Inspiring service design from ‘old’ India

Thanks Marc, for inviting me to write a post for your blog. Although based in London currently, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on some sustainable and perhaps ‘passionate’ services back at home in India. Passionate because of the meagre resources and corrupt systems that they fight against constantly, and passionate because they are created, managed and maintained by local people.

1. The Dabbawala Service is a 120-year old low-tech service of delivering fresh home-cooked lunch to over 8 million workers in Mumbai, India. More than 175,000 or 200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas – people who carry the lunch boxes – all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries. Almost no technology needed, for a great service to work well. In a city of 14 million, with staggering infrastructure needs, this remains one of the most efficient systems ever. And the attitude of competitive collaboration is equally unusual, particularly in India. The operation process is competitive at the customers’ end but united at the delivery end, ensuring their survival since a century and more. Is their business model worth replicating in the digital age is the big question.


2. The Pastiwala Service (unfortunately no web links available for this one), probably decades old as well, is a service, which enables almost every household in India to dispose off their weekly newspapers and plastic bags in a sustainable way. The main touch-point for this service is a man (almost always a male) who roams the streets of city shouting ‘pastiwala, pastiwala’ – reminding people who have collected their newspapers and milk bags to sell them off to him. (yes, we still get home delivered milk in sealed plastic bags, at 4 am every morning!) There can be a few at any given time, and normally every street might have its on ‘favourite pastiwala’. He comes into the house, or sits on the verandah with his weighing scales, and we bring our piles of old newspapers, and plastic bags for him to buy. These are often fixed prices, but like anything else in India, a good amount of negotiation and conversation is necessary to seal the deal! At the end of the day, these carts go to bigger outlets or ‘service centres’ from where further sub-services are created.

3. The Micro-credit Banking System:
This system designed by the World Job and Food Bank allows low-income or marginalized women to realize their full potential and become successful entrepreneurs. While several communities have adapted this system across the world, few years ago I was involved in the development of one such system in the earthquake hit areas of rural Gujarat. It was a learning experience to see how the worst affected women were able to defy strict, archaic social traditions of purdah, caste and illiteracy, to design their own systems, codes and touch-points for the effective creation of a service. They drew out their service blueprint with chalk on the mud floors of their courtyard, made sure each member had a responsible role within the system and the rules of security and more importantly trust, were clearly laid out.

Women of Kutch, from the earthquake hit region of west India

The reason for choosing to write about these services is partly because of their analogue nature and their ability to allow ‘users’ to engage in transient face-to-face human interactions. But the main reason is because these services belong to what Demos might call ‘old India’ – where innovation, ingenuity and adaptive-ness become a daily necessity for survival. Where economic obligations dictated recycling, perhaps way before the term global warming was coined. As opposed to the ‘new India’ which is now being perceived as one of the world’s biggest economies, a country that has realised that ‘innovation’ is important as a market differentiator and source of profit.

I think rather then disregarding this ‘old India’ as being quaint, old-fashioned, corrupt and superstitious, there are several things that ‘new India’ and any other foreign interests can learn from. Who ‘designed’ these intuitive, sustainable, bottom-up, innovations and systems? How did they get designed? How did they manage to abide by so many of the unspoken social and cultural laws that exist in the country, yet prove to be disruptive enough to change mindsets? Perhaps these old ‘non-methodological’ systems will fade away and perhaps they don’t work in the digital world of service design, but hopefully they will continue to give us clues and inspiration to design community and culture-specific services that are sustainable and passionate.

(some of my work can be viewed at:, Image of Kutch is the copyright of Shuniya dot net)

Marc Fonteijn

Marc Fonteijn

Als medeoprichter van 31Volts houdt Marc zich bezig met het verleggen van grenzen binnen service innovatie. Marc helpt organisaties om waarde te creëren voor hun klanten door middel van design.

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31Volts [Service Design]