The late sixties and early seventies of the last century has deep-etched memories for me. I lived there in my early teens. Amongst the many things that were in short supply, electricity perhaps topped the list. (I guess it still does) Load shedding was a phrase that entered permanently in my dictionary. It was a much hated word, welcomed with deep disgust.
My memories of load shedding is intertwined with homework and examinations. Studies were always competing with football, cricket, tennis and the likes. All forms of sports that I fancied were immune to load shedding! Sadly my curfew hours had to do with the onset of darkness. And darkness meant untold misery.
Inverters and diesel gensets were science fiction. Kerosene lanterns and candles were banishers of darkness. I was convinced that people manning the power supply companies had a pathologic dislike towards students. I could not find any good reason why they had to switch off the electricity the moment the sun went down on us.
I would not say that I grew up under strict parenting, but I would admit that my parents would be pretty persistent about me finishing my homework or putting in long hours of prep time before my exams. I would labour through all that under load-shedding. Even the demons could not have imagined better ways of torturing children. Kolkata, for better part of the year, is not exactly blessed with salubrious climes. With the mercury kissing 38+ C accompanied by 90%+ humidity for most of the middle year right up to Durga Puja. Imagine sitting in front of fire trying to concentrate on studies!
I remember my mother sitting and fanning me and my younger brother with a palm leaf hand fan, trying to keep our brains cool. Brains stewing in the heat,we tried our best to keep our eyes open. It was difficult. The heat was searing and our eyes would burn. The fanning flickered the candle flame and it made it worse for the eyes. It was difficult to stare down at the text and make any sense of it. Dad would take a wet towel and wipe our faces. They both suffered as much as we did. We grew up in the dark age after Independence!
The latter part of the first decade of this new millennium. I was listening to mothers and children narrating me stories of how they suffer when power goes off. Sitting in my office I would have never imagined that darkness still envelopes the childhood of so many. Its easy to extrapolate the lifestyle of millions of middle class people from my own. How wrong I was. Beneath the bustle and economic glitter of Bangalore lies the untold misery of darkness inflicted everyday on school children.
Hemlatha lives in a middle class locality of north Bangalore. She and her husband Ravi are working parents. Both their children study in Kumaran’s, a well known school in Bangalore. They do have standby power supply at home; a 250 watt inverter . Sufficient to run most of their lights and fans. That’s what I would have thought. It does and does not. The battery has aged. On full charge they get at best two hours of juice. The power cuts are not kind at all. The men at the power stations have not changed. They wait for darkness to unleash the dread of load shedding. In no time the inverter loses juice. The old BPL emergency lantern is their only hope. Hemlatha rushes to cook dinner, Nandu and Ravi both work feverishly to finish their home work. But its never enough. So the old hurricane lantern comes handy. So do the fat candles.
As we were chatting, the power men acted up. The sun had long migrated to the other hemisphere. It was time for the inverter. I walked over to Nandu’s study table. A neanderthal table lamp illuminated the study area. The 40watt tungsten bulb ensured that the fan had to be switched off. A few minutes at the table and I realized why Nandu takes frequent breaks. Its just too hot to study under that light. The heat radiation gets worse by the minute. The light is too harsh as it reflects from the table top.
I was overwhelmed by the sense of deja vu. It was a rewind to my student days and the horrors of load shedding.
The team from BPL who had engaged us to develop a marketing strategy for their inverters came back with similar stories. We had insisted that we hear from people what happens to their lives when power goes off. There were heart wrenching stories. A child with burns because he did not see the pan of hot water. An old man tripped in the bathroom and broke his hips. Housewives trying to placate hungry children since food was not ready. But what really moved us were stories narrated by children and how their studies suffered.
We found the answer to our first question. Who are we going to serve? In whose life are we going to make a difference?
Students. How could we expect our children to concentrate on their studies when they are subjected to such physical discomfort. They are the single largest group who need a solution. A proper light to study. A light that remains unaffected by power outages. Light that does not radiate heat. Light that is soothing to their eyes.
This was not just a business opportunity, it defined the business context.
We needed an answer to the second question: how were we going to make a difference to their lives?
The BPL inverter was as good or bad as any. There were hundreds of makes available already. As we saw it, the inverter was not the answer. We needed a light tailor made for studying. Uninterrupted light. Cool for the eyes. Portable. Beautifully designed, not stone age relics! Most importantly would have six hours of back up juice to go through the evening and into late night. That pretty much defined the product specifications!
We put a team together. Engineers from BPL. Abhijit Bansod, one of India’s best designers. A team of optometricians and opthalmologists from the leading eye institute, Sankara Nethralaya.( Who else would know more about eyes?) And of course my partner, Arijit, our research consultant, Nandita and myself. We were driving the team.
We started with design, not engineering. Our focus was children. It helped having Abhijit on board. He had a good grasp of the technology issues. After we shortlisted the designs, it was time to choose. Why should we do that? Let the children decide.
Design is subjective. So we had often been told. We had to find an innovative way to decide.
There is now overwhelming neurological evidence, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging, that the emotional brain drives the rational brain. That’s the way our brains are hardwired. So we decided to find how the emotional brain gets engaged by the designs.
We put the short-listed designs in front of students and asked them to write stories about any of the designs they liked. Design engages the mind at many levels. It inspires imagination, links with memories, creates layers of sensual responses. Stories manifest those responses.
The ‘Halo’ design won hands down.
The technology challenge was defined by i) the spatial dimensions of the design and the back up time of six hours & ii) the physiological parameters laid down by Sankara Nethralya.
To cut a long story short, the light source of 24 LED’s conforms to all the specifications laid down by the optometric team from Sankara Nethralya. BPL engineers solved the back up problem with a mini inverter which stores power in a Nickel Metal Halide battery. They even bettered that by making it solar chargeable!
Studylite was launched in January 2009. Anyone who hears this story invariably buys one. Arijit and I must have sold over 100 units. As I write this piece BPL has upped their production to 20000 units this month.
Here is the tail piece. StudyLite has won the prestigious global award for excellence in design: the red dot award. That’s more than reward. Its global recognition. Not just for the design but context engineering.
We did not start with technology and capability, but the consumer. The context: the misery of children studying during power outage. StudyLite is designed to make their lives better.
I am staring at the StudyLite on Arijit’s table. I wish someone had thought about my misery when I was a student.