Sitting in my office in Palo Alto, California, I am just a few miles away from the epicentre of a tremendous digital transformation that has rippled across the world. Technology companies that originated here have begun to manufacture smart things—Apple makes watches, Tesla makes cars and Google makes contact lenses. Each has applied its own software technology to the devices they make and also transcended their domains in the process. You can use an Apple watch to pay for your groceries. Tesla cars drive themselves. Google’s contacts measure your blood sugar.
Each is part of a greater evolution, a revolution which is requiring companies to rethink their very business models and strategies. Non-tech firms now have to consider how to become technology firms, develop platforms and ecosystems for those platforms, which make their products invaluable. Customers today expect a more intimate relationship with those products, and subscription models have taken over traditional purchases. And when we stop to think about it, everything is a service. Objects appear to us temporarily, to perform a function.
This great servicification has revolutionised entire industries and created new value in others—cars, hotel rooms, standing in line and picking up groceries. It has removed intermediate layers between the user and the vendor, and created immediate, transparent feedback. Companies have responded by digitising everything possible and integrating the digital and physical worlds to form a new, holistic experience.
But one central theme emerges to me as I look out across the landscape of emerging technological possibilities. We Indians have risen to places of great power, taking the top spot at Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Pepsi, MasterCard and more. Traditional companies have continued to turn to our country as the pace of technological changes increases. And I believe we are uniquely capable to lead the world in this next great industrial revolution. In 2016, I believe Indians will solidify themselves at the forefront of innovation, creating even greater technology to give birth to new, revolutionary opportunities for the entire world.
Indians have the potential to reshape every industry, but in order for us to lead the next industrial revolution, we also must embrace our own creative confidence. We have to continue to question “why,” and open ourselves to the understanding that our equals created this entire world. This is something that Steve Jobs has said was one of his greatest realisations: “Everything around you that you call life, was made up by people who were no smarter than you.”
At Infosys, we’re educating ourselves in new areas to not only help build intelligent systems, but also to increasingly transform ourselves into innovators. And just as future technologies will help automate the more mundane parts of our work, our training and building and using of advanced systems can help amplify our abilities, can free us to exercise more of our creativity, our humanity. We began an initiative earlier this year that we call ‘Zero Distance’, which seeks to remove the idea of an “innovation department.” Instead, we expect each of our employees to innovate. To further spur our abilities, we partnered with the Stanford University d.school (which is the institute of design at the university). As of today, more than 64,000 of our people have received training in design thinking, a methodology that teaches us how to systemically question the world around us, and find the best problems to solve by working closely with customers. In this way, we recapture the creative confidence we all were born with. As David Kelley, a founder of the d.school, said: “As children, we revel in imaginary play, ask outlandish questions, draw blobs and call them dinosaurs. But over time, because of socialisation and formal education, a lot of us start to stifle those impulses.”
I wish to encourage all Indians to seize hold of the opportunities that surround us all. And here, I have five thoughts for ways any one can grow and improve.
1. Education is fundamental
The most important aspect of my childhood was getting a good education. My mother, who was a teacher, used to say, “When we can learn anything, we can do anything.” This is true not only for those early years, when creative energy exudes from us, but for all of life. We must continue to approach every situation as an opportunity to learn, and push ourselves each day to understand more about the world around us.
The pursuit of lifelong learning, driven by our passions, allows us to embrace the new and different, and to adapt with each new technology or disruption. Through education, we are free to explore and experiment.
2. Find our creative confidence
As we begin to learn more and more about the world around us, we must also embrace our ability to ask “why”. As Steve Jobs said, the world is composed of objects created by people who are no smarter than we are. The computer I’m writing on and the chair I’m sitting in were the problems of their day. Today, we can use these tools, and many, many more, to uncover new problems. This is the revolutionary aspect of insight: Any of us can have it.
In a flash, one person could discover a new way to diagnose cancer, or the key aspect of teleportation. The technology may already exist for each of those, but the right conditions, the best ideas, haven’t yet emerged.
