DAVID SKORTON: If you haven't had a chance to learn much about the Nano, you're going to learn a lot about it now and tomorrow. And it's intriguing in and of itself. Designing the world's most affordable car, one that exceeds European air quality standards, for example, was obviously a tremendous challenge. And many of us here look forward not only to learning more about this particular car and this particular design, but about the field because this is so important to us and to our children and grandchildren. But this symposium, as Kent Kleinman has forcefully and convincingly argued from the beginning, could be and is about much more than innovative automobile design.
Once you experience the Nano, which is on display in the lobby of the Johnson Museum, you'll discover in that exhibit, as in the discussions about to come up and tomorrow, that there are many ways to think about the role of the automobile in human lives around the globe. This conversation is about purpose and consequence as well as about economics and carbon footprint. It's about the expanding options of a shrinking world. It's about the synthesis of need and opportunity. And it's about balancing the demands of social equity with the need for action and not just conversation on climate change.
The Tata companies, as you know, have a long history of great success coupled with very high standards of corporate responsibility. In fact, the Nano project came about, in part, in great part, because of Ratan's desire to do something concrete for the millions of people in India who lacked any motorized personal transportation. So today and tomorrow, we will examine this revolutionary vehicle and where it may take us literally and figuratively. Cornell is very honored to host Unpacking the Nano. I hope you'll enjoy this conversation. Let the conversation begin.
KENT KLEINMAN: For many of us, particularly for myself, our first encounter with Professor Appadurai was by way of the seminal book of 1986 entitled The Social Life of Things, a volume of essays dealing with the trajectories of artifacts as they circulate their way through various regimes of value, changing their meaning, and acquiring a kind of biography as they navigate various social settings. The notion that things could acquire subjecthood and agency is actually now quite widely accepted. 25 years ago, the idea was radical and exhilarating. The Social Life of Things is pretty close description of what this whole event is about. The Nano, an object of extreme design intelligence, a car for merely $2,500, enters the slipstream of society and becomes a player in reconfiguring the social, cultural, architectural, infrastructural, and aesthetic landscapes of that very society in which it was formed. In a very real sense, Professor Appadurai theorized the Nano 25 years before it hit the roads.
I'm going to give you the short version of his CV because we do not have that much time tonight. Professor Appadurai is the Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, a senior research partner at the Gottingen-based Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Cultural Diversity. And-- and I promise you this is a coincidence-- the Tata Professor at Mumbai's Tata Institute for Social Sciences. Prior to NYU, he was at the New School University where he served as provost. And before that, he held distinguished professorships at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University where he, among other things, directed the Center for Cities and Globalization. His books and essays are far too numerous to name, and they span the topics of globalization, urbanization, and media. Among his many advisory roles, he is a founding member of PUKAR, a nonprofit urban laboratory based in Mumbai, and a member of the High Panel on Peace and Dialogue Among Cultures of UNESCO.
Professor Appadurai's address is titled, "What does Nano want? Design as a tool for future building." Please help me welcome him to the podium.
ARJUN APPADURAI: So the first section is called, "What objects want." In the normal course of things, we ask what consumers want, what companies want, what policymakers want, and what countries want, and indeed, what humanity itself might want. My title suggests that we might also want to ask what objects themselves want. This way of putting the question is not frivolous.
In philosophy and the social sciences, as well as in art criticism and other humanistic fields, there's been a great deal of interest in treating objects as alive, moving, living, dying, and demanding. From at least the time of Spinoza and coming to the more recent times of Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, for example, various great thinkers have observed that mechanical things are not simply at our beck and call. Once imagined, produced, marketed, and purchased, all design things acquire a measure of freedom, autonomy, and agency. They appear to develop a will of their own, sometimes making human beings their tools, their friends, or their enemies.
Who has not seen some of the great comedians fighting with machines, umbrellas, doors, or windows? Charlie Chaplin surely knew that all the objects surrounding him could conspire to trip him up. Likewise, Harpo Marx had the talent for making all sorts of objects join him in adding their childish craziness to his own. Laurel and Hardy, later the Three Stooges, and indeed, all slapstick comedians know that every designed object in their vicinity can be a malicious opponent or a friendly collaborator.
In 1986, as Kent so generously mentioned, I edited and conceived a book called The Social Life of Things in which my fellow authors and I sought to show that all objects of social and cultural trajectories in which they can shift from being, for example, gifts to being commodities, from to heirlooms to being junk, from being gourmet items to being garbage. Human beings could begin as free men, be turned into slaves, and then rise in politics to become advisors to kings or to great charismatic leaders. And Marcel Duchamp showed us that today's urinal can become tomorrow's found object-- in the right artistic hands, however. So go on to ask why objects demand contexts.
Applied to objects, which I define as designed things, what this means is that we need to ask how objects demand context for people to enjoy them, buy them, use them, and interpret them. In human history, for the large part, these contexts were relatively slow to change and, thus, were fairly straightforward to build and to interpret. Take one well-studied context from a far away, low technology world, the world of Melanesia, which till recently experienced little dramatic change in basic technologies of survival, reproduction, and communication. In this world, there was a great deal of long distance traffic, for example, in bird's feathers, which played an important role in the aesthetic and political lives of quite small, otherwise isolated societies. These fathers were a kind of luxury good. But they ended up nesting into a fairly stable cosmetic and personal patterns, in particular, kin-based localities. Context in this case was relatively stable and relatively legible, both for the people in these communities and for those who now study them.
This approach can also be applied to the highly hierarchical class- and status-based societies of the medieval world, from Europe to Asia, and from Mexico to Benin, which characterized much of the world before the birth of industrial capitalism and its associated world conquests. These societies were typically governed by elaborate sumptuary laws, that is laws which specified who was entitled to what kind of clothing, cosmetics, tools, and bodily ornamentation, as well as to what style of housing and food, according to their place in a fairly well-defined hierarchy. The sumptuary laws of the great feudal societies, such as those of Western Europe and Japan, have been studied quite closely. And what they show is an expanded world of objects, but a relatively stable world of rules and context for their combination.
