Saturday, November 23, 2013

How does India view invention, and how do we compare with the rest of the world?

In a recent issue, Time magazine had an interesting story on the “Spirit of Invention” that explored attitudes towards invention across “mature” (developed) and emerging (developing economies). The survey addressed middle class consumers, broad elites and business decision makers. India was one of the 17 countries surveyed.

Considering the number of path-breaking inventions that happened during the first part of the 20th century (antibiotics, transistors, jet engines, radar, lasers to name just a few), one thing I found surprising about this poll is that respondents across countries saw the post-1980s digital revolution as the most inventive period. The mobile phone and the internet seem to cast a big shadow over everything else, but I wonder how things will appear when people look back 100 years from now!

My interest in this story was to understand perceptions of invention in India, as this will help us understand the Indian environment for innovation better. Luckily, apart from the Time story, Qualcomm (the sponsor of the study) has also placed online more details of the data collected.

India and Invention

Drivers and Barriers

Emerging countries like India ranked a good higher education system (29% for India) as more important than “a society that values creativity and ingenuity over wealth and financial gain” (23%) as the most important factor to foster inventiveness. In contrast, the corresponding scores for the US were 22% and 31% respectively. This could reflect both a stage of evolution theme as well as widespread current dissatisfaction with higher education in India.

While consumers from most countries saw a poor education system or lack of protection for inventors’ rights as the biggest barrier to invention, Indian consumers chose political instability as the biggest barrier to invention. Looks like the 2014 elections are looming large on people’s minds as, by international standards, we have seen stable government for well over a decade!

Like the rest of the world, Indians think (by a ratio of almost 4:1) that invention is a much more collaborative process than it was in the past. By a similar ratio, they also believe that collaboration leads to better inventions. This seems strange to me because, on the ground, India appears to see much less collaboration happening than elsewhere. Or, perhaps, there is a “saying-doing” gap?

Overall, emerging country respondents (including those from India) gave more importance to the role of national governments in facilitating invention than did respondents from mature economies (typically 60% vs. 40%; India was a tad higher than other emerging countries at 70%).

Inventors: Born or Made?

43% of Indian respondents (the highest among all the countries surveyed) felt that genuine inventions are rare (“once in a lifetime”) as opposed to happening everywhere In general, emerging countries felt more like India, and differently from developed nations on this score. Korea seems to have completely embraced the invention buzz: 95% of Korean respondents felt that invention is happening everywhere!.

Belief in the democratization of invention is generally significantly higher in mature economies than in emerging countries. Only 23% of respondents from India believed that “anyone can be an inventor” compared to 38% for the US and a breathtaking 68% for Korea. There is something fascinating happening in Korea that I still don’t fully understand – while the chaebol continue to dominate the economy, clearly the cache of the individual inventor has completely transformed in the last decade as a result of the digital and mobile revolutions!.

One piece of good news is that survey respondents generally felt that inventiveness can be learnt. India reflected this overall trend with only 23% of the consumer respondents saying that inventiveness is inherited and the other 77% saying that it can be learnt. But I wonder how this gels with the previous observation on the democratization of invention – if inventiveness can be learnt, then why can’t more Indians be inventors? The only way of explaining this is that Indians believe that external factors will prevent them from exercising their inventiveness.

An amazing 99% of consumers in Indonesia said that inventiveness can be learnt. I wonder where this comes from - is this just a general reflection of current optimism about the Indonesian economy?

Are you an inventor?

I was surprised that a greater proportion of Business decision makers in India see themselves as inventive compared to the emerging markets average – 67% vs 50%. I wonder where this number comes from. My guess is that it’s a reflection of the number of challenges that businesses in India have to overcome with the constant change in regulations and tax laws, and the increasing quantum of competition.

Korea offers some mind-boggling numbers on this same question of whether people see themselves as inventors. 94% of consumers, 89% of broad elites and 90% of business decision makers see themselves as inventors compared to the global average of 38, 43 and 46% respectively. The more I think about this, I wonder whether this is the “Samsung effect.” Samsung’s success in taking on Apple, a company often rated as the world’s most innovative, may have had a rub-off effect on the Korean people. How else do you explain such a big difference?

India has one of the highest scores on respect for inventors: 91% of consumer respondents (against 71% across all countries surveyed) believed that inventors are respected by society. On this score, the only country ahead of India is the UAE. Korea scores only 49% on this dimension. That’s puzzling, doesn’t seem to match the other data reported above.

One measure gives a critical insight into why India is not as inventive as we would like it to be: this is the set of responses related to critical attributes of an individual inventor. Only 17% of Indian respondents rated persistence as one of the top 10 attributes needed by an individual inventor. In contrast, most other countries rated this much higher (in the US, 50+%). Indian respondents rated imagination and ambition as much more important than persistence! Remember Edison’s comment on 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? No wonder we don’t see Edisons from India!

Motivation for Invention

Emerging countries like China, India and Indonesia see social good as significantly more important than making money as a motivator for invention.

Some more food for thought: Respondents in China, Kenya and India see invention as important for society (95. 92 and 91% respectively) while only 56% of Korean respondents see invention as very important for society.


With the passage of the new Patents Act and efforts by Dr Mashelkar and others, you might have thought that patent awareness has improved in India. Think again! Indian consumers had one of the lowest awareness of patents (only Kenya and UAE below us) at 72% (against an average of 86%).

Amazingly, though, according to this survey, India has one of the best systems to protect inventor rights. In the consumer category, India had the highest score – 42% think that the country protects inventor rights well (against 18% for the US and 5% for Korea). Even among broad elites and business decision makers, the perception that India protects inventor rights well is among the highest of all countries. I just don’t know how to explain this as it conflicts with what most people tell us. At same time India also has the highest score (23%) of people (consumers) who believe that “an inventor’s hard work should not be protected from unauthorized use by others.” Somewhat bizarre!!

The Future of Invention in India

Indians are quite optimistic and confident about the future. 32% of Indian respondents voted for India as likely to be the most inventive country of the next century! In contrast, only 1% of American and 2% of Chinese respondents voted for India!! Not clear how we are going to achieve this if we fail to emphasise persistence as an individual trait.

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