I believe Indian men and women have those ideas. One of architect Frank Gehry’s first jobs was on a flight line, refuelling aircraft. He said that he liked that job and might have stayed there, if they had increased his pay. Today, Gehry has designed some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. His creativity in his field is unmatched, but he would never have created them on a flight line.
Each of us has the capacity for creativity inside of us. We have the ability to innovate and to create new, amazing systems. Far too often, I’ve seen Indians be deferential when they can lead, sit quietly from a fear of failure. We must accept failure, embrace failure, use it as a way to learn and move forward. This will allow our creative confidence to emerge, so we too can build things of beauty.
3. Gain intimate knowledge of a solution’s desirability, feasibility and viability
When we consider truly amazing inventors—the Thomas Edisons, the Bill Gateses and the Steve Jobses of the world—we have found that each had an acute understanding of the desirability, feasibility and viability of a solution.
Desirability is simply how much a customer wants your product. How much will they use it? In what ways do they use it? Customer observation here is crucial, but getting beyond a desk to speak with real, potential buyers is fundamental. In a classic example, there were many mp3 players before the iPod, but none took into account how the device could be easily used. Apple came along with a simple interface and revolutionised the mp3 market, which, in turn, forever changed the way we listen to music.
Feasibility is the technical knowledge to know if your solution will work in the world. Does a solution exist within the laws of physics? Will it operate with simple, existing systems? Having a grasp on how the technology works will allow for deep insights beyond what exists currently. And here, Bill Gates would continue to write code until the mid ’90s. He understood what the systems were capable of, and by getting involved in the process it brought up his teams to design their very best products.
Viability is the financial aspects of a solution. So often, we forget that customers will need to buy our products. Is the system too costly? Who can operate it? Is there a new business model that will be better for the product? Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he created the first light bulb that could be produced commercially. He found cheap, carbonised bamboo filament could burn for 1,200 hours, revolutionising the world and the way we work.
4. Find a group of collaborators
This idea is slightly counterintuitive for a competitive culture, but if we look back at the great revolutions that have happened, they have always been on the basis of cooperation. Science is the ultimate collaboration—every scientific paper must go through a peer review process and reference others’ work.
We all build on the work of others. If we explicitly realise that, we can create tribes of cooperation and exponentially larger value than what we can do ourselves. This is something that we understand intuitively, but we often lose sight of it as we age.
In this spirit of open collaboration, a group of innovators, including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and Infosys, of course, just began OpenAI, a non-profit organisation to develop and advance Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, and share these in the greater good. When Sam, the CEO of Y Combinator, asked me if I would be ok with the fact that such an endeavour would be untethered and would produce results generally in the greater interests of humanity, he was somewhat surprised by my reaction, that indeed I would only support this venture if such an openness was a fundamental requirement!
In all my experience with corporate research teams, I found a continual struggle for the teams to find relevance with the work in the “here and now”, usually knowing that this unnecessary and premature seeking of relevance not only blinds us to those opportunities that can shift our paradigms, it defeats the point of research.
These creative, cooperative endeavours are not opposed to individual recognition or individual value creation. Rather, once Indians realise what we can do collectively, we will create a great, innovative culture that amplifies our own humanity, and our individuality.
5. Find purpose in our work
I believe what gives us confidence in our work, beyond anything else, is to be a part of something purposeful, something that is bigger than us. This is where our passion exists.
Here we can find the most crucial problems that we want to solve. When we work from our hearts, we bring the best of ourselves to the problem. We bring our entire capabilities, and work becomes more similar to play.
With a lifelong pursuit of education; creative confidence; understanding the desirability, feasibility and viability of solutions; collaborative peers; and purposeful work, I believe Indians are set to take charge of new digital world around us. Already investors are flocking to the subcontinent. In the third quarter of 2015, 135 Indian startups raised $2.8 billion, according to research from KPMG International and CB Insights. A year earlier, 73 raised $1.5 billion.
The possibilities for what we can create are endless. We can leapfrog over slow or outdated technology, and use our software knowledge to create new methods to manufacture or new ways to interact with the world around us. This is something that I believe India is poised to do. And as a people, I believe we can ride the great digital wave that is in front of us.
(This story appears in the 22 January, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)