All this begins to change with the birth of industrial capitalism, of massive technologies for the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities on a global basis. Many of them tied to human interests in new tastes-- sugar, pepper, tobacco, tea, to name a few-- and to the search for cheaper ways to fulfill basic needs like the need for textiles in England in the 19th century, which I think is part of the context of the beginnings of the great Tata vision in 19th century India. This period, roughly from the 17th to the 19th centuries, inaugurates the birth of fashion in its contemporary form and, thus, also of design in its current sense.
Both fashion and design, like many other human forms, may be seen as having a history as long as the history of class, clothing, or status. And in this sense, their histories are eternally extendable. But it may be more helpful, I think, to agree that fashion and design are borne together in that world historical moment when the relationship between status and consumption begins to become more volatile and less predictable. This moment is typically produced when the range of goods in circulation begins to expand or explode at the same time as the nature of class and status begins to differentiate and fragment at high speeds.
In the European context, this period bridges the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, these two processes support and stimulate one another and open a space for bohemian minimalism, Baroque excess, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous abstinence-- all new strategies for holding onto old social distinctions of for making new ones. This tension between fashion, style, and rapid change on the one hand and old wealth, status, and lifestyle conservatism on the other, is full of paradoxes, some of which I and others have studied over the years.
Once, however, this world of sumptuary laws begins to break down and the relationship between groups of objects and groups of people is no longer tightly controlled by law or public opinion, fashion and design come properly into play as elements of social life. Design and fashion, in this changing world, become the infrastructure through which the demand for objects for context becomes channeled and stabilized to some extent. This, I think, is a vital point, for it allows us to recognize that the way in which objects, that is designing things, demand context, which can never be rigidly derived or deduced in advance, from any inherent property of the object.
And in a post-sumptuary world, objects have an indefinite multiplicity of possible contexts. A designer tie might suggest a shirt to accompany it, but it may also suggest a fabric for a suit or for a hat or for shoes, to take of a simple example. A sexy car could also segue into a scene of physical adventure and thus prompt associations with travel, adventure, conflict, or war. Likewise, diamonds are indeed forever, but they can support all sorts of ensembles of lifestyle, romance, discretion, or display in combination with carefully selected scenes involving furs, tiaras, glass, steel lobbies, flowers, et cetera.
What is the point of these examples? The point is to question the cliche that design as a social practice is a multiplier of material possibilities. Fueled by fashion in the industrial and post-industrial world, design is sometimes seen as producing infinite combinations and contexts for things, marrying colas to perfumes, cars to carnivals, foods to designer homes, drugs to retirement resorts, and so on without limit. In fact, it may be more useful to see designers trying to regulate fashion by slowing down the infinite play of combinatorial possibilities, the dizzying vista of new arrangements of bodies, materials, forms, and functions that advertising notably daily puts before us.
So here is an unconventional answer to how objects demand context and therefore seek meaning. They do so through the regulative and selective work of design, which reduces the possible range of possibilities and makes a particular designed possibility appear both credible and grammatical. However, unlike with language, the grammar of objects is emergent, improvised, and, indeed, constantly designed and redesigned. This is why we cannot get carried away by the linguistic analogies so far as objects are concerned.
In the world of design and fashion, objects can seek the company of other objects in a promiscuous and relatively unlimited way. This is even truer in the last 30 years in what I have elsewhere called the Age of Designer Humanity. What I mean by this is the combination of company in which objects find themselves has become indefinitely open. And design comes into being to police this infinite variety and bring it into the realm of the possible and the plausible. So you'll see me moving towards the Nano in a moment.
Design exists, I believe, to tame the endless arrangements into which objects may find their way and to police the imagination of fashion, which is the high octane force to which design, I believe, in a way is opposed. So here is the idea that I hope you will join me in pondering-- that design exists not to serve fashion, but to limit its infinitude. And this insight may lead us closer to the logic that connects design and context than the conventional idea that design, being the loyal servant of fashion, simply adds technique to the lust for change that defines fashion.
Design certainly involves imagination, but it is defined by the imagination as a source of discipline and not imagination as only a source of new possibilities for combination and cohabitation among objects. So the contemporary joke about the "fashion police," in fact, I think disguises from us the subtler reality-- and I think the positive reality-- of what we would call the "design police." So now I turn to the Nano.
What context does the Nano demand? I hasten to say that I'm not a professional designer, planner, or automotive expert. So speaking as a student of India, of globalization, and of India's history and future is where I come from today. And what future, then, does the Nano demand?
In the first place, I believe that the Nano, once it is in widespread use, as it surely will be, speak for itself, but it will also speak for the approximately 20% of the Indian population, which would number close to 300 million people, who can imagine themselves as owning a car of as owning a car in the near or middle term. What will this car mean?
There is good evidence that the Nano will cost about 1/12-- if my numbers are right-- of what, say, a Honda City or a comparable Maruti will cost. Other comparisons would be even more favorable to the Nano. So affordability is certainly not the issue. The imagination of the aspiring Indian consumer, I believe, is the issue.
To such a person and to his or her family, the Nano is a tool and a metaphor for the future. It will be a tool in the sense that any first car purchase in a country like India opens its owner to imagining their own mobility in and through the mobility of the car. This is a feature and a potential of all first cars in India. What makes the Nano special, apart from its price, is its smallness, which, of course, one of the most widely observed features of the Nano.
Let us talk for a moment about smallness. India is not a land which thrives on bigness in the proverbial American or in the Texan manner. It is our society and culture which thrives on density, intricacy, and maneuverability. Nor, like Japan, is it a culture which makes a cult out of miniaturization, of smallness for its own sake, of sheer shrinkage or reduction or subtraction as an aesthetic. Indians are not maximalists, but they're not minimalists either. In India, small is better not because of a hidden Bauhaus sensibility. And less in India is not really more.
