Saturday, August 24, 2013

India Needs More Science Museums: Reflections on a Recent Visit to Hong Kong Science Museum

On a day made grey by the retreating presence of Typhoon Utor, we recently headed to the Hong Kong Science Museum (HKSM). En route, we crossed the majestic sight of Victoria Harbour, and the crowded streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. With its glittering shops and bustling commerce, a science museum seemed somewhat incongruous in Hong Kong, and we were therefore curious to see what happened there.

As we entered the museum, we realized that it is a popular place. There was a loud buzz of young voices and kids milling everywhere. Any doubts we might have had about the relevance of museums in the internet era were dispelled as we saw the excitement there. It wasn’t much different from what I recall from visiting Bengaluru’s own Visveswaraya Museum as a young student many many years ago.

Practical and Contemporary

HKSM is an intriguing mix of high science and very practical stuff. Reflecting Chinese pragmatism, many of the exhibits are closely related to contemporary life. These give a powerful message of how science and technology are intertwined with our daily routine.

Pork is a mainstay of the Chinese diet. HKSM features a set of exhibits on pigs –their different parts, what they are called, how they get converted into different food products, how they contribute to nutrition, and to other uses as well! The exhibits also have some interesting statistics on the millions of pigs consumed in Hong Kong itself every year, and how a large percentage of these are imported from mainland China.

There is a section focused on energy use in the domestic context.  Exhibits give visitors a chance to see which appliances and applications consume the most electricity. The differences between different forms of lighting appear particularly stark. A similar theme is heating, and how different types of heating are energy efficient to varying degrees (e.g. induction heating vs. conventional heating). Mock-ups of different rooms in the house allow visitors to see how much energy is consumed in each.

Reflecting sustainability concerns, there is a section on trash and the re-cycling potential of different forms of trash. Some really interesting questions are on the typical composition of trash, which was the material to be re-cycled first (aluminium), which materials can be re-cycled indefinitely (glass), etc.

There is a section on how different home appliances work. This section includes simple workings as that of the toaster, and more complex ones such as the microwave oven, vacuum cleaner, and washing machine. Each exhibit shows the appliance, what it looks like inside, and the principles behind its working.

Another important section is one on occupational health and safety. This section covers the dos and don’ts in erecting a crane, managing a construction site, etc. I thought the theme is very relevant even if the scope of this section is somewhat limited. (This could be a very valuable section for people in India where we often display inadequate concern to occupational safety issues!).

Considering how different forms of communication have become integral to our daily lives, it was good to see a whole section devoted to telecommunications.  This includes details of how mobile communication systems work (including a nice practice demonstration of how a call is handed over from one cell tower to another), different forms of transmission  such as TDMA, FDMA, etc.

More Conventional Science Museum Exhibits

HKSM has more conventional sections as well. A well-designed section on optics features captivating images created through mirrors and lenses with explanations of how these images are created.
One of the most conspicuous exhibits is a huge and noisy apparatus near the entrance that is operated just a few times each day to show the different types of energy and how they can be converted from one form to another.

Electricity and magnetism is an enduring favourite for it allows some impactful demonstrations of turbines, generators, etc. Automotive and aircraft are well-represented too – highlights include a Mercedes Benz engine and Cathay Pacific Airline’s first aircraft (a Dakota), etc.

It was good to see that HKSM has exhibits professionally designed by companies who make museum equipment as well as practical devices designed by the students of local universities. For example, an apparatus that demonstrates the different features of waves has been made by Mechanical Engineering students of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A good museum therefore provides important collaboration and learning opportunities for institutes of higher learning as well.

Overall Experience

I liked the way different types of exhibits and sections are mixed up, with more theoretical and informative ones interspersed with the interactive and practical. Of course, HKSM is not free of the challenge of keeping exhibits in working condition – some of the exhibits were not accessible because they needed repair. Somewhat inexplicably, a whole section on nuclear power was closed.

