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Blog posts tagged as 'india'


I accompanied the Prime Minister’s trade mission to India last week, part of the business delegation visiting Bangalore and Delhi to meet with companies and government. Alongside the business delegation were sports, education, local government and technology.

What can I say? To see even a glimpse of India’s colossal and vibrant democracy was invigorating. And it was only a glimpse: the two days were tightly managed, and I saw mostly board rooms in the Ministry of Commerce and the futuristic landscape of the Infosys campus. My experience of India was a ribbon seen from a coach going between venues.

Watching the discussions between ministers and CEOs was like watching a slow ballet between planets. India will lift hundreds of millions out of poverty before the decade is done, and the infrastructure required needs engineering and financing (to mention just one topic of conversation). It’s always been a fascination of mine how individual action integrates into society-wide change, and it’s good to have a brief look at one mechanism and one corner of that puzzle.

I’ve returned with a new picture of India. The level of entrepreneurialism, the careful attacks on large problems, the energy… it can only be good for the culture of the UK have closer links with this. I don’t know how I or we can be involved, but I’ve made a few connections and will do my best.

Of course being so close to government was good. David Cameron took a number of ministers, and there are particular issues close to my heart: how the Internet start-ups and small businesses in London can somehow ignite into a stronger community, and contribute to the recovery. I asked for thoughts and advice, and I’ve come back with a few ideas about what could help there.

And the conversations with various CEOs etc: it’s not often you have this kind of access if you’re not in that orbit, and in as much as you can learn anything in snatched conversations between events and on coaches, I feel like I have a much better understanding of that world.

On a personal note, it was a joy to see India and meet people there. I’ve never visited although I’m half Indian myself (my mother is East African Indian, and moved from Nairobi to London in 1970). So for me there was a happy and proud confusion of personal and racial identity that permeated the entire trip.

I’m going to follow up on a few conversations this week. And also get a massage to try and fix my back, which hasn’t forgiven me for the amount of time I’ve put it in aeroplane seats recently.

More: read the Prime Minister’s Bangalore speech setting out the reasons for the visit. And here I am in the background in the Evening Standard, which is one for the scrapbook.

Japanese repair culture and distributed manufacture

I’ve just finished Cities by John Reader, on the history of cities, and it’s chock full of information and great stories.

Cities, John Reader

This story, on Japanese manufacture, is lengthy but so good I have to quote it in full:

Bicycles were extremely popular in Japanese cities at the end of the nineteenth century, when the import of goods that Japanese manufactures could not compete with on price — or could not make at all — was damaging the national economy. Clearly, if bicycles could be made in Japan, both the massive demand for an individual means of transport and the national economy would be server at the same time. As Jane Jacobs points out in her book The Economy of Cities, Japan could have responded to this challenge by inviting foreign manufacturers to establish plants in the country — though this would have brought little profit to the Japanese themselves. Or they could have built a factory of their own — which would have required large investments in specialised machinery and the training of a skilled labour force. The Japanese followed neither of these options. Instead they exploited an indigenous talent for ‘economic borrowing’ — or imitation, as non-specialists would call it. It worked like this:

Not long after the importation of bicycles had begun, large numbers of one- and two-man repair shops sprang up in the cities. Since imported spare parts were expensive and broken bicycles too valuable to cannabalise, many repair shops found it worthwhile to make replacement parts themselves — not difficult if each of the shops specialised in making only one or two specific parts, as many did. In this way, groups of bicycle repair shops were in effect manufacturing entire bicycles before long, and it required only an enterprising individual to begin buying parts on contract from the repairmen for Japan to have the beginnings of a home-grown bicycle manufacturing industry.

So, far from being costly to develop, bicycle manufacturing in Japan paid for itself at every stage of its development. And the Japanese got much more than a bicycle industry from the exercise. They had also acquired a model for many of their other industrial achievements: imitation and a system of reducing complex manufacturing work to a number of relatively simple operations which could be done in small autonomous workshops. The pattern was applied to the production of many other goods, and underwrote the soaring economic success of Japan during the twentieth century. Sony began life at the end of the Second World War as a small shop making tubes on contract for radio assemblers. The first Nikon cameras were exact copies of the Zeiss Contax; Canon copied the Leica; Toyota Landcruisers were powered by copies of the Chrysler straight-six engine.

Here are the reasons this is great:

  • It’s distributed manufacture, a network of independent units operating as a single factory, but in a more agile way.
  • It reminds us that the idea of interchangeable parts is relatively new–and was a world-changer. It parallelised and distributed manufacture. Are we at the level of interchangeable parts in software yet? Despite common protocols like HTTP, I don’t think so, not quite.
  • It points to an alternative to the mass manufacture and assembly line of Fordism. The parts can be accessed separately from the assembly, we can build our own neighbourhood factories for custom goods! Mass manufacture doesn’t imply treating workers like interchangeable parts too! What’s more, it bootstraps off mass manufacture and makes something different out of it.

The most exciting reason?

This pattern is happening, right now, in India with mobile phones. 100s of small shops repair and rebuild phones with generic components and reverse-engineered schematics, supported by a developed training and tool-production infrastructure.

How long before we’re seeing cheap-as-chips kit phones, assembled by entrepreneurs harvesting the market stands of Delhi?

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