Various government programmes that focus on innovation, and the use of traditional knowledge, are ways in which India can compete with entrenched Asian players like China and Singapore
In the recent past, the Indian government has called for initiatives in several areas that impinge on innovation: #MakeInIndia most obviously, but also #DigitalIndia and even #SkillIndia. Digital India should help make many things in India easier and more transparent, including typical interactions with the government. A good example is the electronic reservation system for the railways, which has led to an easier and more reliable system that eases the travel process for many people. It is also the largest e-commerce system in India in terms of numbers of users.
There are, of course, certain downsides to going digital: cyber-security is one major concern. But it also opens up an entire new market for Indian innovators to produce full solutions (hardware and software) to enable naive or first-time users to transact business on the Internet securely.
In Skill India, the right path would be to provide job-oriented vocational training, thus creating many skilled employees who could populate the manufacturing facilities that are currently in the process of being built to make automobiles, cellphones and other devices for the Indian middle classes. However, there must also be a plan to include entrepreneurship skills as part of this package, for invention, entrepreneurship and innovation all go hand in hand.
I think there should also be a national programme for innovation in energy. Energy is a crucial building block for growth. It is abundantly clear that there are limits to hydrocarbon-fueled growth, which is unsustainable and expensive for India. And the benefits of freely available energy are wide-ranging. The late Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, when asked what the most important innovation of the 20th century was, surprised the questioner by saying: “Air conditioning”. He explained that it had made it possible for people in his sweltering tropical country to work in comfort, and thus with higher productivity..
Similarly, the availability of inexpensive energy—and I think it would be from solar, rather than coal or nuclear that India’s energy bonanza has to come—will make it possible for Indians to do many things, including desalinate seawater for thirsty coastal areas, improve the transportation network, remove the need for industry to maintain expensive reserve power, and so on.
There are opportunities for small-scale innovation in consumer-oriented energy products and services, such as roof-top solar photovoltaics or small wind turbines, or smart energy systems leading to grid-neutral homes and small commercial establishments.
However, nuclear may not the right way to go, because of the lack of energy security (India’s uranium reserves are few, although there are report of a new find in the Srisailam forests) and physical security (accidents and terrorism may lead to large death tolls). However, for fast breeder reactors, we do have some of the largest deposits of thorium in the world. Yet, I find it hard to get excited about this technology because it has remained a dream: an invention that has yet to become an innovation.
On the one hand, the technology is not yet ready. On the other hand, there has to be a business case as well as a technical solution. Industries tend to become hide-bound, and the incumbents make it hard for insurgents to enter by erecting barriers to entry. One example is the automobile industry, where the internal combustion engine and its supply chain of component makers, network of petrol stations, and so on, are so well-entrenched that it’s difficult for a new technology, like electric cars, to gain market share.
Besides, technical excellence is no guarantee of business success. I had an Indian neighbour in California years ago, who had invented a superior internal combustion engine. It worked, and he had acquired international patents in the US, Europe and Japan by spending $150,000 of his own money. However, despite his expectations, no manufacturer licensed his technology because it would disrupt their supply chain and operations; as far as I know, he made no returns on his efforts and expense.
The Traditional Knowledge System Strikes Back
In a striking example of the attempted appropriation of valuable traditional knowledge, and how to combat it, Colgate-Palmolive, an American consumer goods company, has withdrawn a patent application it filed with the European Patent Office for a mouthwash based on herbs and spices including cinnamon, camphor, turmeric and neem (“India blocks Colgate patents for spices”, Deccan Herald, 19 July). It was based on the fact that these medicinal properties are traditional knowledge.
The CSIR’s Innovation Protection Unit which keeps an eye on patents filed worldwide used the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) which has the contents of hundreds of books on Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and related Indian systems of medicine and is a principal source for “prior art”. There will be further examples in the future of such attempts to appropriate and monopolize Indian knowledge.
In another example of traditional knowledge systems (TKS), someone I know is attempting to preserve one of the precise oral traditions of learning the Rg Veda. This mechanism is dying out because of lack of practitioners, but by documenting it, he hopes to retain its as-yet unknown benefits for modern times. It is possible that such Traditional Expressions of Culture will also become part of the TKDL.
One of the ways in which we can all participate in the preservation of traditional knowledge is by digitizing palm-leaf manuscripts we come across before they crumble into dust or are eaten by insects: many of us have them in our attics. Another is to help crowdfund initiatives such as the Rg Veda one. If you wish to donate a small amount to help the upkeep of this Sanskrit tradition, please write to email@example.com .
How To Play The Regional Race
There is a race in Asia to dominate the next phase of innovation. India has to compete with the efforts of Singapore and China. In a recent article “Many spokes to its hub” on Singapore, The Economist points out that it has identified five priorities for future growth clusters: advanced manufacturing, aerospace and logistics; applied health sciences; smart urban solutions; and financial services.
Singapore has a fairly good record in process and manufacturing innovation, as the article points out, steadily moving up the value chain in hard disk manufacturing, and currently holding a large global market share. It is also attempting to market itself as an incubator of product businesses, along the lines of others such as Berlin and Silicon Valley. A good example is the former factory named Block 71 where an incubator seems to be chock-full of startups.
Singapore, of course, offers excellent infrastructure, great universities, an affluent populace, a superlative quality of life, and substantial government support through R&D grants (so long as IPR is registered in the country, even if the company is owned by a foreigner). These do give it a leg up on any competitor.
Similarly, China has managed to move itself up the value chain by focusing on manufacturing innovation. Another article in The Economist, “Calibrating Chinese creativity”, quotes the McKinsey Global Institute, the think tank of the management consultancy, to say that they now lead in improving consumer products and in finding the right business models to sell these to consumers. There are also interesting questions about how well the Chinese State is guiding the companies in the right directions.
This is the competition, and it is tough, partly because of India’s relatively poor R&D investment, poorly developed venture financing, and the parlous state of infrastructure. Nevertheless, there is hope. IIM Bangalore’s NSR Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning is helping a number of innovative startups get off the ground, and succeeding partly because Bangalore has created a mindset that innovation and entrepreneurship are good things.
I have been to Startup Village in Kochi and the Technology Business Incubator in Thiruvananthapuram. Kerala is not known to be a hotbed of innovation in technology, or to be business-friendly, but there are valiant efforts in both places to make youngsters move away from seeking employment and to innovate.
I also had a brief conversation with Professor Anil Gupta of IIM Ahmedabad, who is famous for his efforts to bring grassroots innovation to the limelight and his work with the Honeybee Network and SRISTI. There is a significant difference between TKS and grassroots innovation: the latter are newly generated, and typically can lead to IPR claims, whereas most traditional knowledge is not patentable. He suggested the site www.nif.org.in, of the National Innovation Foundation, which showcases grassroots innovation: appropriate technology, which often needs marketing and productization.
Both traditional knowledge and grassroots innovation may be helpful weapons for India in its efforts to compete.
There is much innovation going on in India that is under the radar, and which is not necessarily jugaad. But given the charms of China and Singapore, not to mention South Korea and Japan, we definitely have a long way to go in taking them on to become superpower in the field of innovation.
Rajeev Srinivasan has worked for innovative companies such as Bell Labs, Siemens and Sun Microsystems in strategy and product management. He has taught innovation at several IIMs, and is a member of the Think Tank working on India’s national IP policy. He has been a conservative columnist for almost 20 years, and has degrees from IIT Madras and Stanford Business School.
This article was published in the August 2015 issue of Swarajya.
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