Biology and agriculture are clearly under-represented in the museum. An exception is the large section on soyabean, presented as a  “wonder of China” with impressive statistics on harvests and productivity, but this doesn’t make up for the absence of important fields such as genetics and molecular biology.

When we visited HKSM, there was a stunning exhibition of award-winning wildlife photography in the basement. I am still not sure how exactly this fits in with a science museum, but the photographs were so impressive that I guess no one is complaining. (One photo of two young tigers near a water body at Bandhavgarh National Park was very reminiscent of a scene we saw when we visited the part a couple of years ago).


A few decades ago (in the 1980s?), there was an effort to start science museums and planetariums across India. If I recall correctly, there was even a unit in the Department of Science and Technology to spearhead this effort. But it’s clear that the creation of museums has not kept pace with the growing population.

Though there is a lot that can be done on the internet, the excitement of seeing a working model before your eyes that you can touch and feel is important to spur innovation. Science museums can serve this purpose well. A strong network of science museums would go a long way to supplement the important work that organizations like the Agastya Foundation are doing to spread science education.

Supporting thematic science museums could be a powerful CSR initiative for our leading companies. Why can’t our IT companies contribute to the creation of museums related to the fields in which they work? 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bhagwati and Panagariya miss out on scope of innovation to address social challenges

A couple of weeks ago, I lauded the new book by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen for its clear identification of a challenge book for India. I just finished reading the recent book by their “competitors,” Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, titled India’s Tryst with Destiny: Debunking myths that undermine progress and addressing new challenges. To be chronologically correct, I should have read them in the reverse order, but I don’t think it made much of a difference from a content perspective!

Bhagwati & Panagariya Have Strong Views….

As has been written extensively in the press, Bhagwati and Panagariya are emphatic that India’s number one priority should be making all possible efforts to sustain economic growth. They argue that India’s poor has benefited from sustained economic growth, and provide evidence that this holds true even for people from socially and economically disadvantaged groups. Though India has, thanks to the growth in the last two decades,  more money to spend on the provision of social (health, education) services, they point out that we lack sufficient resources to provide the kind of welfare services that the UPA (more specifically, the NAC) wishes to. Even if we are to do much more for the poor, Bhagwati and Panagariya are completely against the government playing the role of provider. Instead, they prefer that the poor be assisted through cash transfers (for food security), insurance mechanisms (for health), and vouchers (for school education) on the grounds that these will be better aligned with market mechanisms, involve less corruption, and achieve better results.

A few things struck me while reading this book. One is the aggressive tone of the authors, combined with a knowledgeable air that suggests that these issues are so obvious that anyone who thinks otherwise must be living in a world of delusion. They are almost disrespectful to Dreze and Sen when they refer to arguments that the latter have made in the past which conflict with their own. This aggressive tone is related to the second feature of this book: a strong conservative ideological slant – small government, minimum regulation, and worship of the market. A combination of one and two results in their unapologetic air about the growing incidence of billionaires in India. Here, they unfortunately fail to differentiate between those who made their billions from knowledge-based companies, and those who did so thanks to privileged access to scarce resources.

I was surprised to find their endorsement of some unsustainable distortions in the education system. One of their findings is that private, unrecognized schools provide better education than government schools, even though the teachers in the former are paid several times less than the latter, because of better supervision and oversight. But, from all reports, teachers in such private schools are under-paid and over-exploited, and the schools themselves have poor infrastructure including no playing or recreational space. This may be an economically “efficient” solution, but surely it can’t be the basis for building a modern productive workforce.

It must be obvious by now that I liked the Dreze-Sen book better! For one, it has a scholarly and more even-handed tone. Dreze & Sen don’t dismiss growth (as Bhagwati and Panagariya might lead you to believe), they just suggest that it’s a real shame that a country with our resources can’t do better for its citizens. Dreze and Sen provide a broader perspective of development (not surprising considering that’s Sen’s forte) while Bhagwati and Panagariya take a mechanistic view and look at people with the lens of the “economic man.” Perhaps Dreze and Sen are a tad more idealistic and romantic than Bhagwati and Panagariya, but surely a country with our history and potential needs to retain a dose of idealism. I liked Panagariya’s earlier book (India: The Emerging Giant, 2008) but this one has an impatient, “angry man” air about it that detracts from its core arguments.  