India is about making as many accommodations to density, intricacy, and smallness as a particular scale will allow. So you might say Indians like the idea of more in less, not more is less, but more in less. The root of this idea, I believe, is social. It is about conviviality, density, proximity, and crowding as positive facts, not pathologies. Any American who has asked for any private space or time in an Indian household which he or she is visiting knows the look of puzzlement and slight hurt that crosses his host's face when this suggestion is made. Indians are accustomed to what we may call sociality on the rocks, uncut by silences, bodily distance, or private spaces.
What they demand is that this sociality be well-designed, obedient to the needs of ritual, the rhythms of the [INAUDIBLE], the needs and roles of kinsmen and friends. The Nano has the potential to spark the Indian tastes for packing more into less, not because, as I said, all Indians are ascetics, or Bauhausians, or green philosophers, but because they like the intricacy and intensity of sociality.
The Nano also picks up on and stimulates the Indian ability to add family, machinery, and travel into a small, moving space. I offer some examples from outside the automotive sphere. Take the average second class sleeper train compartment for the Indian middle classes. What are its features? It is small. It is crowded. It is well-designed. It is cheap. And it is taking you somewhere with your companions on your journey, some of whom are family or kinsmen, while others are strangers at the outset.
Or take any religious procession in any Indian city or village. What are these processions? They are festive, self-organizing modules of celebration, sociality, and density. Or we can strip down this example and think of queues in Indian society, which are ubiquitous. Indian queues are a great lens into the subtlety of non-linear and self-organizing social processes-- chaotic, but not lacking in purpose, norms, and outcomes, even while they are irritating, noisy, and sometimes fractious.
Indians know how to get somewhere in the company of others, and they appreciate any technology which puts user friendliness and price above size or glamour. The modern automobile, of course, is not like train compartments, processions, or queues because it also gives mobility its deep double meaning. The automobile is the single most powerful tool, which stimulates its owner to have a simultaneous experience of social and spatial mobility. I'm ashamed to say that anthropologists have not had much to say, so far, about the ways in which the automobile has transformed India, especially urban India, in the last century. But it is never too late to make a start.
It is a truism that middle class Indians, by and large, rely on many forms of transport, ranging from buses, trains, and taxis to scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles, depending on distance, purpose, and economic capacity. Motorized travel is now the norm for this growing class, and automobile ownership and use is obviously on the increase. Yet on the whole, private ownership of cars is not a standard feature of the emergent middle class lifestyle, especially if you take very large numbers of this class into account, though it is increasingly the an aspect of the aspirational horizon. In this regard, there is a lag between social and spatial mobility for these aspiring middle classes, who go far beyond, of course, the main metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, and so on. There are now virtually close to 100 or more towns of a much smaller scale that are growing explosively throughout India.
Social mobility is marked by the growth of these smaller societies throughout India-- cities, sorry-- throughout India as economic centers. Also by the increase in highways and roadways, the growth in salary jobs in the manufacturing sector, rather than in rural occupations, and in an increasing exposure to modern credit markets, loans, insurance, and new forms of savings and investment. Overseas travel for both work and leisure is on the upward curve as is exposure to the wider world through cinema, TV, print media, and above all now, the internet. The biggest marker of all these changes is in the demand for higher quality housing-- also something in which the Tatas are very actively engaged-- and for increasingly sophisticated packages of amenities, including schooling, shopping, entertainment, and medical facilities, for example.
The automobile market, which used to be dominated by a few Indian produced cars, notably the Fiat-based cars of Premier Automobiles and the workhorse Ambassador, cars of my childhood in Mumbai, almost 90%, 95%. And now, fast being replaced by cars produced indeed by Tata, by Hyundai, by Honda, by Mahindra, and a few other major Indian and collaborative enterprises. And also a growing luxury market dominated by high-end imported cars. The meaning of personally owned automobiles in these aspiring middle class households is difficult to summarize in a brief manner.
But the Tata Nano promises-- and even demands-- at least one major change in this market. Because of its price point, the Nano will be the first car to reflect a part of the journey to upward mobility for millions of households in India and serve as a device that stimulates consumption rather than being a symbol of social arrival alone. This, I think, is a crucial insight for understanding the potential importance of the Nano in India's overall emergence as a global economic and cultural force. Because of its accessibility to the lower band of Indian middle class consumers, the Nano will be the first large, large consumer product that will cost 1/10 of most other cars and perhaps between 1/20 and 1/40 of an ownership flat or home for many Indian households.
Thus, especially for its first generation of owners and operators, the Nano will be, by far, the largest, most visible, most modern, most sophisticated designed consumer object relative to its price in the entire bundle of commodities owned by mobile Indians. From this perspective, the small Nano is actually a very large object when placed in the continuum of refrigerators, TVs, and scooters, though small in relation to other cars. It's social mobility value will be in very, very high proportion to its rupee value.
As a consequence, it has a potential to have more than a simple prestige effect of the sort that Thorstein Veblen and many others long ago observed about the objects of what he called conspicuous consumption. It will have a powerful pedagogical potential in the sense that it might introduce a whole new group of Indian customers to new ways to understand the relationship between utility, form, and price as they learn the arts of consumption. As an object of consumption, the Nano has the capacity to mediate between the relatively cheaper object of middle class aspiration and the more expensive ones, while at the same time, it could recalibrate the relationship between social and spacial mobility.
In a radical scenario, the Nano could be the first major piece of industrial design which demands social mobility through the acquisition of a new means of spatial mobility. This allows us to offer a relatively simple answer to the question with which I placed in my title, what does the Nano want? Because of its utility, its affordability, and its design visibility, the Nano demands of its owner operator that he or she continues to make further demands both on the private sector and on the public sector. From the private sector, it could be the catalyst that educates its owners to ask for more inventive products in other areas that create new packages of price, utility, and design, that transcend the simple paradigms of conspicuous consumption. And from the public sector, the Nano could be part of a larger set of social forces that begin to press the state to think creatively about roads and highways, about environmental conditions, about safety and security on the road, about new forms of financing and credit, and about alternative fuels and energy sources for automobiles. And I'm sure there's more.
