Sometime in August I received an email inviting me to speak at the first-ever design conference in Goa, India, which was to take place in early September. I suspected I was just replacing some more well-known speaker who had dropped out, but apparently things are planned differently in India. Kyoorious Exchange, the organizers of the conference, had started to work on it about a month earlier, they themselves having just been established in January 2006. The event was planned for some 400 people, and was sold out within a week. With only a little help from sponsors, the conference managed to attract over 700 design professionals and students of design. Since there is no governmental support for design, the main organizer of the conference Mr. Rajesh Kejriwal and his team had founded Kyoorius Exchange to shape a new chapter in India’s creative community and give it a platform for exchange.

The three-day conference was an enormous success not only in terms of attendance but also in terms of allowing people to engage in discussion. According to the organizers this was the first time in India that more than 50 designers met in one place. The conference also gave an opportunity for more than 150 professional design studios to present their work in an exhibition. The conference program also included the launch of the first issue of Kyoorius Design Magazine, a quarterly that covers the Indian design scene.

The main feature of the program consisted of presentations by speakers from India and abroad. Andy Altman, Nick Bell, Neville Brody, Vince Frost, Paul Hughes, Sujata Keshavan, Elsie Nanji, Ambience Publicis, Rajiv Sethi, Sudhir Sharma and myself were the speakers in this year’s conference and were embraced by a very attentive audience. This was probably the most responsive public I’ve personally experienced, not just idolizing the heroes from the west, but offering their critical response to the presentations and discussing their work in the context of Indian culture.

After this initial experiment, Kyoorius Exchange is already planning a larger event for next year, hoping to attract over 2000 people from India and abroad. They are also planning the first Indian design competitions and more. The example of the Indian IT industry is probably mirrored by the organizers—when something picks up in India, it grows at an unprecedented speed.

On the way back to Europe, we had dinner at Indigo, Mumbai’s fine fusion of European and Indian cuisine. Just ten minutes later we were taking a taxi to the airport, and instead of the usual Mumbai marine drive, the driver took the Dharavi route because of the congested traffic. Minutes after leaving Colaba, the cosmopolitan mix of cultures, we are sucked into Asia’s largest slums. We stare out of the window and have difficulties digesting our dinner. Nothing could create a bigger contrast to the sophisticated atmosphere of the restaurant, where elegantly dressed Indians mix with European expats and tourists. From just outside the car we were offered an extremely disturbing look at the other reality of today’s India, alarming poverty and overpopulation. We had seen poor suburbs of Mumbai before, but the hour long drive through the slums was overpowering. The driver sped up, trying to spare us the sight, almost hitting the kids living in the tiny makeshift houses built on the road. The ride combined with the troubling scenery made me feel physically unwell. All the impressions of India came together, the new opportunities, the fast growing economy, the reality of the slums, the kindness of people, the eagerness to improve, and the resignation to fate. India is a country where all these contrasts coexist and if you see only one part it simply means that you ignored the others. In that moment one can only have doubts about the relevance of design, but instead my first thoughts were that the Kyoorious design conference is giving an impulse, setting an example for the changes that are happening.