On reinventing India as a leading innovation nation

It is often lamented that Indian innovations are invariably incremental and not disruptive

Updated: Apr 4, 2018 01:35:12 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

Among around 140 nations, during the past five years, India’s ranking has slipped from 66 (2013) to 76 (2014) to 81 (2015) and has now recovered to 66 (2016 and 60 (2017). Our aspiration should be to reinvent India as an innovation nation. One look at India’s ranking in Global Innovation Index, tells us it's a long road uphill.

What is coming in the way? It is often lamented that Indian innovations are invariably incremental and not disruptive. They are often ‘first to India’ and not ‘first to the world’. They copy the ‘current best practice’ but not create the ‘next’ practice.

But even when we created disruptive game-changing inventions, it did not become an ‘innovation’, in the sense that the mind-to-market place journey was not completed to create competitive marketable products with speed, scale and sustainability.

There is no better example for this than an Indian home-grown invention called the ‘Simputer’, which was a path breaking invention, way ahead of its time. Developed in 2001, the Simputer was designed to be a low-cost and portable alternative to personal computers. The idea was to create shared devices that permit truly simple and natural user interfaces based on sight, touch and audio.

Even before the arrival of the smartphone in 2003, the Simputer had incorporated some breakthrough technologies that are now commonplace in mobile devices. One of them was the accelerometer, introduced to the rest of the world for the first time in iPhone. The other was doodle on mail, the ability to write on a phone, that was later a major feature on the Samsung Galaxy phones. Thus, Simputer was hailed globally for its `radical simplicity for universal access’.

Bruce Sterling, writing in New York Times magazine, had said, “The most significant innovation in computer technology in 2001 was not Apple’s gleaming titanium PowerBook G4 or Microsoft’s Windows XP. It was the Simputer, a net-linked, radically simple portable computer, intended to bring the computer revolution to the third world.…”

But despite its technological leap, Simputer did not become a product in the marketplace selling in millions. Why? Because of lack of a robust national innovation ecosystem, the most important missing element of which was the lack of an innovative public procurement policy, which could have helped Simputer scale speedily and sustainably.

Building Knowledge Societies to propel innovation
The challenge of India not being able to make the journey from mind-to-marketplace can be addressed only by building a powerful national innovation ecosystem. The essential elements of such a national ecosystem should ideally comprise physical, intellectual and cultural constructs. Beyond research institutions, it should also include idea incubators, accelerators, technology parks, a robust intellectual property rights regime, balanced regulatory systems, strategically designed standards.

Furthermore, academics who believe in not just ‘publish or perish’, but ‘patent, publish and prosper’ should form a crucial cog in the machine of this ecosystem. Scientists, who have the passion to become technopreneurs, potent inventor-investor engagement, ‘ad’venture capital, and passionate innovation leaders are as important as a bold and innovative public procurement policy for and of innovation that we alluded to earlier.

I gave a C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture titled 'Economics of Knowledge' in 1999. I brought the words knowledge (Saraswati) and Economics (Lakshmi) together. Because in India, we don’t see the connect between the Saraswati and Lakshmi easily. In this lecture, I had said.

“Tomorrow’s societies will be knowledge societies. Tomorrow’s markets will be knowledge markets. Tomorrow’s wars will be fought not by the conventional weapons, guns, missiles and so on, but they will be fought in the knowledge markets with the new thermonuclear weapons called information and knowledge... to meet the twin objective of growth with equity, knowledge cannot be the prerogative of a few; everyone in the society must have access to knowledge and become a knowledge worker...”

The possibility of access to 'knowledge for everyone' is vastly improved thanks to rapid advances that India has made in building digital infrastructure, but that too in such a way that extremely affordable access of information and knowledge to all has been possible.

Just a year ago, India was ranked 155th among 230 nations with regard to mobile data transmission. But today it has leapfrogged into the number one position leaving the US and China in the second and third position. What is even more important is that internet access has been made more affordable and accessible for a vast majority of the population thus opening up the avenues of access to knowledge to anyone, anytime and anywhere.

Education as a support system to building an innovation-positive environment

Our government has rightly envisaged the policy of ‘right to education’ but we now need to move to 'right education' and 'right way of education'.

Right education, because exponential technology is very rapidly increasing information and knowledge and this, in turn, is creating the need for newly educated workforce with different demands on skills and competencies.

Right way of education, because the digital disruption is creating new ways of learning.

In this digital age, we have to move from information memorisation and brute force recall. Our education should change from our children using the 'brain as storage' to 'brain as an intelligent processor'. With the internet becoming more and more accepted as an educational tool, classrooms should now able to expand beyond four walls.

Innovative techniques such as on demand tutoring, peer to peer or P2P learning, personalised and generative course structure and sequencing to meet the individual needs will have to become the order of the day.

In future, we will see that the demands of the industry will dramatically change the top skills that recruiters will be looking out for. Interpersonal skills and ability to deal with complexity, critical thinking, creativity, co-working ability and emotional intelligence will assure top priority. With Artificial Intelligence becoming more mainstream in the workforce, the ‘human touch’ of qualities like emotional intelligence, especially in four domains; self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management will form the cornerstone of tomorrow’s learning societies.

Balancing the outcomes of innovation
Just like a coin, even innovation has two sides and it is imperative that the global community works towards innovation led inclusive and sustainable growth and not innovation led irreversible destruction.

To illustrate my point, let me cite the example of CRISPR, a newly discovered DNA editing tool which is truly revolutionary. CRISPR stands for 'clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats'. It provides a fantastic way to make precise changes to DNA.  It is very cheap, very effective and very easy to use, even by a non-specialist. CRISPR units are available by mail order!

This powerful tool could be used in microbes, plants, animals and even in human cells. As a public good, it can help researchers engineer drought-resistance crops, develop better drugs, cure genetic disorders, eradicate infectious diseases and so on.

But the same tool in wrong hands can also enable people to produce lethal pandemic viruses or mutant bacteria in their basements thus adversely resulting in biological terrorists!  So there must be a global dialogue and understanding on the intended and unintended consequences of new technology as also agreed controls from the humanistic angle and welfarist perspective, just as we set up a common global agenda in the Paris agreement on Climate Change.

India should lead in such `responsible’ innovation.

Young India and Innovation
The young are our future. What would be my message to them so that they help build India as a top leading amongst the innovation nation.

Here are the Ten Mashelkar Mantras that may be helpful
1.    Your aspirations are your possibilities keep them always high.
2.    Like instant coffee, there is no instant success. Work hard success will follow.
3.    But work hard in salience. Let success make the noise.
4.    Persistence pays. It is always too soon to quit.
5.    Don’t wait for opportunities to knock on your door, create opportunities, build your own doors.
6.    You can do anything but not everything. So choose Focus.
7.    Be curious forever. Creativity follows curiosity. New creation follows creativity.
8.    When someone tells you it can’t be done, take it more as a reflection of his limitation, not yours.
9.    ‘I’ in every individual must stand for innovation, not for inhibition or imitation. It is better to fail in originality, then succeed in imitation.
10.    There is a no limit to human imagination and achievement, excepting the limits you yourself put on your mind. So, go limitless. Outperform yourself.

The author is Governing Council, Marico Innovation Foundation and Honorary Chairman of Governing Council, Marico Innovation Foundation

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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