In short, the Nano demands a new sort of consumer who has a more sophisticated view of the relationship between price, utility, design, mobility, safety, and financing. Such consumers are already visible on the Indian landscape, but the Nano has the potential to strengthen their voice. But more than anything else, the Nano has the possibility for becoming a major consumer product in that Indian horizon which actively stimulates the capacity of Indian consumers to think about the future as something which they can themselves shape through their daily lives. In this regard, it could be the automobile would join a select group of other goods and services-- among them mortgages, medical insurance policies, web-based computing technologies, and cell phones-- which by their nature, provoke the consumer to think of the future as something shapable by what they choose to buy, eat, wear, drive, drink, or invest in.
Consumers in less developed countries have tended to usually see the future in terms of income, wages, savings, and other arrangements on the plus side of the family ledger. Consumption, in this dream, is usually seen entirely in terms of the present as a reward for many well-earned efforts or for status legitimately gained. However, in the highly developed countries-- Western Europe, the US, and other such countries-- consumers also see their spending in terms of long term cycles of wealth, risk, and investment, multigenerational transfers, and other future-centered horizons.
This can sometimes have shattering effects, as we saw in the recent financial meltdown, with united speculative financial instruments, and over-optimistic consumers, especially in the housing market, who saw no downside to the mountain of consumer debt. Even so, part of the way in which large economies get mobilized is by the capacity of a growing class of consumers to have the opportunity to buy, own, and manage substantial personal purchases.
The Nano is a bold addition to this category. And as such, it is a tool through which Indian consumers can also grow more acquainted with all the complexities of personal car ownership and also of the larger social implications of a major shift to automobiles. Finally, much of what I have said so far is a matter of possibilities and not of certainties in the Indian environment.
How well will the Nano sell? Which markets will it succeed in best? Will the network of distributors, mechanics, and suppliers of parts be able to keep up with this market to assure that the car is possible to maintain well? Will the public sector manage road, signals, and other infrastructure so as to give the Nano the support it needs? Will oil prices allow it to maintain its fuel effectiveness? Will the Nano be easier to adapt to new fuels and power sources such as electricity? Will the Indian middle classes take to its aesthetics and design?
I am, of course, in no position to offer any expert thoughts on these vital questions, but I am certain that those who buy, use, and ride in the Nano will be induced to think more richly about their own social trajectories in an increasingly globalized world. It will give him no choice but to learn more about design, utility, price, energy, credit, and other invisible parts of the infrastructure of modernity.
The great visionaries of independent India, including [? Jawaharlal ?] [? Nehru ?] and the great JRD Tata, understood that the future is a combination of great technical visions and of great social transformations. They also knew that without the enthusiasm of the masses, who seek to navigate the modern world, that no design for the future will have any legs or, we may say, wheels. The Nano is a remarkable bet in the linking of social and technical mobility for India's expanding middle classes. Its success as an automobile faces many uncertainties, but its success as a thought experiment in the capacity of the common man to build democratic futures seems already to be a sure bet. Thank you very much.
KENT KLEINMAN: Mr. Tata has contributed so significantly in so many areas of industry, education, and social welfare, that, in a sense, it is simply not possible to sum up his accomplishments. I'll try with one, but it's inadequate. He was destined for greatness clearly in 1962 when he received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell. And the rest is easier.
Mr. Tata began working in the family business shortly after graduation and assumed the chairmanship of Tata Sons Limited in 1991. Today, under his leadership, the Tata group employs 215,000 people, operations in over 40 nations, and markets in over 140 countries. Yet despite this massive size and this vast diversity, Tata's reputation remains synonymous with unimpeachable corporate culture and an unparalleled commitment to social welfare. Recently, Mr. Tata has been advancing a particular design ethos that the international press has termed frugal innovation. Frugal innovation seems to be a form of rigorous and persistent invention aimed at introducing high quality products at a price available to the lower ranks of the social economic pyramid.
It is in this capacity, in one of your many capacities, both as the inspiration and driving force behind the world's most affordable car, but also as the foremost proponent of a mode of design as social equity, that I invite Mr. Tata to join me and Professor Appadurai onstage. Please help me welcome industrialist, visionary, architect, Cornell trustee, Ratan Tata.
KENT KLEINMAN: So thank you both for engaging in what will be a fairly loose and open conversation. Again, a reminder of the format. We'll speak amongst the three of us in a somewhat structured way for 25, 30 minutes. And then, we'll have 15, 20 minutes to entertain what I'm sure are a lot of questions from the audience. But I want to open up with a question directed to you, Mr. Tata, because we need some context for the accomplishments that you did.
You and I had a chance two years ago to meet in a somewhat smaller venue in Artel Gallery, when I first learned about the vehicle that you were designing. And at that point, I did not have the privilege of actually seeing it and knowing if it existed, so it was full of my imagination only. At this point, everybody in this room has an opportunity to literally go and sit in one. So in a sense, I think we can bypass the question, what's this going to be like? Is it possible? And just how rickety or solid can it be? You can go judge for yourself about that.
What we were not able to put in the exhibition, because it simply does not lend itself to display, is the motivation behind the project. So I'm wondering if I could ask you to share with us some of the drives and the passions and the situations that you observed that led you to, as Arjun said, risk a great deal to produce a car of this quality at that price point?
RATAN TATA: Thank you, Kent. What really motivated me or sparked up a desire to produce such a vehicle was constantly seeing Indian families riding on scooters or motorcycles-- three or four or five sometimes members of a family. If it was a scooter, there'd be a little son or daughter standing in front of the father and maybe the child sandwiched between the mother and father, the wife sitting side saddle. And they would be riding to wherever they were going on slippery roads, in the rain, sometimes in the dark. And there'd be accidents because they'd slip. The family would be all over the road. And quite often, the car behind them would run them over.
So one of the attributes of being five years in the School of Architecture taught me to doodle when I was bored.