… But Neither Get the Importance of Technology & Innovation

As I wrote in my earlier post, a particularly attractive dimension of the Dreze-Sen book is their openness to different models, and a willingness to learn from “bright spots.” On the other hand, Bhagwati and Panagariya are dismissive of such bright spots that don’t fit in with their ideology. This suggests to me that Bhagwati and Panagariya are much less open to innovation and trying out new things. In fact, they take a very explicit classical economics view of capitalism and labour as the main inputs to the production function, taking us back to a time before Solow when technological change was no more than a residual explanation of growth. I am glad that our government takes a more modern view of change, and is explicitly trying to encourage innovation to solve social problems (Both the National Innovation Council and the India Inclusive Innovation Fund have this focus).

But, to be fair, neither Dreze & Sen nor Bhagwati & Panagariya appear to have understood the tremendous potential of technology to reform health and education. Their discussion about both assumes standard, people-intensive solutions for which issues of accountability and control are obviously important. But, as is increasingly clear (see my posts on Massively Open Online Courses [MOOCs ] and new models for inclusive healthcare), new models are emerging which may make their ideological differences less relevant.

Creative use of MOOCs could allow us to achieve higher quality teaching with a far lower number of teachers. The role of the teacher would also change from being the source of knowledge to being a facilitator of learning. Organizational issues related to who is the employer therefore become less important. Similarly, initiatives like Sughavazhvu Health care show that with the use of improved technology, and a stronger preventive healthcare orientation, it is possible for alternately trained personnel to take care of primary health care. Here again it doesn’t need to be a choice between poorly managed government-run public health centres (as Bhagwati and Panagariya would characterize them) and exploitative private doctors (as Dreze and Sen would call them).

Government’s role and priorities would be different under such alternate paradigms. In education, the role of government would shift to making available low-cost, high speed broadband internet connections to students along with a low-cost access device, and in providing financial support for the creation of high quality content in regional languages. In healthcare, the government’s role would be in re-establishing a focus on public health, setting standards for certification of medical health professionals who are not doctors and providing a communication backbone that would allow the low cost use of technology in primary health care.


In their eagerness to prove the superiority of their respective positions, leading economists are in danger of missing out on the power of innovation, the ability to bring fresh thinking to the solution of tough problems. Perhaps we need greater openness to new ideas, and a healthy pragmatism instead?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Applying "8 Steps to Innovation" Framework to Start-ups

How do start-ups innovate? How is the process they follow different from that of large companies? And, how relevant is the process we outlined in 8 Steps to them?

These are the questions Vijay Kumar Ivaturi, ex-CTO of Wipro, and master planner of CII’s 9th India Innovation Summit, posed to us when we proposed to hold a workshop on innovation for start-ups the day before the summit. And, in the spirit of experimentation that we believe is critical to successful innovation, we looked for answers to these questions in the workshop.

We decided to work intensively with around 10 companies rather than spread thin over many. But as part of our design, we asked them to register as teams, rather than as individuals.

 What we learnt from the workshop

We had a good spread of companies: medical devices, simulator for surgical procedures, tamper-proof labels, compliance systems for new healthcare regulations, online art sale, 3D games on the mobile, etc. The group had several older entrepreneurs. Though our sample is too small to draw any conclusions about the Bangalore ecosystem as a whole, I was enthused by both the range of ideas as well as the experience profile - these bode well for the future of the city where I live!

Our participants got the seeds of their ideas from diverse sources: a couple from needs unaddressed by their former employers, some from personal experience, and some from friends or family. But, except for one, all had stuck with their idea even though it had been refined and gone through multiple iterations.

