Designing a new culture

I have lived in Guwahati and in Mumbai; two cities which have been gifted by the abundance of water bodies. Guwahati by the mighty Brahmaputra flowing right through its centre and Mumbai by the sea. I have always felt that both these cities have wasted its water. Globally, cities have celebrated water and have built a human ecosystem around it. Cities like Amsterdam and Venice have vibrancy built in by going beyond the physical environment and including social, cultural and behaviourial elements of human interaction in the development of the city around the water.

Yes Mumbai does have the Gateway of India, a glorious expression of modern India that inspires the mind. But what beyond that? Is it people friendly? Mumbai is today clogged by traffic and cut off from the water. One often hears about a vague ‘spirit of Mumbai’, whatever it means. The city which never sleeps. It is the financial capital of the country and a monument to the culture of progress and development at the cost of human values and relationships.

I am not sure what will eventually come out of the smart city movement, but I do believe that at the core of it, a city needs to be people friendly. This is something that most of our cities are not.

In all my work across two decades, I have serviced private corporations and I have had a bit more faith in them to develop people friendly ecosystems. So, last weekend I was excited to visit the brand new office of a large corporation, that a friend of mine has designed. The new design has won several awards for its smart design, the community feel and its modern, yet resort like facilities. It’s a place, which was designed to make you feel that you are not working when you are working. It is indeed a very cool design.

Watefront in Venice

However a surprise awaited me. When I met some people from within the corporation, I realized that the corporation was in serious need of renovation. The management systems and processes which enabled the corporation to run, were still a victim of the legacy management style and not at all in sync with the new design of the corporate office. Tens of crores were spent in the new fit-out in order to bring about people centricity and increase efficiency, but it seemed that staff continued to leave the organization like they were before. Although the new fitout has shiny glass windows, the core management systems does not allow much transparency or encourage open communication. Erecting a shiny new facility which wins all design awards is meaningless if the surrounding organizational environment is misaligned.

Terms like ritual design and culture design are gaining popularity as a handful of organisations realize the importance of re-designing the culture. An ‘open open’ office is not good enough, an ‘open culture’ needs to be an integral part of the new age corporation. Following six sigma and being better is no more good enough. You need to be different, and really really different. Differentiation is the new strategic advantage in a world full of clutter. To design a new culture, design needs to take centre-stage. Design is no more a beauty salon, but has the potential to effect rule bending innovation across the board. There is nothing wrong in spreadsheet thinking; it is just that it’s not good enough anymore.

Humans are social animals, with or without Facebook. Whether in organisations or out on the streets, humans need avenues to interact with other humans, and express themselves. Can our upcoming smart cities effect greater, human to human, social interactions?