Lilly Irani’s Entrepreneurial Citizenship in India

Lilly Irani conducted a multiple year critical study of design schools and entrepreneurship in India, participating as a designer and an ethnographer with one particular design studio for a number of years. Irani is both a researcher and an tech professional. In her book, Chasing Innovation, she coins the term “entrepreneurial citizen” to explain how civil movements and centralised government planners have handed over the responsibility of social change and nation building to the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs, and the designers Irani studied, who once had managerial roles responsible for building businesses for investors, are now encouraged to take their passion for social justice and development and channel it into scalable design projects with global market possibilities for growth and profit. Irani points out that proponents of very different models of development still all believe that entrepreneurship and private innovation is the answer to India’s problems.

According to Irani’s research, this change has been brought about through communication in order to supports the capitalist ideology of the elites, political and industrial interests. Rather than rising up against these dominant groups, people are persuaded through communication to believe that anyone can be an entrepreneur no matter what their background, and that they can create enterprising ventures, save the world and make money all at the same time.  In this way, Irani’s concept of entrepreneurial citizenship is a very subtle tool of hegemony. Instead of political dissent, issues are framed as “opportunities” for “value creation”. If the target users (usually the poor of India) are not interested in the proposed solution because its not their number one problem, these concerns are labelled “perceptions” and blithely ignored because they do not align with the investors priorities.

Irani explains that entrepreneurial citizenship empowers the middle class, who are well educated, outspoken, can speak English and convince investors that they add some intangible but essential value. This value add tends to be a theatre of empathy with their potential product adopters,  because as noted above,  it’s the investors priorities that come first, not the users. 

It does not empower the users unless the dominant class also benefit from their adoption of the entrepreneurial development. Irani speaks of how in fact capitalism can leave so many people dispossessed and in poverty,  as it moves value up the chain and away from the people who labour.

At the end of the day, investors want a product with global scale, so something that is adopted by millions of India people is very attractive. This idea of entrepreneurial citizenship empowers global investors to get access to Indian designers and the poor of India as potential consumers, so they too benefit.

Governments are still in control of vast public resources and networks,  and they ultimately determine what designs are funded, and now instead of having to explain their decisions to convince the public, they can now just fund innovations and be seen to be supporting development of all peoples. So this concept of the entrepreneurial citizen empowers them too, or at least maintains their position of power.

Hence the idea of the entrepreneurial citizen gives the middle class enough of a carrot to stop them from being effective political opponents to those already in power,  and maintains the power of the elites, governments and industry, and keeps the poor in poverty.

In fact, Irani explains that design is essentially hegemony too, because if product design is done well, it is invisible and steers the users to outcomes deemed desirable by the investors without them being aware of it.  So the entrepreneurial citizen and their practice of human centred design does not seem likely to be the silver bullet for India’s growing population and poverty.

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