Thursday, December 17, 2009

Innovation In India

This NYT story by Vikas Bajaj on anxiety over the slow pace of innovation in India covers all the usual suspects - bureaucracy, corruption, years of stifling central planning, restrictive import tariffs, emphasis rote learning when it comes to eduction and general risk aversion. With all of that innovation is reduced to mere "jugaad" - the formal term is probably "denial driven innovation".

One contributing factor the author neglects to mention is that desis are blessed with high degree of tolerance and the natural ability to accept status quo as karma for the most part. We are not a people given to shaking things up as a matter of course, indeed a lot of us have never had a pressing need to do so.

Innovation and entrepreneurship in India is probably the highest among those communities who experienced upheaval at the time of India gaining Independence. They came in through the western border and fanned around, rooting where conditions were most hospitable. Many left Indian shores to seek their fortunes abroad. These communities  continue to be among the wealthiest and possessed of the greatest spirit of enterprise.

Perhaps they always had the wherewithal to do all of the things they did but adversity became the impetus that pushed them to an entirely different level of resourcefulness. On the east of the border, where families were uprooted from Bangladesh and headed to Kolkata and its vicinities, the story unfolded quite differently for a variety of reasons but that is a whole different topic of discussion.

For the vast majority of educated, middle class Indians, the would be innovators of this century, there has been little need to stick out their necks and take big risks or try something drastically because their survival depended on it. As resources shrink rapidly, the burgeoning population will be forced out of its comfort zone whether they like it or not. To that end, the reliance of a variety of "jugaad" and engagement in multifarious "dhanda" will increasingly become a way of life. It is the knee jerk response ( and not always a harmful one) to the need to do more with less.

Innovation (disruptive and otherwise) will likely happen as a subsequent phase in this process of evolution. It would be unreasonable to expect a Silicon Valley style startup incubation ecosystem in Bangalore but that does not mean innovation will not happen in India - it will just be of a very different flavor and like the taste of "curry" it would take some getting used to specially for those in the Western world. Many examples of such enterprise abound already.

It is just as Iqbal Quadir puts it while discussing the use of mobile phones to transfer money in India and Philippines :

Thus, when technologies—no matter where or why they were invented—are applied to diverse contexts, they provide a foundation for previously undreamed-of permutations and combinations. 

The numbers turn phenomenally large when one talks about India. We have more than our fair share of problems but in each of them, the enterprise-minded would see opportunity when permuted and combined with technology.

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