Ideas, freedom and diversity will ensure India gets its place in the bold new world
Like a verb in a sentence, no business plan, sales pitch or vision-of-the-future is complete without the word ‘innovation’. It is, by far, the most popular flavour of the day, be it in board rooms or classrooms. Yet, its descent into a cliche, an overused buzzword, does not detract from its crucial importance.
The fact is that, in most areas – and not just in the sphere of technology – the advantage will lie with those individuals, organisations and countries that are more innovative.
Ideas and inventions are the other dimensions of the triple-I powerhouse, the trinity that is the holy grail for companies and countries. Encompassing art, culture and science, ideas indicate the vitality and dynamism of a society or organisation, its ability to rejuvenate itself and march ahead in a changing environment.
Inventions, stemming often – but not always – from R&D, give a country a decisive edge in the competitive, globalised world. More coveted and expensive than property in Tokyo or London is intellectual property that flows from these three ‘I’s.
India has dreams of being a major force in the sphere of knowledge. Its traditions and culture gave pride of place to knowledge, with intellectuals being at the top in a highly hierarchical society.
In more recent times, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave great importance to science, and his successors have more or less continued that tradition. This focus on science is crucial, particularly as other countries, notably China, have invested far more and now outstrip India in scientific output.
Yet, invention and innovation are more than science; the former is sometimes a result of serendipity, while the latter can flow from a variety of other stimuli. While there will, in any society, always be individuals who are innately innovative or inventive, what is important is the creation of an ambience, an ecosystem that stimulates and nurtures innovation.
The big drivers of innovation are diversity and adversity. The former makes acceptable – even natural – different perspectives and approaches to the same problem; the latter forces out-of-box thinking. A great deal of grassroot innovation in India is the result of adversity – sadly, our competitive advantage.
Other countries, companies and organisations can simulate such adversity – and stimulate innovation – by limiting resources of time, cost or human resources: thus, one can have design-to-cost ( Tata Nano, for example) or ‘idiot-proof’ products and processes (products from Apple).
Immense diversity is India’s special advantage. It is essential to sustain and encourage this and ensure that the push towards homogenisation, to a single ‘Indian’ culture, is resisted. The issue, though, is more than ideological and cultural.
An example is the controversy over a single entrance test for engineering admissions. ‘One nation, one test’ is doubtlessly a good slogan, but if this means a single (common) merit list to be followed by all institutions, it could be disastrous for innovation.