India's Great Opportunity To Recreate Itself As An Innovation Nation

Sanjay Anandaram

Oct 15, 2023, 01:24 PM | Updated 01:24 PM IST

The Chandrayaan-3 propulsion module
The Chandrayaan-3 propulsion module

On 30 August, the first pictures from the Moon showcased not just the capabilities of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, but the country's capability to successfully improve on the Chandrayaan-2.

The success was the result of a 20-year journey of improvement.

If "innovations" are defined as the improving of something — either physical or intangible, and then designing, developing, and delivering the improvement in some physical form, how many innovations from India, from any field, would come to mind from the last 1,000 years? Last 500? 100? 50? 25?

Why is it so hard to name such innovations? Surely not because nothing needed to be improved upon.

Why is it that, in spite of its profound contributions to the world’s understanding and knowledge in areas ranging from mathematics to medicine to surgery to astronomy to metallurgy to philosophy, logic, and grammar, innovating to make something better, faster, cheaper for people and society has been absent?

Innovation is midwifed by the socio-cultural-economic ethos of a place. It isn’t specific to formal education, a class, a market, laws, ideology, capital, patent, or property rights, as historians of innovation like Dr Anton Howes have argued, though these are important ingredients.

It has been said that Silicon Valley is not a place but a mindset. It transcends the talent, the funds, the educational institutions, and the service providers. It is about learning, openness, collaborating, experimenting, improving, helping, mentoring, of paying it forward: a culture of innovation.

Tipu Sultan’s rockets, which caused mayhem among the British East India Company army in the eighteenth century, were improved upon by William Congreve and used later by the English against the Americans as Congreve rockets.

Why weren’t these rockets improved upon in India? Or, why weren’t the pioneering globally renowned Wootz carbon-steel alloys used in swords that led to Damascus steel and then, after European scientists got to work on it, contributed to the creation of the modern European metallurgical and arms industries, improved upon in India?

While the eleventh-century Yukti Kalpataru details ships and ship-building and Indian navies scored remarkable victories — for example, Marthanda Verma’s defeating the Dutch in 1741 — and Indian seafaring expeditions to South East Asia show the capabilities of Indian ships, these didn’t translate into a powerful naval presence, unlike in Europe, where naval power served commercial, deterrence, and offensive purposes.

The roller cotton gin from India — India was globally renowned for cotton — was substantially improved upon in the eighteenth century by Eli Whitney and others and it led to the United States becoming a cotton powerhouse.

Elsewhere too, though there were the odd polymath inventors and innovators like the ninth-century Persian Banu Musa brothers (Book of Ingenious Devices) or the eleventh-century Chinese Su Song, there was no culture of innovation that was established.

Why then did this mindset first emerge in Europe and not elsewhere? Why didn’t India, China, Japan, or anyone else develop this culture of innovation?

There were a series of unconnected, overlapping, and ultimately convergent social and cultural developments in Europe that led to the creation of the innovation mindset.

Natural Philosophy: The result of polymath philosophers and theologians like thirteenth-century Roger Bacon placing great emphasis on the study of nature and the gathering of facts before reaching conclusions.

His work was encouraged by his benefactor, Pope Clement IV, to have "writings and remedies for current conditions." This involved seeking evidence through experiments and observations rather than on intuition or revelation, being unafraid to fail and continuing to iterate.

Knowledge, therefore, began to be seen not as absolute but continuously evolving based on evidence.

Science without scientism, and separate from religion — this empiricism was at the root of the creation of natural philosophy, the study of nature and the physical universe: Sir Isaac Newton’s seminal 1687 book is titled the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

The addition of science to the traditional curricula in medieval institutions contributed too; for instance, Roger Bacon’s enablement of optics as a subject in universities ultimately led to the creation of spectacles.

Tools and Instruments: A natural and critical offshoot of engaging with the natural world is the creation of tools to help us better learn, experience, and analyse the world around us.

