Tata Nano vs. OLPC/XO

11 Jan 2008 - 10:28am
6 years ago
7 replies
711 reads
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

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.

http://www.domain-b.com/companies/companies_t/Tata_Motors/20080110_makingof_thenano.html

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.

Cheers,

Murli

Comments

11 Jan 2008 - 3:29pm
Michael Micheletti
2006

On Jan 11, 2008 7:28 AM, Murli Nagasundaram <murliman at gmail.com> wrote:

>
> 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.
>

Hi Murli,

Thanks for the link to the interview article. I've been pretty fascinated by
the Nano rollout.

Your statement reminds me of something I read (sorry can't remember the
source) about the design of a writing instrument for the US space program.
The astronauts needed to be able to write in zero gravity, upside down, in a
vacuum, while Martians were attacking, etc. A large program was established;
some many hours and millions of dollars later the Fisher Space Pen emerged
to great praise. The Russian space program, constrained by budget, gave
their astronauts pencils.

Michael Micheletti

11 Jan 2008 - 4:35pm
Adrian Howard
2005

On 11 Jan 2008, at 20:29, Michael Micheletti wrote:
[snip]
> Your statement reminds me of something I read (sorry can't remember
> the
> source) about the design of a writing instrument for the US space
> program.
> The astronauts needed to be able to write in zero gravity, upside
> down, in a
> vacuum, while Martians were attacking, etc. A large program was
> established;
> some many hours and millions of dollars later the Fisher Space Pen
> emerged
> to great praise. The Russian space program, constrained by budget,
> gave
> their astronauts pencils.

Which is actually an urban myth :-)

Normal ball point pens write just fine in free fall, and pencils were
used by both the US and USSR in early space missions (but were
abandoned later since little bits of graphite ambling around your
workspace in free fall turned out not to be fun)

See http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/spacepen.asp for some
background.

Cheers,

Adrian

11 Jan 2008 - 5:03pm
Michael Micheletti
2006

On Jan 11, 2008 1:35 PM, Adrian Howard <adrianh at quietstars.com> wrote:

> Which is actually an urban myth :-)
>

Oh, that's right, I remember now. Bigfoot told me that story. Have to have
words with that boy...

Michael :-)

12 Jan 2008 - 12:17pm
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

Michael, while that story sadly turned out to be an urban myth ("if it
sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't") there are numerous
instances of resourcefulness one encounters as one wanders about in
poor societies where people survive, if not thrive, in the most
challenging circumstances -- and here's the incredible part: with
their humanity intact; and indeed remaining more human and humane than
many if not most people one encounters in cities. I have been shamed
many times by the generosity I have encountered among people that many
consider poor.

- The micro-banking revolution began in Bangladesh
- villagers in the Indian subcontinent often build their own satellite
dishes out of scrap metal they find on the roadside
- An entire class of students gets through school sharing a single
textbook per subject; they end up with far sharper memories
- The humble streetlamp is the venue for many a night class

One down side of the new prosperity -- and who doesn't want to be
prosperous? -- is the kind of ingenuity, quickwittedness and
autonomous behavior that didn't take uninterrupted and clean power,
water, roads, etc. for granted. The upside, of course, is that people
can spend their lives doing more than merely surviving. But even in
extreme circumstances, the arts have always thrived, if only as a
means of venting one's anguish and pain, a case in point being the
Roma people of Europe.

-murli

On Jan 12, 2008 1:59 AM, Michael Micheletti
<michael.micheletti at gmail.com> wrote:

>
> Your statement reminds me of something I read (sorry can't remember the
> source) about the design of a writing instrument for the US space program.
> The astronauts needed to be able to write in zero gravity, upside down, in a
> vacuum, while Martians were attacking, etc. A large program was established;
> some many hours and millions of dollars later the Fisher Space Pen emerged
> to great praise. The Russian space program, constrained by budget, gave
> their astronauts pencils.
>
> Michael Micheletti
>

--
murli nagasundaram, ph.d. | www.murli.com | murli at murli.com | +91 99
02 69 69 20

12 Jan 2008 - 4:40pm
Jeff Howard
2004

Murli wrote:
> There are numerous instances of resourcefulness
> one encounters as one wanders about in poor societies
> where people survive, if not thrive, in the most
> challenging circumstances...

There are a couple blogs on this theme that might be worth checking
out:

Street Use
http://kk.org/streetuse/

AfriGadget
http://www.afrigadget.com/

// jeff

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Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=24467

14 Jan 2008 - 10:59am
Stew Dean
2007

On 12/01/2008, Murli Nagasundaram <murliman at gmail.com> wrote:
> Michael, while that story sadly turned out to be an urban myth ("if it
> sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't") there are numerous
> instances of resourcefulness one encounters as one wanders about in
> poor societies where people survive, if not thrive, in the most
> challenging circumstances -- and here's the incredible part: with
> their humanity intact; and indeed remaining more human and humane than
> many if not most people one encounters in cities. I have been shamed
> many times by the generosity I have encountered among people that many
> consider poor.
>
> - The micro-banking revolution began in Bangladesh
> - villagers in the Indian subcontinent often build their own satellite
> dishes out of scrap metal they find on the roadside
> - An entire class of students gets through school sharing a single
> textbook per subject; they end up with far sharper memories
> - The humble streetlamp is the venue for many a night class

This is very true. Having less things doesnt mean you don't learn less
or have a poorer quality of life.

What I find saddening about the whole Tata thing is that this could
have been a great chance to introduce an electric vehicle, or even a
hydrogen one, one that was cheap to look after and run based upon the
use of solar energy. That would have been a world changing concept.

In Puru I noticed that all the outlaying villages and those floating
on lake Titicaca use solar power above any other source (partly down
to a scheme to allow them to pay for the cells in installments).
Solar power remains the most promising technology for developing
nations and it's good to see it being adopted.

Now we just need cheap light batteries or a way to store hydrogen
created via the use of solar energy and then developing nations can
avoid the whole dependency on petrol thing and skip the mistakes of
developed nations.

So, anyway.

To directly relate this to software / site design it's about working
out what is the mininmum you need for the job and being ruthless with
the pruning of needless functionality (yes I know it's a bit of a
stretch). I've been using Vista for about a week now and can happily
live without it graphical sparkle. I hoping gradients on everything is
a phase everyone is going through - we don't need things like that do
we? My first computer had 48k memory (yes k, not m or g) yet I had
loads of fun playing games with it, wrote programmes and even wrote an
essay using it.

Okay maybe a thin link to the much more worthy topic of the ability
for people to be resourcefull giving limited resources and be
potenitaly as happy as those with endless resources.

Stew Dean

14 Jan 2008 - 12:26pm
Jeff Seager
2007

Stew: "To directly relate this to software / site design it's about
working out what is the mininmum you need for the job and being
ruthless with the pruning of needless functionality (yes I know it's
a bit of a stretch)."

That's the essential mindset, I think, Stew. And ruthless is the
word! The tendency to develop something more complicated than
necessary will destroy us, ultimately, if we succumb to it.

"The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level
of thinking with which we created them." [Einstein]

(Note that he didn't say a *higher* level is required)

"I don't think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in
my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from
laziness %u2014 to save oneself trouble." [Agatha Christie]

Jeff

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Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=24467

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