KENT KLEINMAN: That was just the first four years.
RATAN TATA: And the board meetings were a place where one often did get bored. So I spent maybe a better part of a year periodically doodling on how to make scooters safer-- give them roll bars, get them outrigger wheels, and so on. And that migrated to a four-wheeled vehicle without windows, plastic curtains, very rudimentary. No doors. And I thought, this might-- canvas roof and that. Just a glorified dune buggy.
And I played with this for a while. And I got the company to put together a prototype. Then, I looked at it, and the no doors looked like somebody sucked out their eye sockets. And it looked terrible, so I finally decided that it should be a car and not a half car. I thought, as you mentioned, that it should not be something that causes social stigma, not being able to afford a car, but being able to afford this animal that was in between.
So it finally became a car with wind up windows, the offer of air conditioning. And the price of the car was a matter of circumstance. I was at the Geneva Motor Show and the Financial Times correspondent wanted to talk about this car that we were designing and asked me how much it would cost. And I said, well, about 100,000 rupees. The next day, there was a headline saying that we were producing 100,000 rupee car, $2,500, 1,300 pounds. And I was besieged from within the company as also from outside about this car.
Most of my colleagues in the company thought quite seriously that I was mad. I had two choices. One was to refute that statement and say that it was only an off-hand comment or to make that a goal. I chose the latter. It gave good opportunity for my colleagues to confirm their first view.
And we went forward. We spent a lot of time trying to make a car that was different, to make a car out of plastic, to use new materials. Finally, it ended up being a conventional car and, to the credit of the young team, which may have had an average age of 36, a car that met that price goal. It was a terrific exercise because we went through the motions of providing and discarding, putting something, taking it out, putting something there, replacing it with something cheaper, more inexpensive. Till finally, we produced what you have seen both in India and here.
And then we launched the car. We didn't expect to have that kind of attention that we've had. It was just to be an Indian car. So in answer to your question, the intention was really to give the many in India that did not have an affordable form of transport, a family transport, all-weather, at an affordable price. That was the motivation that we had.
KENT KLEINMAN: I'm going to-- the next question will be a two-pronged one. It will start with you, but then, I think it will flip over to Arjun. This question of objects having demands or having capacity to pose demands as opposed to simply individuals doing that I think is extremely intriguing one. And I want to ask you if you would be willing to accept it as a premise and speculate a little bit on what kinds of transformations you think or maybe had thought about happening on the Indian subcontinent if the car is purchased in the kinds of numbers that I think many people think it will be. And in particular, the kind of urban landscape, but maybe also social, cultural consequences of mass automobility. Is that something that you were thinking about when you were putting this thing into the world? Or was that not one of your thoughts?
RATAN TATA: We didn't think about-- at least I didn't think about-- really commercially until we started making the investments in the car. And then it began to become more of a business proposition. Could we manage to stay alive and still give the car? As we started to look at the market prospects-- India has what one commonly believes is a consumer market of about 250 to 300 million people. Their buying power is less than it might be in the US, but that's the size of the market. And that absorbs 2 million cars today, of which are about 60% are at the low end, about 10 million two-wheelers a year, and many million color TV sets, and refrigerators, and white goods.
If you create products that are less expensive than what is on the market today, that consumer market expands to 500 to 600 million people, the lower band not being addressed normally by companies. And what we felt we could do is aim at the broader base of the pyramid with that product and, in fact, subsequently other products also. So the intention was to make a niche between the low cost car and the high-end two-wheelers and also address the segment of the market that has no means of transport today.
And by that, I mean it's the rural market where the people move their families around on the back of tractors because that's the only form of transport they have to till their fields. And that becomes a Sunday or the weekend means of pulling the family and maybe parts of the community into the market. The concern that one would have in the course of time as you populate the country with these cars is that in the urban where infrastructures is weak, that you create terrible congestion and pollution. And in the area where you proliferate them rurally, that it becomes no longer a form of transport, but becomes an everyday thing where it loses its appeal. It's taken for granted.
And that brings the challenge to us to keep on trying to define the market we're after and trying to own ourselves into giving that market a better upgraded product all the time. Because that market and the market desire is not going to remain static. It's going to change as prosperity grows. So the challenge on us is not to be able to have you five years from now get the same Nana, but to have something that is different and to keep that interest going.
It's also necessary to get away from having an image of just being the cheapest car, but being a trendy, affordable car. And that's what we have to work at today.
KENT KLEINMAN: We intentionally used the word "affordable" because when we went to India, we were reminded of the significance of that difference in cheap and affordability by your own design staff. I wanted to ask a similar question in reverse of Arjun. And let me see if I can set this up correctly.
If the Nano is a designed object, and it makes demands, and these demands are such that it leads to a transformation in the sociability and the cultural footprint of individuals in India, it seems to me that it could and must, in a sense, conjure up a set of objects in response to its own objecthood. In other words, it makes demands. And guess what? Designers will come forth and make objects that will make counter demands or supportive demands. So it conjures up, it seems, a whole very profitable world for people who are designers at least.
So the reverse question, Ratan, for you is something like this. Let's say the car does to India something like what it did to the United States, particularly in the postwar period where suburbanization relied really on mass individualized automobility. Let's just say that's the case. In the United States, there wasn't an immediate design response to it except perhaps something like Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright actually designing a community in response to the demands of a car.
Do you think that the Nano is likely to produce a kind of design community response in that spirit, in that sense? Or is there an opportunity there? Is that pressure there?
ARJUN APPADURAI: That's a wonderful question, Kent. And my thought on that, which is only partly an interpretation and partly a speculation, partly based on what Mr. Tata just said about defining that band. And I do agree that it's already maybe 300 million and could well go twice that for certain categories of object. That there are two issues here. One is that certain objects actually, in this sense, expand the range of people who think of themselves as having access to those things. Not everything does that.