Our existence today is a result of the bewildering range of tools that surround us in every aspect of our lives. The fifteenth-century creation of the printing press by Gutenberg, credited with the onset of the modern “Information Revolution”, is an example of a tool.

Marketplace of Ideas: The dissemination, borrowing, and improving upon of ideas from all over.

The development of the steam engine, credited with starting off the Industrial Revolution, is especially illustrative of this aspect.

In 1606, Spaniard polymath Jeronimo Beaumont’s steam-powered water pump, used to drain inundated mines in Spain, was the result of a long line of unknown experimenters who had worked with steam to power fountains.

In 1690, Frenchman Denis Papin published a paper in the Acta Eruditorum, the first German scientific journal, which described how "considerable forces" could be obtained from steam to lift a weight, was the result of his work with Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s Law fame) at the Royal Society where his papers were presented.

Thomas Newcomen, in 1712, improved on Papin’s design and produced a working engine that could have repeatable actions. The Newcomen engine was manufactured and used across England and even in France for mining, furnaces, and cotton mills.

John Smeaton and James Pickard then further worked on this engine, obtaining a patent for his innovation. Innovating further, James Watt, in partnership with Mathew Boulton, increased the efficiency of the Newcomen engine and became celebrated.

As Newton said, "If I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." (This statement itself has been traced to the twelfth century.) A system developed that allowed the foundation of a marketplace of ideas for innovation and improvement to occur.

The important properties of a "marketplace of ideas" that are worth keeping in mind:

  • Innovations were led by citizens, individual intrepid resilient innovators who loved to tinker and improve things. Two bicycle mechanics created the first motor-powered plane!

  • There were funders available to fund risky ventures.

  • Innovations were accelerated through combinatorial means: For example, the study of optics to lenses and mirrors to spectacles to magnifying glasses to telescopes to microscopes, and so on.

The presence of an active culture of written documentation, presentation, and iteration was important for the marketplaces of ideas, and the innovations arising thereafter as an oral tradition alone would have found it impossible to conceptualise, design, develop, collaborate, and manufacture increasingly complex technological tools and instruments.

Zeitgeist: The dominant catalytic beliefs emerging from the socio-cultural environment of the times.

Any change is strongly resisted for fear of disrupting the extant order, identities, continuity, and harmony. Traditional hierarchical structures and orthodoxy inhibited experimentation, mobility of people and ideas, and creation and spread of knowledge and information.

Take the anatomical sciences, for example. While the techniques detailed in the sixth-century BCE work Sushruta Samhita are still used in rhinoplasty, additional surgical techniques requiring deeper understanding of the human body required cadaveric dissection that weren’t allowed.

European anatomical science and surgeries progressed when restrictions were removed by the thirteenth-century Roman Emperor Frederick II and "this initiative was a giant step towards revival of human dissection in the domain of anatomical sciences and towards the later part of the thirteenth century, the realization that human anatomy could only be taught by the dissection of human body resulted in its legalisation in several European countries between 1283 and 1365."

The kala pani proscription of medieval times is another case in point. Crossing the seas to visit foreign countries to learn, earn, study, document, and to add to the body of knowledge was an important practice seen in Europe from the Italian Marco Polo to the Russian Nikitin and da Gama from Portugal.

The Age of Exploration from around the fifteenth century onwards wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Institutions: The establishment of modern institutions such as the joint stock companies with investor shareholders, recognition of patents, setting up of societies such as the Royal Society in 1660 (the oldest scientific academy in the world) where scientific papers could be presented, debated, and commented upon, and the presence of contract laws played a very important role in encouraging and sustaining innovation.

James Watt set up a company for his innovation for the steam engine in the eighteenth century. Johannes Gutenberg had contracts with partners and financers for this invention: a record of a lawsuit involving him and his partners filed in 1455 (he lost!) is still available at the University of Gottingen.

Patents were used by kings to attract private capital to fund ventures based on unproven technology. They evolved from 1421, when the world’s first patent for an industrial invention was granted in Italy, to the 1623 Statute of Monopolies enacted by the UK Parliament that, while prohibiting most royal monopolies, specifically preserved the right to "grant patents for inventions of new manufactures for up to 14 years."