All of them had tried to validate their ideas before starting their businesses by talking to experts, potential users and academics. They claimed to have used multiple modes including demos and prototypes to validate their ideas after starting.

The First Exercise

Yet, we soon learnt that there was plenty of scope for them to push validation harder. Right at the outset, we asked them to identify what they thought was the biggest challenge they faced at this juncture of their enterprise. We then took them through an exercise where they identified the assumptions related to need, technology, production and commercialization that underlie their businesses. They explored these assumptions and rated them on criticality, and extent to which they had been validated. Not surprisingly, they found that some of their most critical assumptions were not yet adequately validated. This made some of them re-think what was their topmost challenge!

Our experience from the workshop suggests that the identification of the assumptions underlying the business and continuous validation of these assumptions is the most promising area for the application of systematic innovation methods to start-ups. This reminds me of what Peter Drucker referred to this as the theory of the business and echoes the approach recommended by Eric Ries in the Lean Start-up.

The Second Exercise

We found support for the importance of finding champions as well, though here the most important champions are outside the start-up, typically lead users or regulators. The second exercise we did with the group was designed to help them reach out and influence such champions: it focused on how to design a powerful pitch. Here, we used the powerful SUCCES model developed by the Heath brothers, in their book Made to Stick. To make a pitch effective, they advocate keeping it simple, giving the twist of the unexpected to catch attention, giving concrete evidence or examples, enhancing credibility through endorsements or the "self-test", infusing the pitch with emotion, and making it sound like a story.

Interestingly, we found that many of the participants did follow some form of a formal review process, perhaps reflecting the maturity and prior corporate experience of our participants . We got the sense that these participants were not as unstructured and fluid as is our common notion of a start-up.

Conclusions: 8 Steps Framework and Start-ups

Given the size of a typical start-up, there is little need for a formal idea management system, and formal efforts to engender participation. Instead, the most important and relevant dimensions of our 8 Steps framework are those related to experimentation, going from proof of concept to incubation, and business model exploration. Start-ups would do well to include such approaches in their innovation process.

I felt that the start-ups we met (and others in general) would benefit by sharpening their ideas using the notion of the challenge book that we wrote about in chapter 2 of "8 Steps". Vigyanlabs, a company I wrote about earlier, illustrates the power of this approach that focuses on identifying pain, wave and waste to guide ideation. Vigyanlabs' patented solution addresses the high power wastage (pain, waste) by data centres (clearly a wave given the momentum with which IT is moving up the cloud).

By their very nature, start-ups work in a sandbox mode - all the entrepreneurs in our workshop were intensively engaged in making their enterprises successful. But, clearly, building the right partnerships was a valuable way of taking their ideas forward (10 out of 11 companies emphasized the importance of such partnerships). As we wrote in 8 Steps, such openness to collaboration can be a significant contributor to achieving impact from innovation.

Many of the start-ups see partnerships and validation as key steps in managing risk. We were pleasantly surprised to find 8 out of 11 companies keenly aware of the need to de-risk their businesses. Steps 7 and 8 thus seem quite relevant too.

Vinay and I hope to work more closely with start-ups in times to come!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Dreze and Sen Script a Challenge Book for India

I must confess that I might not have read An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions if it were not for the recent polarized debate on the front pages of India’s English print media. But, I am glad I did read it, for it focuses squarely on many of the challenges India faces today.

In 8 Steps to Innovation, Vinay Dabholkar and I emphasized the importance of focusing a firm’s innovation efforts on challenges that matter. To ensure this, we suggested that every firm compile and update what we called a “challenge book,” a set of problems that the firm needs to solve. The main virtue that I see in this new book by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen is that it applies similar thinking at the national level to build a contemporary challenge book for India.

Pain, Wave, and Waste

In our book, we suggested that pain, wave, and waste are three good starting points to capture these challenges.

Dreze and Sen use the available data on reading and writing skills, access to toilets and availability of health services to identify the pains of the hundreds of millions of Indian citizens who have an unacceptably low quality of life. The main question they ask is of what use is our impressive economic growth if we can’t ensure a minimum standard of living and dignity for all our citizens.

Amartya Sen has based a lot of his work on the importance of freedoms that allow people to develop and use capabilities. Human potential is wasted when our citizens lack the opportunity to develop the capabilities that would allow them to realize their potential.

A wave underlies much of their thinking, but they urge us to ride against this wave rather than go along with it. This is the predominant tendency for public discourse to be obsessed with the concerns of the middle class and the intelligentsia, and to equate the “aam aadmi” with the slightly less advantaged among a privileged class rather than the real “aam aadmi” who spends less than 40 Rupees a day. 

Bright Spots

Though Dreze and Sen focus on problems, they spend considerable space to point out that in our large and heterogeneous country we often have solutions as well. At least three states of India – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh – have been “bright spots” on a wide range of social indicators. As we pointed out in “8 Steps,” bright spots help identify ideas that are likely to work, and hence give us pointers as to how we can grease the path for innovation to happen. Bright spots also hold out hope that change is indeed possible.
But, for bright spots to be useful as role models for change, it is important that they are not outliers with totally different or fortuitous circumstances that can’t be replicated. Kerala was often seen as one such outlier thanks to several idiosyncratic features: the relative progressiveness of the Cochin and Travancore states that ruled the region before independence; the matrilineal traditions of certain parts of the state; and an economy driven by external remittances that has brought in money even though the state has not attracted much investment in industry and commerce.

In contrast, clearly, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh have the potential to inspire fresh thinking in the rest of the country. Tamil Nadu is a large state (I should have known this, but realized only after reading this book, that the state has a population of 70 million – that’s equivalent to the population of the Republic of Korea!) that started off very poor but today is #2 after Kerala on a whole range of social indicators. Himachal may be a small state but its location in north India shows that social progress does not have to be the monopoly of the south. Dreze and Sen also draw attention to a new emerging bright spot – Chhatisgarh - that has recently reformed its Public Distribution System with improved access for all its citizens. Give the diverse backgrounds and histories of these states, it’s difficult to anyone to say that no solutions exist around us.

The Source of Controversy

If you have read this post thus far, you are probably beginning to wonder why this book has raised so much controversy. Is it because of the discomfort felt by the Indian middle class when it is pointed out how self-centered we all are? Or is because of the inability of the Indian media to take criticism (Dreze and Sen accuse the media of neglecting the real “aam aadmi” in their quest for TRPs and advertising revenues)? While I am sure there is a bit of both, the lightning rod has been the nature of solutions preferred by Dreze and Sen.
Dreze and Sen point out that in most parts of the world the State plays an important role in providing basic services to the people. They are skeptical about the efficacy of market-based solutions to provide basic needs. They are most vehement about this in the context of health care where they argue that private insurance based solutions tend to result in very expensive care and inadequate coverage. They are similarly skeptical about cash vouchers for education, and direct cash transfers in lieu of the Public Distribution System. They provide some evidence to show that these market-based solutions work well for supplementary services once the basics are in place, but not for providing a base level of support.

While Dreze and Sen identify the need for greater accountability and better governance fairly early in the book, they are somewhat idealistic about how this will come about. This is a weakness of the book, for clearly reliable provision of basic services by the State will happen only when the State is more effective. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Himachal and Chhatisgarh may provide inspiration, but achieving better governance across other states seems a far cry today.

In the end…

I found the book an engaging read. A major plus point of the book is the very informative tables and statistics. I found some of the statistics mind-boggling – e.g.  the hold of the upper castes over almost all important institutions in the city of Allahabad, and the abysmal literacy levels among dalits in India in the 1901 census (0% in most provinces).

But more than anything else, this book puts a spotlight on the biggest problems India faces today. Thus it is an excellent guide for any sensitive citizen of our country who wishes to contribute to the nation.