So if your take blades for example, which is one of the early, small products that everybody could buy. You say in India, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], buy a few blades, et cetera. It may not make you think because it's very close to older ways of shaving, so not a whole new sense of what you can do. Cars, I think, are different. And the Nano being a different type of car, I think, could have a say in the growth of that class from 300 to 500 or 600. That should stimulate that growth. That's as far as people thinking of themselves, I, too, can own this thing and so on.
The second thing, which was directly to the housing type of community response, is I think I don't see that unless there's a specific visionary who says this kind of car inspires me to think of a certain kind of built community-- I mean, that could always happen. But in the logic of things, I think it more likely that it reconfigures the commodity set bundle, that people suddenly start thinking about certain other things, you know? The fridge or this or that or other things not yet on the market as part of the commodity bundle that defines their consumer possibilities.
Even that bundle, it's not only possible, but I think likely that housing is going to play a role. And already, it's happening of course.
KENT KLEINMAN: Right.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Through Tata companies and others who are thinking of ways to extend mortgages and induce people to think about housing as something you don't only have to rent of this or that, but you can own by borrow, et cetera. For I think housing will enter more that way rather than by somebody really going in a way from the idea of the automobility to design community. But that's just a guess, that there'll be a kind of route in which housing enters a set of commodities which marks an Indian type of-- a new or newer Indian type of consumer, that is in the move from 250 to, lets say, 500 million.
Other quick comment, by the way-- also a question to you, Mr. Tata, is I was thinking of this idea of this is not a business or question of cheapness, but of affordability. But also the wonderful word that I hadn't known about, frugality in design. I was just thinking that, going back to the great Mahatma Gandhi, who in a way attracted more deep and broad popular response in India than almost any one in the last couple centuries, he was a model of frugality. Not of cheapness. The famous joke about Gandhi-- Mr. Tata probably knows it-- Sarojini Naidu once said, it takes a great deal of wealth to keep him in the poverty to which he is accustomed.
So cheapness was not his thing, but a certain elegance and economy was. So I'm wondering whether, as this class grows, we might see objects which are really well-designed, well-priced, and so on, but are still, nevertheless, have a feeling of simplicity, frugality, rather than just being cheap in that negative sense. I just wonder whether that's something you see since you have such a large range of commodities that you [INAUDIBLE].
RATAN TATA: Well, you know, I think from a designer's point of view, elegance of design doesn't necessarily mean busyness. It may often be simplicity. But I think my own view is that anybody all over the world that buys a car, the purchase of the car is an emotive thing. Person buys a small truck or a commercial vehicle because the sense it makes to his business to have it. But a car, if they're a man or woman, has to have unconscious attraction to what they're buying. And then, the practicality of it is like a notch below.
And the Japanese have put another dimension to that in terms of human engineering, that everything seems to be where it should be in terms of look, and feel, and touch, which adds to the experience. Finally, I tell our designers, the thing you should be concerned about is the customer's experience with your car, the emotive look that it provides, the comfort it provides, and its performance to what you expect it to be. And if you can do all those, achieve all those thing, I think you have a product that probably sells. If you don't, you have a problem.
KENT KLEINMAN: Let me follow up, if I may, on the housing issue that you brought up. Because the model of design that you put into the world and demonstrated very concretely with the Nano is, as Arjun just said, something that you're not just doing for cars, but you're doing across a broad range of consumer products. But the one that interests me the most, just because of my training as an architect, is what you're doing in housing. And I'm wondering if you could just briefly describe the Nano housing enterprise project, the philosophy behind it, and where that project is, if you think that's likely to be something [INAUDIBLE].
RATAN TATA: I think that is what Arjun mentioned. It's taking the frills out of-- and the cost of-- housing that one experiences in India and making housing that uses space much more effectively, therefore, in some cases, reduces space but provides the same living experience as something that's a lot more space, but space is lost in corridors and--
KENT KLEINMAN: Circulation.
RATAN TATA: --circulation rather than in usable space. And then to apply the same kind of question, is this needed or is it just there because it's part of what you're doing? Can you use a million materials and do so inelegantly. So we've succeeded in doing that for housing. And we're now more recently succeeded for drinking water purification in the home, both of which are meant to reach out to the broader base of the pyramid.
KENT KLEINMAN: And just for clarity-- and correct me if I get this wrong-- the housing project, it's not a factory-built, pre-manufactured housing?
RATAN TATA: No.
KENT KLEINMAN: This is actually on site, constructed--
RATAN TATA: It's on the site. Eventually, it will have elements built in the factory. But right now, the cheapest way to construct is to have the brick and mortar feeling and post and column kind of post and beam construction in concrete, in situ, by local labor.
KENT KLEINMAN: With a price point aspiration similar to the Nano? It would be available to that sector of society?
RATAN TATA: Yes. Yes. That's right.
KENT KLEINMAN: So, Arjun, to your observation, this would be massively transformative.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Yeah. This is an area, the housing area, in which in one way I know much more than about the auto because I've been working with some housing activists, [INAUDIBLE] other people, [INAUDIBLE] who are concerned about the people homeless or people who are severely under-housed. So living with an even lower band. But it opens up-- particularly for me-- opened up some understanding of, especially in a place like Bombay, the irrationalities of the law, and financing, and so on.
So I think housing is a huge area, both in these intensely dense places like Mumbai and also in other places where small towns are growing very fast and so on and so forth. So in that sense, I have some idea about it. But what I would like to ask Mr. Tata is whether-- because I don't know enough about your initiative in this area-- whether it's directed to places that are already quite lively in terms of real estate market or you're trying to extend to places where housing of this type is not much there. I truly don't know.
RATAN TATA: You know, it's not addressed to places were real estate is overheated.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Right.
RATAN TATA: Because land costs in those places vitiate anything you would do.
ARJUN APPADURAI: It's impossible. Yeah.
RATAN TATA: So it's more based on the less inhabited areas of cities--
ARJUN APPADURAI: So it would places of the level of [? Nashik and ?] so on, or even smaller?
RATAN TATA: The level of places like [? Nashik ?] or [? Pune ?].
