What kinds of innovation are emerging in rural India, and can they be documented and harnessed across the country? How can the corporate and government sectors support such grassroots innovation–and how can volunteers get involved?
Many of these challenges and approaches are analysed in the book Grassroots Innovation: Minds on the Margin are not Marginal Minds, by Anil Gupta, professor at IIM Ahmedabad. The 381-page book is spread across eight chapters, with 40 colour photos and 25 pages of references and notes.
The context of the book is the ‘shodyatras’ or innovation-seeking journeys conducted by the author through villages in the summer and winter. Dozens of these journeys have been conducted from 1998 onwards, revealing a wealth of insights into innovation types, processes and diffusion.
Such knowledge journeys or bridges are also places where ‘learning, living and loving intersect,’ according to Gupta. More such rural engagement mechanisms need to be explored to harness and honour grassroots creativity.
Here are my nine key takeaways for social entrepreneurs, innovators, and researchers from this insightful book; see also my reviews of the related books Lean Startups for Social Change, Scaling Up, Designing for Tomorrow’s World, and Recasting India.
Keep your eyes and ears–and minds–open to new ideas and acute problems
“Diversity is the essence of inclusiveness and creativity,” says Gupta. Quantity as well as quality of innovative ideas are important. Long-term experience should not come in the way of listening to new ideas and questioning the status quo. New perspectives are needed in seeing, observing, abstracting, labeling, clustering, understanding, and assimilating.
In terms of priority, it is important to focus on solutions for the most acute problems, e.g., challenges faced by rural women in rice cultivation, and their exclusion from carpentry and blacksmithing. Many innovation programmes tend to focus on working professionals, but creative idea flow should be encouraged from students and children as well.
Build innovation platforms
There are thousands of innovative ideas across the country, and hundreds of projects in pilot stage. Connect them through offline activities and online platforms. Examples discussed in the book include Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN was founded in 1997 to convert grassroots innovations into viable products), National Innovation Foundation (NIF was founded in 2000 to support traditional knowledge holders from the unorganised sector), and GTIAF (Grassroots Technological Innovation Acquisition Fund).
Other examples include Techpedia from SRISTI, a platform connecting grassroots innovators with real-world problems. It also conducts workshops and summer camps, and gives awards to creative communities. In addition to such platforms, regular community activities like trade fairs and innovation competitions along with media coverage and site visits help promote such ideas.
Institutionalise strategies for innovation
“Quality and dynamic standards are at the heart of a sustainable future,” says Gupta. While much has been written about the rapid pace of innovation and the need for open-source standards, it is also important to have skilling programmes and standards bodies.
Institutions studying and promoting grassroots innovation in India must provide ‘freedom, flexibility and fellowship.’ Examples in this regard include the approaches used by Society for Research and Initiatives for Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI), GIAN and NIF.
Document and celebrate the stories of innovators
There are thousands of unsung innovators in India, many of whom have shared their traditional and creative knowledge with no expectation of return. Their stories should be documented and celebrated, and they should receive recognition and opportunities for further co-creation. A ‘village knowledge management system’ is needed to document these innovation processes, creators, influencers and impacts. They apply to individual solutions, extracted heuristics, cross-sectoral ‘metaphorical’ applications, and even broader worldviews.