in danger of being drastically altered by the effects of rapid growth, price rise, and environmental degradation. Partnerships between Indian and Dutch designers could help to solve urban, social, and environmental issues in India.

SimpliCity: Bringing the Village to the City
As globalization dissolves our borders, many cultures are losing their unique characteristics, while global cities with uniform identities are emerging into prominence. In this regard, we can learn a lot from village India. The simplicity of Indian village life can teach us all about how to live in a community, to produce and consume less, and to make products that are ‘cradle-to-cradle’.  But villages are quickly disappearing. As our world becomes predominantly urban, we, as a civilization, need to adopt these powerful village principles into urban culture. This problem forms a compelling basis for an Indo-Dutch partnership; together we can take the principles of simplicity, community, and slowness to the city—SimpliCity.

• Spreading the Word
As a corollary to the point above, we need greater interaction between urban and rural people in India. A ‘design van’ could travel from village to village, sharing ideas with villagers and collecting their experiences to share with city dwellers.

Craft versus Design
A major 21st-century issue is the relationship between craft and design. We need to start a dialogue on important issues for India, such as:  what does it mean for crafts-people to become designers, which enables them to earn more money but risk losing their traditional skills? Should the designer profit financially from being an intermediary between the client and the crafts-person?

A Mass-Movement for Design
In order to extend its innovative and cutting-edge position in the world, it is crucial for India to integrate design education into its school system—to introduce design as a required class in primary and secondary schools. Design needs to be taken as seriously as engineering and IT were in the past—and it needs to be brought into the public arena to create a greater awareness, understanding, and interest. The Dutch can play a major role in helping to kick-start workshops and discussions on design throughout Indian schools and colleges.

Design Education
Design education needs to be revamped across the board so that future designers move away from seduction to preservation. Instead of seducing the consumer with products that are useless and harmful to the planet, designers need to become conscious of the impact their designs will have on the environment once they leave the hands of the consumer. Instead of designing the label of a plastic bottle, for instance, they should redesign the plastic bottle itself!

We are only at the beginning of a dynamic partnership, which could help transform both of our societies. As always, there are risks associated with collaboration between such different cultures, but the potential rewards are too great to not take a chance—a chance to transform millions of lives through active design.


Many thanks to Jennifer Sigler to help shape this article

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