March 10, 2011

Ratan Tata ’59 Revs Up Nano Symposium

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Speaking in front of a packed Call Auditorium Thursday, renowned Indian entrepreneur and Cornell trustee Ratan Tata ’59 explained his vision for the “world’s most affordable car,” the Nano. An exhibit of the car has been at display at the Johnson Museum since Jan. 15, and a two-day symposium on its impacts — which range from cultural to economic to environmental — began Thursday.

“What sparked the desire to produce such a vehicle was constantly seeing Indian families riding on scooters or motorcycles. If it was a scooter, there would be a little son or daughter between parents — driving in the rain or in the dark,” Tata said. “There would be accidents; and, quite often, the car behind them would run them over.”

Tata’s search for safer transportation for the people of India fueled a vision that materialized the Nano, a $2,200 car designed and produced by Tata Motors. The car was put into mass production in June 2010.

Thursday’s talk, “Unpacking the Nano: The Price of the World’s Most Affordable Car” began with President David Skorton introducing keynote speaker Prof. Arjun Appadurai, communication, New York University. Dean of the College of Art, Architecture and Planning Kent Kleinman served as the event’s coordinator.

According to Kleinman, the exhibition and symposium are funded with grants from several Cornell centers, including Cornell’s David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Institute for the Social Sciences.

Although significant University funding was used in the symposium, Cornell administrators said that Tata’s connections to the University did not compromise the significance of the exhibition or the symposium.

“It is an undeniable fact that a lot of our lives are shaped by corporations. As a faculty member at this University, I am not doing this because of the Tata corporation or his place as a Trustee,” said Prof. Neema Kudva, city and regional planning and director of the International Studies in Planning Program. Kudva is one of many professors involved with the symposium and will be leading “Landscapes of Mobility,” one of three panel sessions Friday.

“I’m doing this to look critically at the impacts of cheap automobility on the ways it will shape the future,” she said.

Director of the Johnson Museum Frank Robinson said the exhibit is primarily an artistic exhibit rather than a marketing strategy.

“Somehow I don’t think having a show in Ithaca, New York will have an impact in India,” he said, explaining that advertisement of the product through the exhibit would not impact the car’s sales in India. “It certainly won’t have an affect here, since it isn’t being sold here.”

Tata hosted five students and two faculty members from Cornell in India in June 2010. There, the students and faculty conducted on-site research, visited the research-and-development and production plants and arranged for the loan the two production Nanos.

Tata did not otherwise contribute to the funding of the exhibit or symposium, according to Aaron Goldweber, director of communications for the College of Art, Architecture and Planning.

“We’re not exactly advertising. It was made quite clear from [Dean Kleinman] we aren’t going to take money from [Tata]. We have to be critically free,” said exhibit co-director Prof. Aleksandr Mergold,  architecture, referring to the potential promotional aspects of the exhibit and symposium. “The symposium is designed to be a debate, and so is the exhibit.”

Robinson reaffirmed the Nano project’s ability to create a dialogue.

“It might have an affect on how people see the world around them — making them more aware of design, making them demand better design,” he said. “That’s the effect we do want.”

Skorton echoed these sentiments.

“This symposium could be and is about much more than innovative automobile design … Once you experience the Nano, you’ll discover in that exhibit that there are many ways to think about the automobile around the world,” he said.

The keynote speaker, Appadurai, spoke about the Nano as an object as well as its potential to motivate cultural transformation.

“Especially for its first generation of owners, the Nano will be the first, most modern, most significant commodity in comparison to its price,” Appadurai said. “The small Nano is actually a large object — it’s social mobility value in comparison to its rupee value will be in very, very high ratio.”

He continued, “Without the enthusiasm of the masses, no design for the future will have any legs, or might I say wheels. The Nano is a bet in the linking of India’s middle class. It’s success in the thought experiment in the common man to build democratic futures already seems a sure bet.”

Since the Nano’s impact is multifaceted, Kleinman engaged departments ranging from civil and environmental engineering to architecture to anthropology.

Kudva became involved with the project while on sabbatical in India last spring. She skyped with students researching the Nano on campus.

“As a planner, I am interested more in how citizens and the state imagine and regulate environments we want to live in,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the citizens and government to  arrive at an idea of what the public good is.”

The event’s planners said the Nano’s environmental impacts are an important element of the symposium.

“If you think about climate issues and how we’re dealing with energy, that isn’t a small thing. Even though they [the Nanos] are lighter and produce less emissions, they’re still going to need fuel and produce carbon emissions” said Prof. Linda Nozick, civil and environmental engineering.

Robinson said the exhibition has proven to be popular.

“We’ve had wonderful attendance. Over 10,000 people have already seen it,” Robinson said, adding that he expects the exhibit to have 15,000 to 20,000 visitors by the time it ends on March 27. “Aside from raw numbers, it’s important for the students who did it and the students who see it,” he said. “It displays what art and design can be.”

Beyond Cornell, the exhibit has drawn community attention.

“The town is pretty excited. There are some fierce debates that have arisen,” Mergold said. “Some people think it’s great because it gives people access, others say cars are bad.”

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou