Monday, September 10, 2012

Grassroot or Corporate Innovation?: Which is the Way to Go?

“Grassroot innovators” – innovators primarily from rural India, unlettered in a formal sense, but highly practical in solving their own problems – have been in the spotlight in recent years thanks to the untiring efforts of Anil Gupta, a professor at IIM Ahmedabad. Anilji’s quest to identify and document such innovations goes back to the late 1980s when the Honey Bee network was formed. Over a decade later, this movement got government support with the creation of the National Innovation Foundation and gathered further momentum during the tenure of Dr. Kalam as President of India (2002-2007) and of Dr. Mashelkar as DG, CSIR. Dr. Kalam started the tradition of providing the inspiring environs of Rashtrapati Bhavan to felicitate outstanding grassroot innovators, and this practice has sustained since then. India’s support for grassroot innovations has now been emulated by several other countries.

Challenges in Commercializing Grassroot Innovations

One of the challenges Anilji and others working in the grassroots innovation movement have faced is how to go beyond identification, documentation, and recognition of the innovations and their creators. Many of the innovations would appear to have great practical significance, and be of utility to others facing similar problems. In other words, they have the potential to be scaled up, and become the core of successful businesses.

The NIF and network organizations created by Anilji and his colleagues have taken several steps towards commercialization. Grassroot innovators who have the interest and potential to take their inventions forward have been nominated for government support under the Technopreneur Promotion Programme (TePP). The NIF has worked with the innovators to obtain patent protection wherever possible as a precursor to licensing the inventions to others. To enhance the effectiveness of the inventions, remove any rough edges, and supplement the technology where needed, formal scientific institutions such as the CSIR laboratories have been sought out as partners. Engineering students have been encouraged to work with and on these grassroot inventions with a similar objective. Laboratories have been set up within the NIF’s broader network to facilitate testing and standardization. And, corporate partners have been sought to take the products of grassroot innovators to the market. Big Bazaar is one of the prominent corporate partners working with the NIF, and some products are already being sold in Big Bazaar stores in Ahmedabad.

While all these efforts have yielded some results, my impression is that they have fallen short of what was expected. It’s been particularly difficult to get the formal and informal systems to work together on a sustained basis. That’s not surprising as I imagine they don’t even speak the same language.

Should we be worried?

Personally, I don’t think this is a big cause for concern. As I wrote in From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation, creating a supportive social environment for innovation in India should be an important part of our innovation agenda. Respecting inventors contributes positively to the creation of a society where innovation is valued, and in this respect the NIF’s efforts so far are unparalleled in creating a conducive environment for innovation in our country.

But there is some tension between the formal and informal systems. Many in our formal institutions (companies, national laboratories, etc.) wonder whether grassroot innovations will ever be able to make a major impact. The grassroot innovators (and their supporters) believe that only they have a genuine understanding of local problems, and that the corporate sector is only interested in making money at the cost of the consumer. In their perspective, corporate innovations are over-engineered and contain unnecessary features that are not required by most users.

Relationship to the BoP Debate

This tension is reflected in one of the longstanding debates in the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid (BoP) paradigm. When the first articles on BoP appeared about a decade ago, one of the major criticisms against it (e.g. by Karnani) was that it saw the poor only as consumers, as markets to be targeted by large corporations. Why shouldn’t people at the Bottom of the Pyramid be partners/producers in the process rather than merely consumers?

This thinking became stronger as large corporations struggled to develop products and services that could meet the needs of people at the BoP and make money at the same time. BoP pioneers such as Stuart Hart who had worked closely with companies came to believe that the old “Structural Innovation Paradigm” would have to be replaced by an “Embedded Innovation Paradigm” in which local communities co-created products with companies (Simanis & Hart, 2009).

At the heart of this debate, is an issue that Simanis & Hart point out was raised in Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation. While the industrial revolution used mechanization to enable mass production and thereby raise productivity, efficiency, and access to goods and services, the ensuing marketization process resulted in economic life getting “disembedded from society.”

Seen from this historical perspective, grassroot innovators who solve their own problems in a local milieu seem to have more in common with a pre-industrial paradigm than a contemporary post-industrial world.


There are counter-forces to this argument. One is the broad movement towards the democratization of innovation, and the increasing diffusion of open innovation. Another is the importance of lead user insights so vivdly captured by von Hippel and others.

One dimension of the grassroot-corporate divide also arises because of the great heterogeneity of education levels across our country. Better educated individual inventors don’t shy away from treading the entrepreneurial path, raising external capital if necessary. These inventors tend to be seen as closer to the corporate side of the innovation spectrum than the grassroot side.


But if there is one thing that the innovation literature agrees on, it is that diversity helps innovation. We must therefore do all we can to support innovation in different settings and by different people. And, we should not take a mechanistic view of innovation by seeing scaling up of grassroot innovations as the only way to demonstrate their success. Ideas build on other ideas, and with enough interaction between ideas of all types, we should see the ideas of grassroot innovators being used, but perhaps in very different ways than the innovators themselves first intended. Rather than thinking of the question as “grassroot innovation or corporate innovation,” may a thousand flowers bloom.


  1. Agree ! Creativity and innovation are by themselves positive thoughts and acts for people, society and a nation.

  2. Great post Prof. Krishnan! Looking forward to your next book.

    Anuj Gupta