A Conversation on Innovation with Pankaj Jhunja from Tata Motors Limited

Yesterday, I spoke with Pankaj Jhunja, the General Manager of Design for Tata Motors, about his thoughts on the state of innovation in India. Pankaj has had the opportunity to work in a diversity of businesses each with different responsibilities and complexities of products. Before Tata Motors, Jhunja worked for Dilip Chhabria Design (DC) specializing in Custom Built Cars, Homeflow Inc. in Pune as Product Manager, and with Renault Nissan India in Mumbai as General Manager Design. Jhunja holds a Bachelor’s degree from the National Institute of Technology, Silchar, and a Master’s degree in Design from IIT Mumbai. Read excerpts from our conversation below.

Ayesha Vemuri: What is the current state of innovation in India as you see it? And more specifically, what are the barriers that India is currently facing, that are inhibiting its innovation ecology?

Pankaj Jhunja: Essentially, innovation is something that each company is trying to do to move forward. In India, the environment itself is quite unpredictable, and a lot of innovation is happening just to get around barriers, whether they are infrastructural, organizational, financial or due to policies. This is oftentimes not really the kind of innovation that you would find in the West, and is many times incremental and small-scale, and focused on overcoming existing barriers. Most of this innovation tends to happen piecemeal, though, and does not necessarily happen in a structured or regularized way.

In Tata Motors, we are now innovating on a wide range of technology platforms, from electrics, hybrids to fuel cells. Also, you tend to see a lot more systematic innovation in India in the R&D departments of multinational companies like Bosch, and even Unilever. This is good news, in the sense that it isn’t that we lack the talent or expertise, but rather it is about how that resident talent is nurtured and channelled and follows a systematic/structured process.

Coming to the barriers to innovation in India, I’d say that our education system is the biggest challenge. Our education system is not designed to encourage inquiry, and you’re often penalized for doing so, which means that students from a young age are not encouraged to ask questions or think in new ways about things. Only rote learning is really promoted. This attitude can also be found in many companies, where one is not really encouraged to come up with new ideas, and knowledge is treated like power and not readily shared. Once this limiting attitude changes, there will be much greater scope for innovation in India.

AV: Following from that, can you talk about ways in which cross-sectoral alignments and collaborations (between government, private sector, social sector and the public) can help overcome these challenges and create a more enabling ecology for innovation in India, especially in those social and developmental areas where we currently face pressing challenges?

PJ: Cross-sectoral collaboration is definitely needed in every sector, since things have changed considerably, and no company that does not engage in a collaborative model will be able to succeed. The expectations of users have changed a lot over the last few years, and they are increasingly demanding better quality services and products that actually meet their expectations. Whether these come from one company or several, or are provided by the government or a private enterprise or by them combinedly is not important – what is important is that the service or product is of a certain quality and that it reaches the users and serves their needs. Most companies are incapable of meeting every single requirement, since these requirements are complex usually span several sectors, and therefore collaboration is essential for success.

Of course, a lot of what private sector companies are able to do does depend on the enabling policies and available infrastructure, which is the role of the government. But it is particularly important, as you say, to also involve the public themselves – the actual users of products and services, because then we can ensure that they are designed with customer’s perspective in mind, in order that the final product is actually aligned with what they need, and not just what we think they need.

AV: Since you work in Tata Motors, and have organized events that look into the problems of urbanization in order to better design solutions that address the changing landscape of India’s cities, could you talk specifically about how collaboration is required in the Smarter Cities space?

PJ: Yes, the event that you mentioned, that we organized in collaboration with CKS, was designed specifically in a way to bring in a lot of different stakeholders to talk about what new kinds of mobility solutions that we need to imagine and design for India’s changing cities. We talked to urban planners, transportation planners, product developers in the automobile sector, and even environmentalists, since these are all different perspectives that we need to keep in mind when designing new forms of transport. I thought that meeting was a very interesting one, and is an initiative I’d like to continue to pursue.

Here, too, it is important to work alongside the government, since they are responsible for the infrastructure, as well as the implementation and execution of what we design.

In the future going forward I feel that the boundaries of what are work spaces, personal spaces and public entertainment spaces will blur – and the physical environment or products and services will need to respond to the mental model of seamless integration. With that the current cityscapes will be challenged – and will need to undergo a radical change. Today cities structures and their associated problems, specifically the large metros define the lifestyle of the majority rather than the other way around where they are built around lifestyles of the population. This level of seamless integration will also be expected for all product/service providers whether private or public – which calls for a huge amount of collaboration.

AV: Are there are any other points of view that you would like to include, that haven’t been addressed in the questions above?

PJ: I sincerely believe that IPR generation and protection is one great metric for testing the Innovation ecosystem of any country/organisation. Whether we use that protection to control or share after that is an individual decision – but the fact that it is there and recognised gives an additional incentive to the creator. The Government can support in this activity specially for lot of work that happens at grass root level where the creator may not have an idea also of how to go about it or be able to afford the same.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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One Response to A Conversation on Innovation with Pankaj Jhunja from Tata Motors Limited

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