Can You Innovate That Which Can’t Be Formally Proven? 

Can You Innovate That Which Can’t Be Formally Proven? Netexplo (
  • Can innovation be born out of, and be furthered by intuition, rather than just Cartesian logic?

For the last several years, I have been an academic advisor to Netexplo, a Paris-based affiliate of UNESCO that conducts a survey of digital innovations around the world, using its network of universities to identify innovation trends that seem to manifest themselves year after year. They emphasise that the trends are based on the 2,000 or so ideas that the students locate every year, and many of these trends will fail to realise their full potential: it is not a forecast at all.

They identify 10 finalists from the candidates spotted, and they are invited, along with the advisory board and a large number of executives from European companies, to the award ceremony where they are felicitated and the Grand Prix winner is selected by the audience. This year, there were two finalists from India (the most from any one country): the digital initiative India Stack, and the AI-based healthcare startup

I was an interlocutor onstage with India Stack, and I am happy to mention that it was my students at IIM Bangalore who spotted Unfortunately, the Grand Prix didn’t go to either of them, although both made a good impression, and stood a healthy chance of winning. Nikhil Kumar with India Stack and Pooja Rao (the only woman entrepreneur among the finalists) of presented themselves well. Maybe #StartupIndia is beginning to have an impact, after all. We can only hope.

There was also a session on Digital India in the programme, with a speech delivered by Shashi Tharoor, MP, which highlighted the strategic intent in leapfrogging current systems and delivering an advanced twenty-first century digital architecture to citizens and government.

The Netexplo criteria for the winning ideas include novelty as well as social value from an innovation, and they have a good track of identifying interesting ideas in the past, ranging from Twitter to Aadhaar to Layar to WordLens.

This year’s finalists were:

  • Dexmo
  • Premonition
  • India Stack
  • Sixgill
  • 3d printed Dog Nose
  • The Next Rembrandt
  • Abalobi
  • Bitnation RER

Dexmo has built an exoskeleton/glove for virtual reality, so that you can actually feel virtual objects. (China) uses the corpus of existing medical knowledge and machine learning to give you personal diagnostics as a preliminary to streaming patients to the right doctors. I personally found it helpful in diagnosing a cough and sore throat I was suffering from. (UK)

Premonition is a project from Microsoft and some universities to identify different species of viruses borne by mosquitos using a drone to capture, and machine learning and data analytics to track disease-bearing agents that might lead to epidemics. (US)

Qure.Ai uses machine learning and AI to identify tumours and rank them by severity, based on inputs from a variety of sources including X-rays, MRI scans, biopsies and other tests. (India)

India Stack extends Aadhaar (a prize winner here in 2011) to create a presence-free, paper-free, cash-free secure authentication and payment mechanism as well as a consent architecture to release your data to third parties if you wish; includes e-KYC, e-sign, UPI, and Digilocker. (India)

Sixgill - an application for probing the “dark web” to identify and predict patterns of criminal activity. It does continuous mass surveillance of the dark web to try and spot criminal activity, hacks or leaks before they occur. (Israel)

3d printed Dog Nose. A physical device that mimics the bio-mechanical process used by dogs to sniff and gain the ability to identify even minute quantities of a material, useful for locating explosives, quarantined plant material, and even cancer based on smells. (US)

The Next Rembrandt. By deeply analysing the patterns in the portraits of Rembrandt, the software can produce original works that mimic the style, technique and subjects of the master. (Netherlands)

Abalobi is an app that helps small fishermen use their traditional knowledge to do sustainable fishery without devastating the stock, and also helps them maintain records of the catch, costs, dates, locations etc. as a way of building up a permanent database. (South Africa)

BitNation RER has created, using blockchains, a mechanism whereby refugees who lack identity papers can be given an official identity in the virtual “BitNation”, and can also be provided with bitcoin-based prepaid charge cards. (Sweden)

The Grand Prix, voted on by all attendees (about 1,500 of them) in the UNESCO headquarters auditorium, went to BitNation RER, although several others may well be success stories in the future. The preponderance of Artificial Intelligence was a notable feature among the winners this time.

In addition to the winners’ own presentations, Netexplo features a “trend analysis” every year, presented by Julian Levy of HEC, Paris. It is an interesting exploration of the trends that seem to be evident in the various entities spotted: they are mostly from start-ups, but not all. Some are universities, non-profits, research labs, and so forth, but they are all new (2015-2016) and novel. About 35 per cent came from North America, 27 per cent from Europe, and 25 per cent from Asia. There are several faculty members from Asia directing the spotting: Shanghai, Singapore, Delhi and Bangalore.

The trends identified by Julien Levy were as follows:

  1. The body: measure, diagnose, monitor and augment
  2. Reality: explore, measure, analyse, predict
  3. Society: protect and monitor
  4. Economy: leveraging tech and shifted by tech
  5. Man-machine interaction: from ergonomics to immersion

There were several identified innovations that fell into each of these categories, and they ranged all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous, but one of the recurring themes was the tendency towards data: “science’s role involves quantifying the world”, according to Levy. He quoted the physicist Max Planck, who said that “only that which can be measured is real”. Levy also suggested that there is a trend towards a new humanism, based on the principles of the European Renaissance.

Levy called this Humanism 2.0, and suggested that it is:

  1. A philosophy of progress based on positive thinking
  2. Political and economic individualism, with
  3. Technology as the overall solution to economic, social and environmental problems.

This philosophical angle was intriguing, since there is a Western way of thinking about science that doesn’t necessarily synchronise with the Eastern way of thinking about it. And sure enough, one of Levy’s slides was from the Bible, Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it; rule over (the animals)”. He mentioned in his presentation the conversation that he and I had had about how we in the East do not see it that way at all. But Rene Descartes was quoted by Levy as saying:

“These scientific notions of mine showed me that we can get knowledge that would be very useful in life… we might find a practical philosophy through which knowing the power and the actions… and all the other bodies in our environment…, we could put these bodies to use in all the appropriate ways, and thus make ourselves the masters and owners of nature” Discourse on Method, 1637.

Since Cartesian logic permeates Western thought, for instance in the idea that the division of a system into its smaller and smaller parts would be sufficient to understand it in totality (while ignoring any emergent behaviour), this could be seen as a serious flaw in Western science: it is influenced by religious axioms for which there isn’t — and indeed, there cannot be — any proof. And therefore it couldn’t possibly be universal, although it is a Western vanity that it is.

Thus, in the long run, there is a question about the path towards innovation that India needs to take. Even the idea that data and also formal proof are necessary for truth, may well be a fallacy. The role of intuition and insight is downplayed in the West, and that is its own loss. That does not need to be the case with Easterners, especially Indians, who are the descendants of great seers.

All of us deal with nature in the absence of formal proof: for instance, almost all the software that we use on a daily basis is not proven (it would be impossible to do it because of the effort required), but that doesn’t prevent it from working well enough. Srinivasa Ramanujam too came up with his extraordinary equations without necessarily seeing the need for formal proof.

Innovation in India needs to get away from the Western straitjacket. Exactly how it will do so is not clear at the moment.

Image credits:

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.


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