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What is Innovation for India

(disclaimer: A piece from 2018. Lots of unsubstantiated claims and I don't agree with quite a few of these anymore and many of these points I can articulate much better now)


The time for late capitalism and imperialist ideas of innovation are over. I propose that the definition of innovation be changed to include “inclusivity” as a primary criteria. Inclusivity is important in the Indian context because of the diverse labor-intensive market that is somewhat unique to India. While pre-independence we focused on majority population, we have forgotten that all the 1%, 2% communities represent a huge number when combined. They can become the driving forces of a new growth push for India. This is locked potential that could position India to be the frontrunners of innovation. But due to many different priorities, agendas and other constraints, we have not been able or willing, as a nation, to do anything about this. Government policies that encourage the entrepreneurial spirit are met with the general lack of skill among the youth. This is a grave problem for a country which has nearly half its population under 25. This has been compounded by the lack of power connections to many villages and the concentration of telephone infrastructure within the urban populace. This has set up a system where even the sporadic seeds of innovation that have cropped up in many sectors, find it very difficult to scale.

Inclusive design: Boon and Bane

Inclusive innovation needs to include the excluded. This has historically rarely been the case, with dominant path innovation setting gateways for the marginalized to get on board. Alibaba started its delivery to rural areas using an ad-hoc post office mechanism that uniquely worked for the rural areas. This might, however, not be the most efficient approach because of its top down centralized design but it is important to raising the standards of living for the marginalized. This rise in per capita income would definitely be accompanied with rising trend in consumption.

What is the slippery slope here

Reverse innovation necessitates the need for flexible education, democratic access to information and a privately-monitored funding for grassroots innovation. If we want to scale up as many frugal innovations as possible, the easiest path is to go through the already established resources of the private sector. While ideologically, it serves a problem because of the ways capitalism has time and again shown its imperialist fangs; practically, it makes most sense to appeal to their capitalist tendencies more than their altruism to get things done. This has always been THE slippery slope to climb when working within a flawed system. Another interesting insight that I found was the stats related to the Indian diaspora. They account for only 2% of the population but they earn the equivalent of nearly 66% of Indian GDP. Other than the corporate pathway to secure early-stage funding, this would be an interesting aspect to look at to sponsor the grassroots level growth of innovation.

Refusing to adopt

Even while technology looks like the only way forward in this direction, it has historically always excluded either people or traditions or historical contexts. This doesn’t have to be the case, we have an opportunity to instill in the rural populace the Amish mindset toward technology while also making it readily available to them. Even then, there are many pitfalls to the addition of the rural areas to the global marketplaces.

Implications of Tech-saviourism and globalism

Not the least of these would be the possibility of them falling prey to fore-mentioned imperialistic capitalism. Technology and growth must not substitute the liquor that we used to subjugate the tribal populace of this country. This is where a system thinking mindset comes into place, which envisions the future, warts, diseases, deaths and all. Understanding that every action will have domino effects that echo for centuries and designing solutions that are in line with our vision, bottom up and sustainable has thus been the need of the hour to climb THE slippery slope.

Really bad metaphor for being sensitive to the context

Innovation has always seemed like a vague concept to me because of the plethora of contexts that it is used in. Even the first definition that I came across, “a new idea, device or method”, didn’t make complete sense to me. What helped here was the distinction between embodied and disembodied innovation. How embodied innovation had a physical device attached to the end of it, and how organizational innovation created a new conversation or implemented new ideas at a systemic level. The authors call for the disorganized frugal innovation sector to come together toward a vision. A systemic level intervention that uses organized frugal thinking to deploy reverse innovation or innovating down.

The organization of the disorganized takes time. For a country that has not even begun to see the possible benefits of system-level thinking and transitional design, innovation after the due-diligence is fine. A feet-first dive gave us boon+bane of plastics in the first place. Innovation is ideally and most often incremental. As humanity develops its tree of knowledge further and further from the root, the more resources it takes to synthesize one level and move to the next. This may result in some (or lot) of hubris and that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, systematic chaos is what defines us as a nation.