Panel 3: Imagining India as an Innovation Society

This panel was chaired by Shanker Annaswamy, head of IBM India; Ashok Alexander, director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation India; Aditya Dev Sood, head of CKS in India; Sukumar Ranganathan, editor of MINT; and Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society.

The conversation began with an attempt to define the qualities of an innovation society. Based on the previous two panels of the morning, trust and participation, or inclusiveness, were both deemed essential to any definition of an innovation society. In the context of India, however, innovation has not really been talked about or sought after until very recently. Only a decade ago, we were still focusing our efforts on industrialization, and then this past decade has focused on ‘development’, resident in an information economy. The idea of an innovation economy, however, is one that has only really emerged over the past few years, and formally conceived with the constitution of the National Innovation Council.

Shanker Annaswamy talked about the need to move towards more routinizable forms of innovation, especially highlighting the need for more inclusiveness not only in the planning of systems, but during their implementation as well. Social networking in particular can make this change happen, as can garnering more and more participation from the so-called ‘bottom of the pyramid’. Indeed, incubating these grassroots innovations may be means to transforming India into an innovation society. Ashok Alexander told a compelling story of his own work with Avahan and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, when he began working with sex workers to increase the use of condoms. Initially, the messaging was around the negative consequences of not using condoms, but later they realized that this was not addressing the actual needs of the sex workers who deal with fear and live under the threat of violence on a daily basis. It was only after they changed their strategy to provide a ‘safe space’ for the sex workers, and therefore addressed an actual need of the beneficiary, that the program began to succeed and thereafter became the biggest AIDS/HIV program globally.

Jeby Cherian, speaking from the audience, talked about the need to move from the ‘just enough is good enough’ attitude and move towards excellence. Aditya Dev Sood responded to this, accepting that while jugaad and price-pointing innovation initiatives are certainly innovative, they are not sufficient to make the complete transformation of India into an Innovation Society. We need to move beyond the coping mechanisms and copying mechanisms to a more value-creating paradigm. Sunil Abraham agreed that Jugaad is not enough, and can be likened to the term ‘hacking’, and according to him, India is “hacking heaven”, with reverse-engineering being accepted and even expected.

Sunil also spoke about the need for more innovation in education systems – unless we have better educated citizens, most of these attempts at creating platforms for participation and collaboration will not be useful. Sub, from the audience, spoke about the need to better diffuse knowledge and action within our society. Furthermore, there has to be value, and respect, amongst the different arms of society. It is only once all these different arms empathize with one other that we can truly hope to make an innovation society happen.

If this transformation of India into an innovation society is to take place, however, much is still left to be done. We need to design and employ a participatory approach to vision and articulate the final goal, as Ashok Alexander emphasized. Furthermore, Aditya Sood added, this would have considerable implications on culture, socio-psychological behaviors, value systems and much more, that would also need to undergo a transformation. In order to create an innovation society, social connections and attitudes must undergo change. There needs to be high levels of trust and participation to encourage entrepreneurship, and less exclusion and hierarchy. Strategic design, inclusiveness, and creativity must be fostered, but perhaps most importantly, a passion for change. However, before we even attempt to do this, there is a need to agree upon the questions we are asking about innovation in India, and what exactly the components of an innovation society really are.

The panel concluded with a consensus of sorts that transforming our educational institutions is the most effective means to achieve the transformation of India into an Innovation Society.

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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