How do we learn from innovations?
There are four levels at which we can learn from the innovations whether in formal or informal sector: [a] artefactual, [b] analogic, [c] heuristic and [d] gestalt or configurational.
[a] Artefactual: One learns from the material characteristics of the innovation, be it in terms of form, feature or function of a mechanical or electronic technology. Or it could be method, material and applications in the case of biochemical or physico chemical or herbal innovation. If at least any one of the three dimensions out of material, method or application/use is new, one can learn from the novelty and develop further modifications for incremental or substantial innovation. In this case, the domain of the technology generally remains same ( though it can vary also, as shown in the case below)though functionality may significantly vary because of improvements. Yusuf from sikar had developed a ground nut picking and cleaning device attached to tractor. The tractor will move this device, a sieve with a stirrer on the dug out groundnut pods. The soil will be dropped and pods will be collected. Dr Raman from Vishakhapatnam tried to use the same mechanism for sea beach cleaning, pick up the sand with debris, and then drop the sand, and collect the debris. It was artefactual learning since the mechanism was same, just the context had changed.
[b] Analogic: The innovation in this case is not drawn upon in its functional property but we try to learn from its metaphorical property. One can apply the technology even in a different domain using the original technology as an analogy. For instance, a farmer looked at the hook in a balance used by vegetable vendor by which he could use one of the pans for delivering the vegetables to the customer. Using this detachable pan hung on the hook, he developed a similar mechanism for a tilting bullock cart in which without removing the harness from the shoulders of the bullock, he could tilt the cart to unload its content. Similarly, a large number of innovations have been developed by applying a technology in a different domain by mimicking the properties of the original innovation. Let us take another example, a swiss engineer Georges de Mestral noticed the property of cocklebur to stick to socks and our clothes in 1941 and by 1948, he developed a hook and loop mechanism of nylon based on cocklebur and called it Velcro. Likewise, M. B. Avinash ,T. Govindaraju, Carsten Schmuck, Elisabeth Verheggen from JNCASR, Indian Institute of Science drew upon the self cleaning property of lotus leaf and developed first time, a self cleaning surface synthetically (http://www.techpedia.in/award/project-detail/Self-Cleaning-Functional-Molecular-Material?PHPSESSID=b8a4d6e50b51cbcd7ff1bb512556f237 ). They were awarded at second Gandhian Young technological innovation awards organised by SRISTI.org at iima on march 25, 2013 through Techpeida.in ( techpedia.in/award/).
[c] Heuristic: Here one does not learn necessarily from the physical form or from its analogic implications. Instead, the focus is on the principles or the thumb rules underlying the innovations. When a farmer listened to a long discussion that I had with him during Shodhyatra on the advantages of herbal pesticides instead of chemical ones, he summarized it in a sentence. He said, ‘whatever I had said implied that any plant which was not eaten by cattle or other animals, could be a source of potential pesticide’. He had captured the heuristic underlying various examples I gave of herbal pesticide. He could see a pattern in them. The reason why animals don’t eat a plant could be because of its toxicity. Since one needed toxicity for killing pests, there was no need to buy it from outside. Of course safety and other issues will have to be taken care of but the heuristic is very powerful and can be generalized almost universally. Let us take another very creative example. Two brothers viz., Mehter Hussain and Mushtaq Ahmed in Assam designed a bamboo windmill in about USD 100 to irrigate a small paddy field with the help of a hand pump. This was later on modified to be used for pumping brine water to make salt in Gujarat. The cost went up to USD 1200 but the basic principle remained same. The brothers asked two questions, which a trained mind would probably not have asked. First, does it matter whether a paddy field is irrigated in four hours or forty hours? Second, does it matter whether water goes to the field in spurts or smoothly? The answer to both the questions was no. In fact, the slower irrigation is better because less nutrients are leached and plant absorbs more nutrients. In fact crop often needs moisture and not water. Once an interesting heuristic of not maximizing output per unit of time and not preferring smoother flow over regular flow was developed, further innovation in terms of not fitting a gearbox became possible. The gearbox is the most vulnerable part, difficult and costly to maintain. This heuristic can be applied in so many different domains and across so many applications.
[d] Gestalt or configurational: This is an institutional aspect of innovation. One does not learn only from the about three dimensions of innovations but also looks at the context in which innovations emerged and were nurtured. One cannot separate the institutional and cultural aspect from the technological dimension of innovation. That is why I have argued that ‘if technology is like words, then institutions are like grammar and culture is like thesaurus’. One cannot make a meaningful sentence without combining all the three. Same way, an innovation cannot generally be understood without looking at its institutional and cultural context. The constellation of the factors or what is often called as ecosystem of innovation has to be learnt from rather than looking at an innovation in isolation.
When we want to diffuse an open source onion planter, nationally awarded innovation by Pandharinath Sarjerao More. District, Ahmednagar, Maharashtra (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0WYreYP-B0 http://www.nif.org.in/oniontransplanter), w ecan not just share the design of this machine with small mechanics and entrepreneurs, we have to also share the spirit, the values underlying the decision of Shri More to make it open source. The culture of inclusiveness embedded in it will also need to be diffused. Institutional platform linking such mechanics who will learn from each other and keep cost low, so that affordability, accessibility and flexibility are integrated in each solution. The configuration of technological, institutional and cultural context of innovation needs to be learned form for more sustainable applications.
As one can observe, higher the level of abstraction, greater is the degree of generalizability and more diverse are the domains in which lessons can be learnt. I will appreciate hearing from the readers about any other approaches they have found useful in learning from innovations. I am particularly keen to learn about new heuristics that they have discovered in their life.
Anil K Gupta