ARJUN APPADURAI: Yeah. OK.
RATAN TATA: Or even smaller.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Very interesting. In which case, based on that, which makes a lot of sense to me, indeed, because it's like Bombay now roughly $1,000 a square foot in most places. It makes the price point an impossibility almost unless you go immensely vertical. And those are other problems. What even then, the ground is very expensive. But I was wondering whether, among other things, as that market takes hold of your kind of the housing you're building, whether it might have one impact, which is in itself will be very important, which is stemming the incredible demographic pressure on some cities. That is, in other words, if there could be some leveling so Indian urbanization gets more heterogeneous, not everybody rushing to a smaller number of places, which will be a huge positive result.
RATAN TATA: I personally don't think it would because the migration to the urban areas is lack of employment in the rural areas.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Jobs.
RATAN TATA: What we have to do there is really to create means of retaining people in the rural areas, even in agriculture or agricultural industries. The Indian government has, I think, wrongly thought that they could industrialize the urban areas. So you go and put a jet engine factory in the jungles, it does nothing for that area. Because then the next thing you do is you move technical people to that area. You move workers from another area into that area. And you just create a disparity that the local people come to hate.
What you've got to do is to create something in that area that belongs to that area and earns jobs and livelihoods for those people.
ARJUN APPADURAI: If I may, Mr. Tata, that thought, which also makes eminent sense to me, raises a rough impression I have about China, although the facts are always tougher to get-- numerically particularly. But that whatever the facts, the incredible urban explosion in China, which closely can be indexed by housing growth among other things, is connected also a huge amount of rural migration to provide labor for building. Now, I'm wondering whether in India, depending on scale or Tata housing, for example, whether the work of this building activity would have a non-trivial impact on rural people in terms of who is going to do the labor or you regard that as a scale as not quite enough. It could be them employment at least for some time.
RATAN TATA: It could be. And I think China and some other countries have looked citizens housing as being the most-- Singapore, for example.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Right.
RATAN TATA: In the early days, undertook to ensure that all their citizens had housing that they could own.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Yes.
RATAN TATA: On loans from the provident fund accounts.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Right.
RATAN TATA: And China has done much the same thing. In India, it would have a tremendous effect if it could be done. What happens is-- I think most of the people here have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Those slums exist not because people are poor, but because people cannot get housing.
ARJUN APPADURAI: That's right.
RATAN TATA: And so contrary to what you might see in South Africa, the slums in Bombay, for example, will have TV antennas or dish annentas sticking out of them.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Oh, yeah.
RATAN TATA: Some of them will have fridges in there. And they just cannot get better housing.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Yeah.
RATAN TATA: So it would be a very important issue if the slums were replaced by decent housing. Unfortunately, for most of the cities, the slums are in the hands of slum lords, who are connected with the underworld. And this becomes one big vote bank for the government that doesn't get touched.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
RATAN TATA: But what you're saying is absolutely true.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Well, that's fascinating. Yeah.
KENT KLEINMAN: I'm wondering if we should-- I want to say one thing, that it's always inspired me to think that we could move from an automobile to urban housing questions in about three or four seconds, which is why I think your project is so very interesting for this university. I have a feeling, given the range of topics on the [? planet ?], that there are a lot of questions. We have about a quarter of an hour, so let me see if we can take questions from the audience. And I think there's a microphone to my left. And I think there's a microphone in the back to my right. And if you could just identify yourself to one of the two roving mics. And I'll just call, left, right, left, right, starting with the gentlemen of the left.
SPEAKER 1: I'm the left? All right.
KENT KLEINMAN: My left.
SPEAKER 1: Mr. Tata.
KENT KLEINMAN: Go ahead. I can't hear you.
SPEAKER 1: Sorry.
KENT KLEINMAN: Oh, OK.
SPEAKER 1: Better? OK. You mentioned that the Nano was conceived originally for its home market. I know that there are plans underway to introduce it in Europe, and I'm told there are a longer plans for North America. So a two-part question. Had you thought about the Nano as a truly global car as you conceived it? And secondly, I note that Tata also owns Jaguar Land Rover, sort of on the other end of the automotive scale. What is the Tata brand standing for automotively as a global brand and perhaps an emerging global automaker?
RATAN TATA: You're asking a very, very complex thing. Let me try to address each of the points you've raised. The Nano initially, as I tried to conveyed, was conceived of as a car for the Indian family in truth. The kind of attention it got overwhelmed us and made us realize that perhaps it attracted a lot of attention. We didn't believe that it would attract very much attention other than the attention it did get from international car makers saying that it couldn't be done. Now that we see what there is, we also realize that the Nano in its present form could never be a successful car, let's say, in the United States. What the United States needs is a car with a larger engine with more options. And we're trying to use the same design philosophy, the same frugal engineering, on a car Europe and the US.
It won't be a $2,000 car. It will be $7,000 or $8,000 car. But it will still be, in comparative terms, a car that the US would accept. It's slightly bigger. It has more of the features, and you could drive it on the freeway like any other car.
Now coming to Jaguar Land Rover issue, there is no way that we can sort of merge or converge Tata Motors with Jaguar Land Rover. Those two brands, our intention is to leave them, and let them, and help them grow back to the glory that they once had. And not to mix the two brands, which could never really mix.
Engineeringwise, we've done a great deal to synergize the two companies. They, in turn, learning to shed some flab. And for us, acquiring a great deal of some very interesting technology that exists in those companies. I don't have an answer for what the Tata brand stands for globally. I don't think we've ever tried to define that. And we've only gone outside the shores of India in recent years. And I think we're still trying to establish our identity.
KENT KLEINMAN: Let me take a question over on the right-hand side please.
SPEAKER 2: The first thing that a new car like this is going to demand is roads. Roads are built by governments. What's the response of government in India to this appearance of this new object?
RATAN TATA: The question of what are the governments going to do on roads?
SPEAKER 2: About roads.
