The practice of inviting outstanding grassroot innovators to the majestic environs of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the home of India’s head of state, was started by President APJ Abdul Kalam when he was president. It’s a tribute to the rootedness of our national leaders and the persistence of Drs. Anil Gupta and RA Mashelkar that the practice has not only continued but been reinforced over time. This year, the event evolved into a week-long “Festival of Innovations” with award ceremonies, workshops and roundtables.
Under the Tent…
The centre of the festival was a huge temporary structure pitched on the Rashtrapati Bhavan Football Grounds that had exhibits and demonstrations of all the award-winning innovations. The innovators must have been encouraged by the large crowds in the hall, even though the main destination of the crowds was the famed Mughal Gardens, thrown open to the public at this time every year.
The innovations themselves were not very different from earlier grassroot innovations that I have seen, at least in terms of the categories they represented. The most prominent was mechanical devices to do tasks that would otherwise be done manually. Many of these were focused on farm operations but some were on health and sanitation. Devices to help people with disabilities, and improved agricultural varieties were other important categories.
Some of the impressive innovations included a modified walker that enables climbing stairs, interlocking bricks, and wearing a helmet as an ignition switch for a motorcycle.
The centre of the hall had banners with quotations on innovation, largely from Anil Gupta and Mashelkar. Truth be said though, there weren’t many people reading these banners, and I wonder how many people would have appreciated the nuances of the quotes even if they had read them!
The innovators themselves were present, and many of them were peppered with questions by enthusiastic visitors. I imagine this must have been motivating for them, though by the end of the day they must have been exhausted!
But, if the purpose of the event was to recognize and encourage innovators from all corners of our country, and to underline the democratic idiom of innovation (“Anyone can innovate”), I am sure this event served its purpose.
…. And Inside the Conference Room
Inside the newly constructed Rashtrapati Bhavan Cultural Centre with its high ceilings and ornate decorations (including larger than life size portraits of all India’s presidents till date), innovation experts from all over the world conferred about the future of inclusive innovation.
What are the problems to solve?
If you read our book 8 Steps to Innovation, you might remember that we advocated creating a challenge book of the most pressing problems that are literally crying for innovation. One piece of good news is that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) Institute for GloballyTransformative Technologies has identified the fifty most important global problems to solve with technology. These include low-cost desalination to make drinking water available at a reasonable cost; a DNA-based diagnostic for accurate detection of tuberculosis; an integrated “clinic-in-a-box” for maternal and child care; low-cost homes for the urban poor; and a very timely point-of-use DNA-based rape kit to enable timely collection of evidence against perpetrators of rape.
Of course, there are solutions searching for problems as well. The co-founder of the notion of the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP), Stuart Hart drew attention to the wealth of “shelf technologies” in universities. At Cornell alone he reported that the university found about 4,000 technologies / patents that had not been exploited.
Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj had a different take on problems. He argued that there are many “non-issues” that need to be made issues. Clothing is important, as important as food and shelter. Why can’t clothing also be a parallel currency? Earlier clothing was only part of disaster relief and charity. Why can’t cloth be given for work?
Anshu pointed out the importance of clothing by reminding the audience that more people die due to cold in winter than due to other calamities.
Drawing attention to another “non-issue” that needs to become an issue, he said that 88% of women don’t have access to sanitary napkins.
How to solve the problems?
Hart advocated an intermingling of what he called “exponential technologies” with traditional ones to address the problems of people at the BoP.
But, going back to the exhibition for a moment, it’s interesting to reflect that there were hardly any “modern” technologies like electronics or computers on display in any of the exhibits. The only such device in use was the mobile phone, and even this was in very small numbers.
An earnest NRI from a US lab had a different take on this. While he felt that India should continue to build world class R&D institutions, he thought that solutions may be available more quickly if the government were to subsidize private sector R&D or, more radically, “reverse outsource” critical problems to western research centres. What he was suggesting here is that the Indian government commission (say) a Pfizer or a Merck to come up with a new cure for tuberculosis and make it worth their while by underwriting all the research expenses. But I really wonder whether that’s a business model they would be interested in; what could work though is for the government to give a research contract to one or more outstanding academic or research laboratories abroad.
Brock from the UNICEF Innovation Centre underlined the importance of design with the user rather than for the user. He emphasized that design should be for scale, and that an organization liked UNICEF should embrace open standards (not open source) since a public organization should embrace public goods.
But, he admitted that there was a need to change their mindset from seeing the private sector only as suppliers to working with grassroot innovators as partners.
I spoke about the importance of government procurement, and policies regarding standards in making social innovation work. Rigid standards designed with existing technologies and suppliers in mind can keep out important innovations. Pre-qualification clauses can act as barriers to entry. The government sometimes encourages imitation without respecting intellectual property. And tender procedures prevent government from procuring things that might have been developed specifically for the government. Instead, the government should play a more positive and proactive role in supporting inclusive innovation.
How do you make Inclusive Innovation work?
To conclude this piece and share the key takeaways, please visit this space next week….
[This blog has been written based on notes taken by the author. These have not been re-checked with the speakers. Views expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily represent the institutions they work for.]