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  • Writer's pictureGunjan Syal

A Design Thinking Diwali

This is a preview of the material available here. Design thinking is a necessity to create a culture of transformation and innovation. Without it, we are doomed to repeat historic errors. This is what we discuss in this workshop.

Diwali is one of India’s most important festivals. It represents victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. This is why candles and diyas cover Indian homes during the Diwali celebrations.

People with Indian heritage all over the world were challenged to celebrate Diwali in an innovative manner, while on the cusp of another COVID-19 wave. Diwali was an unprecedented and bitter-sweet experience for me this year. Days leading up to the festival were challenging to plan. Still, I managed to make most of it with a little bit of research and availability of digital channels.

The Traditions That Continued

The obsessive purge: I started with the usual Fall cleaning around the house. This was a relatively easy task since I began practicing minimalism in 2018 (thanks to Joshua Becker for inspiration) and the lack of shopping during the pandemic.

Christmas…errr…Diwali….errr… Holiday lights: Most difficult part here was to ensure that the lights say off the ‘seizure inducing’ setting — seriously, why is rapid blinking even an option! I also added electric candles on all tabletops for a ‘back-home’ feel without the risk of burning down the house.

Nostalgic food: What is Diwali without Indian sweets? (that’s a trick question — it’s NOT Diwali without Indian sweets!) I masked-up and visited the local Indian store to procure some Haldiram’s Soan Papdi. This is where the pandemic feel returned. The store was well decorated for Diwali, and barely had any customers. The shelves had significantly less variety due to restricted imports this year.

Small businesses have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. As more customers turn to online channels, small businesses have been challenged to explore digital business models. Regardless, I took special safety measures and decided to venture outside my new digital comfort zone for this special treat. It allowed me to support the local Indian business with a very niche and small market during the holiday season. This was my only public activity leading up to the Diwali day.

New Traditions, a.k.a. Innovation By Necessity

Virtual wishes: Due to the time difference in India, I had a busy evening on Fri Nov 13 2020, catching up with friends and family in India. It was a good test of how many apps my phone and the internet bandwidth could handle (yelling HAPPY DIWALI as loud as possible helps with the connection issues, right? I did it anyway!). Common platform choices in their order of preference were: WhatsApp, Zoom, Slack, Teams, and even WebEx. The red-zone-screentime continued the next morning, on Diwali day, as I caught up with friends on the Western hemisphere. Ironically, with all the focus on various digital platforms, I missed the old-fashioned text messages and voicemails from a few friends until the next day!

Design thinking theme: Back in October, Ramya and I planned our second ‘transform this’ Design Thinking discussion for the World Diabetes Day. The practical application we chose was focused on promoting wellness and healthy habits among children. We forgot to factor in Diwali. It was a pleasant surprise when we realized it. What a great way to celebrate the victory of knowledge over ignorance with our tribe!

The discussion had representation from at least 4 continents and 7 countries.

  • The session started with an impromptu conversation about how the design thinking ideas apply to the legal industry. With the client-consultations and the courts moving to virtual platforms, there is a lot of focus on technology. Design thinking concepts span both business and technology aspects.

  • As we dove into the case study, we also meandered through the various stages a start-up firm vs. a large organization would experience.

  • At one point during the discussion, I was reminded of the following LinkedIn post by Adam Grant. I am a big fan of his work as an organizational psychologist. The moral of this post is that for business resiliency, proactive efforts towards small-but-good decisions are a necessity. This is the benefit that design thinking offers. It allows businesses to take small investment risks and test the impact via iterative pilots, until customer satisfaction is achieved. Mario also shared Adam’s book, ‘Give and Take’, which has immense insights for effective collaboration, including the leadership required to scale it across the organizations.
  • Mario also shared his key learnings from ‘The Psychology of Trading’: businesses can use use “design thinking for predicting consumer behavior”. We felt that Steve Jobs and Donald Trump may have been masters of this technique. Watch the video below and join the conversation offline via comments to this post.

Virtual Diwali lunch: After a one-hour design thinking session with the ‘transform this’ tribe, Ramya and I were pumped and still had a lot more to discuss! Ramya’s husband, Girish, joined us as we continued our virtual Diwali lunch over Zoom. We covered everything from industry specific impact due to COVID (automotive, education, public sector, housing), Canadian vs US employment market, Canadian start-up focus, and the practical leadership practices that support young women in the workplace. Diwali celebrations continued after I bid Ramya and Girish Happy Diwali.

Virtual temple visits: With nostalgia kicking in, I temple-hopped 5 times virtually this Diwali. This was exciting! Each temple visit would typically take 1–3 hours minimum in the Toronto traffic, not to mention the airfare to visit the temples in India. I did some research online and identified YouTube channels and websites for the most famous Hindu temples around the world. It was great to not only visit these temples, but also support them with online donations. This channel was not available to temples in past. Most of us don’t realize how much funding is required to preserve the world’s heritage sites during the pandemic. The loss of these would mean loss of human history. UNESCO World Heritage Fund also supports initiatives world-wide with support from public donations and global grants.

Virtual Potluck: As the dusk settled in, my temple-hopping was interrupted by a reminder about the virtual potluck with 6 other friends. We had cooked our best dishes and previously dropped them off at each others’ homes. Now, we simply jumped on a Zoom call, microwaved and enjoyed our 6-course meals while catching up late into the night.

Conclusion: The good, the bad, the ugly

Overall, 2020 Diwali for me was free of the material things compared to most years — this was a relief for my minimalist personality. I was able to use my time effectively and focus on what matters — deeper connections and pursuit of practical knowledge. I connected with friends, such as Ramya and Girish, at much deeper levels outside of the usual contextual discussions. The day also had a special focus on health and wellness with the World Diabetes Day. In past the focus had been on traditional Indian sweets and fried food.

While Diwali this year was devoid of the in-person touch for most, it brought the community closer together as the digital platforms leveled the playing field and relinquished distances. Digital Diwali helped us connect in ways, which was never possible in past. It also curbed the air and noise pollution levels in India, which are common during Diwali due to the fire-crackers.

There was also an extremely dark undertone to the festival of lights this year. It’s not limited to the pandemic casualties, the onset of a new COVID-19 wave and the impact to small businesses in Canada. As of 2012, 1 in every 5 Indians is considered poor. A significant population in India still lives under the poverty line and this has likely intensified during the pandemic.

Most of this population now also suffers from a severe form of digital divide. The children who relied on in-person teachers and physical books cannot receive education at all. The women and men who relied on daily wages for survival are struggling — including the local vendors, artists and businesses who received income from the holiday shopping. Diwali this year was a very chilling and heart-breaking experience for these people. We are witnessing a widening wealth-based chasm and its impact will likely continue to expand over the next few years. Latest data is still awaited.

This kept me pondering throughout my Diwali experience this year. Each time I reached for my phone to approach a friend, it made me think of those who could not. Good news is, there are already local programs in existence that provide immediate or short-term relief; thanks to the government and individual efforts. There is still a lot of work to be done in eradicating digital divide at a global scale. We will need to come together as a society to apply Adam Grant’s theme from the ‘Give and Take’ here as well. We require a long-term view, with pooled resources, towards a resilient and scalable solution.

If you are also motivated towards tackling the digital divide at a global scale, reach out and let’s collaborate to make Diwali 2021 an entirely inclusive experience for all.


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