Innovation is emerging as one of the most important rubrics in the discourse on how to bring about greater and more consistent economic and social development in India. One observes steadily growing investments in R&D across the country, the setting up of national and state innovation bodies, as well as the introduction of government-sponsored innovation funds. There have also been several conferences and debates on innovation and how to best promote and accomplish it in India, and a number of articles on the subject, written for both formal publications (newspapers and magazines) as well as more informal platforms like online forums and blogs.
Academic engagement and Indian authorship on the subject has also exploded the last five years. A book search for â€œInnovation in Indiaâ€ on Amazon yields 790 results. Despite widespread agreement on the importance of innovation in India, there are wide gulfs between different conceptions of innovation and on the path India that should take towards securing benefits through investments in innovation.
Many Indian conversations around innovation begin by talking about jugaad, that uniquely Indian approach to making a joint, or temporary fix when something complex, like an automobile or a steam engine stops working. Initiatives like Anil K. Guptaâ€™s Honeybee network have been started in recent times in order to document and promote the many jugaad-driven rural innovations across India. However, many observers have pointed out that while jugaad is certainly innovative, it is a response to the lack of an innovation culture — more a survival or coping mechanism at a time of need than a systematic methodology to effectively address a wide-ranging, complex set of problems.
Another specifically Indian approach to innovation that has entered into wide currency of late is so-called â€˜frugal innovation,â€™ deemed by many (including the Government of India) to be the most appropriate for the Indian context. In its mid-term assessment of the 11th five-year plan, the National Planning Commission stressed the need for innovation in India in order to â€˜accelerate its growth and … to make growth more inclusive as well as environmentally sustainable.â€™ The document went on to say that â€˜India needs more frugal innovation that produces more frugal cost products and services that are affordable by people at low levels of incomes without compromising the safety, efficiency, and utility of the products. The country also needs processes of innovation that are frugal in the resources required to produce the innovations. The products and processes must also have frugal impact on the earthâ€™s resources.â€™
The late management guru C.K. Prahalad, along with innovation thinker R.A. Mashelkar, formulated a similar theory called the More-from-Less-for-More (MLM theory of innovation) theory of Innovation, which advocates a focus on innovations that allow for more production using less resources but benefit more people. Under this rubric come products like the $2000 Tata Nano car, the Tata Swach water filter and the Tata Ginger hotels — all more affordable versions of existing technologies.
While both frugal innovation and the MLM theory are certainly valuable in terms of bringing affordable products and services to a greater number of people, and may even be considered a necessary first step on Indiaâ€™s innovation path, they barely graze the surface of what innovation can accomplish. That is, innovation is capable of bringing about complete paradigm-shifts and redefining the way we perceive and interact with the world. Take the cellphone, for example: it revolutionized communication in previously inconceivable way, provided consumers with a product of unprecedented value and created an entirely new market. The cellphone was a result of years of directed, intentional innovation efforts and large investments, and would not have ever been created if the people responsible simply set out to make the existing telephone cheaper and more accessible to all.
A third emerging stream within the discourse on Indiaâ€™s innovation paradigm, convincingly argues that India has yet to achieve its innovation potential, is represented by Rishikesha T. Krishnan in his recent book From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation. In his view, while jugaad and frugal innovation may be indicative of the Indian potential for innovativeness, this potential is not utilized or given opportunity to flourish due to the lack of an enabling culture. Indiaâ€™s many diverse and complex needs can be met only through systematic innovation, and major shifts have to first take place in our educational institutions, government policies and commercial firms in order for such an innovation-enabling culture to come about. But what is systematic innovation? More conversation and thought is required to arrive at a shared understanding of this question.
The one thing that Indiaâ€™s innovation theorists have not said is that the absence of a culture of innovation is intrinsically linked to many of the most intractable problems facing India as a nation. These include poor delivery of government services, inadequate systems of personal identification and the absence of widely available financial services for rural poor, health and sanitation failures. This list can go on. Cumulatively, the inability of India as a nation, society and economy to adequately provide for its own population no longer reflects a failure of implementation, but rather of innovation, for there are not immediately-available off-the-shelf solutions that would make it possible for these grand challenges facing India to be redressed.
Rather, these intractable problems need now to be looked at from the more sophisticated and empowering lens of innovation, for them to begin to be solved. This, to a great extent, forms the basis of our up-coming Conclave in Bangalore.