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Lessons in Placemaking from the Dabbawallas of Mumbai, India

Lessons in Placemaking from the Dabbawallas of Mumbai, India

Social innovation, when done properly, not only provides sustainable jobs. It can also shape the culture of a city. A sustainable business does not have to be high-tech, and no one knows this better than the dabbawallas of Mumbai, India. These nondescript lunchbox delivery workers amble along on simple bicycles, motorbikes, and city-trains, and it

Dabbawallas handing recieving a 'dabba' (luncbox) from a patron, Mumbai, India

Social innovation, when done properly, not only provides sustainable jobs. It can also shape the culture of a city.

A sustainable business does not have to be high-tech, and no one knows this better than the dabbawallas of Mumbai, India. These nondescript lunchbox delivery workers amble along on simple bicycles, motorbikes, and city-trains, and it is hard to believe that they have achieved the highest standard of quality control in the world. With a niche business model and no advertising or branding except word of mouth, few outside Mumbai know about them other than an odd mix of Indian homemakers, cooks, and Prince Charles (who once specially flew over to meet them).

The word dabbawalla literally means lunchbox man. True to their name, their entire business model involves delivering lunch boxes from homes to Mumbai's workforce. Unlike new and flashy start-ups, they are not developing an app, and have been facilitating a sharing economy decades before the likes of Airbnb made the concept popular. However, what is most interesting from a planning perspective is that the dabbawallas are a sustainable business that has managed to create a sense-of-place for Mumbai.

Dabbawallas on a motorbike. Dabbawallas typically use bicycles, however do use simple motor-vehicles such as motorbikes for longer distances.

To create a sense of place, planners traditionally rely on design innovations like local art and storefronts— certainly not 'the local delivery guy.' While street-fronts and art may have come and gone in Mumbai, the ubiquitous delivery staff have emerged as an indispensable icon of the city's story.

This may seem strikingly odd. However, Indian culture places high value on home-food made with fresh ingredients. This allows the dabbawallas to carry out the important task of extending the home's kitchen-table to the workplace.

The arrival of the dabbawalla, wearing his signature white hat and shirt, signals the time to share food with your colleagues, as well as an opportunity to fix the time on your watch. Their punctuality is so legendary that local urban proverbs talk about it.

A notice for a pause in Dabba services from the Mumbai Association of Tiffin Carriers. The notice speaks of the Dabbawallas pausing service inorder to attend an important festival occuring at a specific village in Maharashtra. The festival and holiday period for them coincides with Good Friday, a national holiday in India.

However, what dabbawallas are most noted for is their almost negligible error-rate. For a widely-dispersed and networked organization, with multiple relay points, virtually no automation, few formal processes, and thousands of deliveries in short time-spans,  they have a combined error-rate of less than one per million transactions. Without intending to, they have passed the six-sigma test, signifying the highest standard of quality control in the world. Combined with their almost completely human-powered delivery system (resulting in an ultra-low carbon footprint), the dabbawalla model has attracted attention from business houses, think-tanks and green design aficionados both in India and abroad.

The dabbawallas have inspired box-office hit moves like The Lunchbox, and have had special visits by curious British royalty like Prince Charles. Their success proves that cities do not always require remarkable art or creative storefronts. Sometimes it is the mundane that builds the strongest sense-of-place. Indeed, with their signature uniform, professional competence, and home-style food, dabbawallas have earned a place in every Mumbai-kar’s heart. Theirs is the story of a seemingly simple service becoming a symbol of a city's character.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJIGJtb_N7E

What is your city known for? What simple innovations have built your city’s character? What existing features add to its sense of place? Please share your stories and thoughts in the comments area below. 

Credits: Data linked to sources. Images by Chandranil and Rukmini Das Gupta.

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