A Different Future

India has the potential to be the hub of innovation, says prominent technocrat Kiran Karnik, adding that success depends on being innovative

For some time now – and with growing importance – innovation has been the hot topic in corporate boardrooms. Companies have realised that their growth, even their very survival, in some cases, depends on innovation. This means new and different products, services, processes or business models. But it is not merely the world of business: governments and civil society organisations, too, have recognised the importance of innovation.

For long, breaking new ground was considered the domain of researchers. Discoveries and inventions fuelled radical social and economic change by conversion into altogether new products. Earlier, ships, railways, cars, aeroplanes wrought changes of immense magnitude. More recently, computers, mobile phones and satellites have done the same. New medicines and medical technology, with their genesis in research centres, have resulted in longer and healthier lives. These, and so many other examples, point to the importance of research as a source of innovation.

Innovation, though, is not limited only to research and the new products that emerge from it. Sometimes, it comes from the new use of an existing product. One example, in a light-hearted vein, is the use of a washing machine to produce large quantities of excellent lassi! Innovation may also take the form of a different business model. Well-known contemporary examples are Uber and AirBnB – both providing known services (a hired car and temporary accommodation or hotels) but through an online platform that only links asset owners (cars, rooms) to potential customers. Another example is Google, where the user is not charged for the service, but the provider makes a profit.

There are many innovations in art and literature, too. An example is the line-drawing of a pair of spectacles topped by a line representing a person’s head. This, with its creative use of negative space, is universally recognised as Mahatma Gandhi. In the field of public policy, one instance is Dubai: a parched desert town just a few decades back now transformed into a major economic power-house by developing itself as an airline hub, financial centre and a major tourist attraction. Similarly, Singapore has constantly redefined itself, reaching an unprecedented level of prosperity. India has won wide recognition as a potential hub of innovation through frugal engineering, new processes, business models and products. India is uniquely placed to be a global leader of innovation, thanks to two major factors: adversity and diversity. The former lets us find new ways of bypassing or overcoming obstacles; the latter attunes us to friends and colleagues who eat a different cuisine, look a little different and often speak a different language. “Different” thinking is, therefore, quite acceptable and normal. It is this that ensures the germination and acceptance of new ideas. Protecting and nurturing – even encouraging – diversity is clearly important.

Despite this widespread propensity for innovation, not all states and cities are equally innovative. A variety of factors – history, climate, policies and ecosystem – affect this. An analysis of various cities and their relative ranking in innovativeness is covered in my book (Crooked Minds: Creating An Innovative Society, Rupa Publications). It looks at how to create an innovative organisation or – the holy grail of many governments – an innovative society. After all, the future is going to depend on innovation, on being “different”.

The writer is an independent strategy and policy analyst. The opinions expressed in this article are his own

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