On Jan 10, Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata conglomerate in India
unveiled what is billed as the least expensive car in the world, the
Nano. Not a very original name, but the story behind the car is quite
fascinating. Here is an interview with Ratan Tata about how the
project was initiated and how the design evolved.
I bring this up to compare and contrast with the XO project. Both
involve technologies, and both have the goal of making technology
accessible and available to people who could have never dreamed of
having it before. Let's leave aside issues of pollution, crowding,
fossil fuels, etc. for the moment (there are lots of good arguments on
both sides there, and some very practical issues that grand theories
and ideals cannot address).
One project was taken up by a famous university lab and the other by a
famous corporation (who are hoping to buy Jaguar and Land Rover).
Both projects were driven by high ideals. Ratan Tata is head of the
probably the most ethical and socially conscious corporation in India;
they are respected through the length and breadth of the country).
This was his pet project, his parting gift to the people of India and
the developing world before he retired. Nicholas Negroponte has a
very high profile in academia and industry, and the XO is clearly
Negroponte's pet project.
Differences now emerge. The XO was created by a very talented group
located in the most technologically advanced nation in the world for
people living in the most underdeveloped nations. The Nano was
created by a talented group of engineers located in nation with the
largest population of poor people. The designners could observe the
daily struggles of their 'clients' to and from work every day.
The Nano is a conventional car driven no differently from any other.
The key challenges related to keeping cost of production under $2,500.
This resulted in 34 patent applications, many related to the design
of the engine. Cost cutting had to be so severe, that even savings of
25 to 50 cents on a part were considered significant.
Having lived in both the US and India for many years, I realize it is
impossible to truly and completely empathize with one's clients unless
one really has been totally immersed in their culture and are able to
accept their perspective. I recall back in the early 1980's when we
used to use 8-bit microcomputers to run corporate applications
formerly run on IBM mainframes. Living in a scarcity-prone society
drastically affects one's mindset (in both positive and negative
ways). You learn to live with less, and get the most from whatever is
available. This generates a nation of MacGuyvers (apologies to non-US
list members -- MacGuyver is one of my favorite TV characters who gets
out of difficult situations using whatever is available around him).
I am convinced that the Nano as it exists could not have been designed
in either Japan or the US (or any G-8 nation, for that matter).
Whether that is a positive or a negative, I don't know yet, but I
believe it is important design factor to keep in mind.