The Industrial Revolution was the result in no small part due to the involvement of private capital and institutions. Our Jagat Seths weren’t encouraged to undertake funding of innovation.

Worldview: The "wounded civilization" of India, as author V S Naipaul called it, withdrew into itself and adopted a defensive, insular stance after its experience with violent and destructive invasions by marauding Turko-Afghan armies, which, from the twelfth century onwards, destroyed renowned centres of learning (for example, Nalanda and Vikramshila) and discourse.

The rise and spread of the Bhakti movement during the medieval period was no coincidence: it focused on, apart from social reform, an individual’s personal devotion as the path to salvation.

The emphasis on Bhakti Yoga as distinct from Karma and Jnana Yoga was an important development. The destruction of indigenous learning and systems, the consequent loss of awareness and self esteem, and coloniality perpetuated under the British ensured that Indian innovations were few and far between.

Those innovations that took place were co-opted by the British. The Bose-Haque system for cataloguing criminal records and Radhanath Sikdar’s methods for calculating the height of Mount Everest are cases in point.

In China, the celebrated Chinese admiral Zheng He’s seafaring efforts didn’t gather momentum as the insular policies of the Ming and Qing dynasties eschewed involvement with foreigners, saw itself as the "Middle Kingdom," and, like India, conceded the Age of Exploration.

China, though never colonised like India, has not forgotten the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan.

Since 1979, after it "opened up," China has embraced science and technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, capital, and learnt from the West, improved upon and innovated, and become a global powerhouse today, as it develops socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Japan was an insular country during the entire medieval period under the shoguns. The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) saw Japan overthrow feudalism and actively engage with the world.

In 1871, a mission was sent to Western countries to learn and craft a template for the development of a modern Japan. Their conclusion was that “technological advances, a fruitful interweaving of trade and industry, and a hard-working populace” were crucial to catch up with the West in a few decades.

"The most startling discovery was how Christianity acted as a spiritual pillar holding up Western civilization. The mission members saw it as an ethical support and an encouragement to diligence.

"The resulting approach for the Japanese modernisation policy included Japanese spirit and Western learning, an approach that sought to capitalize on foreign technology without losing national identity.

"Other influential attitudes were “enrich the country, strengthen the military” and “increase production, promote industry” along Western lines with Shinto performing the same role as Christianity in the West."

In 1904-05, Japan defeated Russia, the first Asian country to defeat a modern European power, becoming one of the world’s leading powers by the First World War.

Even countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are recognising this as it reinvents itself as an artificial intelligence (AI) centre.

Their AI Minister, Omar Olama, said, “The only people in the world that banned it [the printing press] was the Arab Muslim empire— because of fear of the unknown. One decision led to the loss of every economic, scientific and cultural advancement."

So, What About India?

It is evident that the twenty-first century promises profound changes and unparalleled opportunity in the world. The lessons for India are clear from the preceding paragraphs.

India has always had the talent and market opportunity. There is a need for a pervasive culture of innovation across sectors, within government, across society, and by individuals.

It must encourage technology, commerce, and mobility of people and ideas with confidence and agility, without ceding India’s ethos.

The focus on artha followed by moksha, of physics followed by metaphysics, on karma and jnana alongside bhakti, of “yuga dharma," of adapting and adopting principles for changing times.

Modern laws, institutions, methods, and modes of funding are fast falling into place. A new generation of confident, aware, mobile, uninhibited, skilled, capable, and willing to “take on the world and win” Indians is rapidly emerging.

There has never been a better time for Indians to uniquely recreate India as a brand that epitomises riches, capacity, knowledge, and opportunity. This is one cultural battle India cannot afford to lose.

Sanjay Anandaram has over 30 years of experience as a member of India’s technology-entrepreneur-investment-innovation ecosystem. He is a keen observer of geopolitics especially as it relates to technology and is also the co-founder of NICEorg that aims to catalyze Indian cultural entrepreneurship

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