RATAN TATA: I was asked this question this afternoon by a student. Today, perhaps years later than it should have, the government has realized that they have spent very little on infrastructure. And the largest expenditure that the government is expanding on infrastructure is on roads. There's three significant areas of infrastructure spending. One is on the largest roads. The next is mass transit, in other words metros in the cities, new airports, which are starting to find their way more of international standard than have been there before, and new ports that can handle more shifts expeditiously and containers. I wish the country had done that 15 years ago, but nevertheless, it's being done now.
So roads are, in fact, a priority. Not for the Nano, but to move commercial produce back and forth where there's been very little means of getting this across. Just one addition. For example, the Japanese government has decided to invest in a Delhi-Bombay freight corridor, which is a set of roads and townships from Delhi all the way to Bombay. It's a huge project thing. $90 billion is what they are looking at spending. Most of it is going to go on roads and related construction activity.
So the roads will come. Some years too late, but they will come.
KENT KLEINMAN: Please.
SPEAKER 3: Mr. Tata, just thinking about the comment that you made-- jet engines in the jungle. I'm thinking about you doodling. When you were doodling, were you thinking about how and where the Nano would be manufactured? And was the goal to create a design simple enough that it wasn't necessarily built in big automated factories in Mumbai but out in rural areas that would create jobs and so forth? Was that part of the plan?
RATAN TATA: Now I would be exaggerating if I said I had all those insights when I doodled. The doodling was motivated by boredom. And deep, deep in my mind the fact that this fact of unsafe travel was bothering me, and it just gave me something to think about. And it didn't have any bearing on where it would be built, if it could be built, did it make sense. It was more an issue that it was bothering me just as much as maybe walking on the slippery floor might bother me. And I doodled to figure out how we could overcome that.
KENT KLEINMAN: If I can just add a historical note, Le Corbusier doodled cars. Adolf Loos doodled cars. Walter Gropius doodled cars. Frank Gehry has done doodles of cars. And Renzo Piano has done-- I don't think anybody has ever brought one to fruition, so you're--
Do we have a question on the right?
SPEAKER 4: Often when people speak about India and growth in the same sentence, they also mention China. And as your group and company has become known as sort of the next breed of Indian MNC, I'm curious to know what you think. One, if you think there will be a Chinese response to the actions that you're taking in terms of your model of moving down market and better design. And if continually as you seek to expand to markets outside of India, if you anticipate competition from China within this space? Did you try to design, arguably, I would say, better products for and better products and services for people in lower income brackets?
RATAN TATA: You are asking about the competition from Chinese products?
SPEAKER 4: Yes. Competition from Chinese products and Chinese firms. Yes both. Within India also as you look to expand markets outside of India.
RATAN TATA: Well, I think we must all recognize that China, in fact, has become a very, very significant car manufacturer in the world today. They have a large number of cars. In a very short period of time, they have acquired a level of fit and finish, which other car companies are taking a couple of product generations to achieve. The Chinese-- and this is just my perception-- are not today very interested in producing a low end car.
The Chinese psyche has been to show their prosperity. I think if we were to ship Nanos to China, I don't think we would have a successful product to sell there. Again, that's my view.
Chinese car companies have been focusing on everybody's mecca of markets, that is the United States. And I think the emphasis has been on the higher end car. And I daresay that they'd be tremendously successful.
As far as white goods are concerned, China, again, is a country that's producing very, very interesting consumer products. The one thing they don't have today is a global brand name. And when they do acquire that or build that, I think they will be a formidable competitor to people in the household consumer good area.
As far as India is concerned, we really haven't seen very much inflow of Chinese products. The two countries haven't really been tremendously compatible. India fears the influx of Chinese products. And I don't think China's so far been tremendously interested. They've been flooding the market with commodities and chemicals, but not products as yet.
KENT KLEINMAN: We have time for one more question. And I think it goes left of center.
SPEAKER 5: Professor Appadurai, you spoke about the potential impact of the increased mobility the Nano will bring on social mobility. Have you given thought to what the Nano as an object may demand about changes in the very strict social hierarchies that still exist in places in India?
RATAN TATA: In restrictions?
KENT KLEINMAN: In social hierarchy.
RATAN TATA: Yeah.
ARJUN APPADURAI: I think the family of commodities to which they now belongs, I was saying, one way can be seen in the just automobile class. And clearly, that's what it's directed to as a business proposition. But I think you would also see it in terms of the objects like refrigerators and so on because its price point allows you to think from that end as well. But whichever way, whichever category the Indian consumer thinks about it-- and my guess is that it may move out of the auto market also into that other set of large refrigerator, TV, et cetera, which are non-trivial decisions. They're not like blades or soap.
But in both cases, I think the Nano will put additional pressure, not first time pressure, but additional pressure on those existing hierarchies as all of these products have tended to do. Because they open up, obviously, the imagination, the idea of the consuming self. And frees it from all kinds of, not necessarily hierarchy, but local things. If you think of faraway places, people you thought yourself to be very different from in the past, et cetera, et cetera.
I think the thing that gives the Nano the twist is because of its lower price, the fact that it can also enter the world of these smaller household commodities, not just the auto market and the, let's say, the train, plane. So in that way, I think that the pressures will be-- that it induces the consumer to place on existing social expectations. It may even be more heterogeneous. But time will tell. But that's my thought.
KENT KLEINMAN: Thank you. So in the interest of time, I think that will be our last question. I want to thank you both for a most stimulating conversation.
RATAN TATA: Thank you.
RATAN TATA: Thank you. Thank you, Kent.
ARJUN APPADURAI: Thanks very much. [INAUDIBLE].
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Opening evening of the two-day symposium, "Unpacking the Nano: The Price of the World's Most Affordable Car," focusing on the arrival of the sub-$2,500 Tata Nano in India. Introduction and closing by President David J. Skorton. Hosting and moderating by Dean Kent Kleinman. Keynote by Professor Arjun Appadurai. Panel discussion with Kleinman, Appadurai, and Ratan Tata (B.Arch. '62).