While reflecting on innovation ecosystem for national transformation a few days ago at an apex industrial association forum, I had to ask the industry representatives as to why were they so complacent in seeking ideas from outside? Many MNCs with even a very large market share and no imminent threat to their dominance seem more worried about future disruption, and thus feel vulnerable than Indian companies. In fact, they invent vulnerability so to as feel fragile and thus hone their reflexes, revisit their standards to overcome stasis (inertia) through apoptosis, eliminating existing structures and processes where needed.
How do we get trapped in historical stasis, remaining stuck at a given level of evolution for a very long time? Let me take two example: National Innovation Council set up by the previous government through Planning Commission and Atal Innovation Mission at Niti Aayog, replacement of Planning Commission by the current government. While I was member of the former, I have interacted informally with the latter. The state and sectoral innovation councils were created without putting in place precise indicators through which they could track their performance. Some states had very active innovation council such as Karnataka and Kerala and most others didn’t do a great deal. The sectoral innovation council of Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion was much more active compared to most other departments. The Atal Innovation Mission has become an implementing agency within Niti Aayog instead of creating an autonomous and empowered structure. The advantage is that policy and practice are not dichotomous any more. The disadvantage is that the sectoral, regional/spatial and social exclusion of different kinds is not receiving as concerted attention as it should in the innovation agenda. How could one institutionalize a more active and purposeful strategy of action. If in each sector specific challenges for reducing costs, improving quality and achieving better user satisfaction are benchmarked, the trajectory for innovations can gather momentum. For instance, if the cost of making per km of road has to be reduced, then search for new materials, waste products [used tyres, plastics, coconut pith, etc.,], technologies, in situ testing facilities, online monitoring, etc., will become inevitable. Innovations in materials, method, applications, supply chain, logistics, monitoring and quality management will have to follow inevitably. The academic, industrial and informal R&D will get aligned. The standards for different socio-ecological regions will evolve and the wear and tear of auto tyres will come down because of better quality. Similarly, the maintenance cost will come down because of more frequent culverts which will also allow regeneration of ecosystems. Most highways become dams blocking the natural drainage channels in most of the places. We have never evaluated the cost of such design inadequacies on overall ecosystem sustainability and eventually the productivity of the economy. This is just an illustration of how innovation ecosystem in each sector and spatial unit will eventually converge with social aspirations and also participation.
Such an approach to managing innovation cannot be achieved merely by following the WIPO’s innovation index approach. It does not involve a deeper analysis of the innovation integration across sectors, spaces, seasons and social segments. While rankings are important and should be chased, even more important is to influence the composition of the index itself. For instance, the per capita energy consumption and waste production influences the ecological and climatic footprint of the economy. Global innovation index does not do justice to such concerns. India has many challenges which are comparable across the world and can be measured in a comparative manner. The quality of education at different levels needs drastic disruptions to create more productive outcomes. The content of education is no less important. The low ranking on innovationindex must be analyzed without ignoring the fact that areas where India is far ahead are not included in the construction of index. The grassroots innovations where both patent filing rate and commercialization rate is much more significant in India is consistently ignored by WIPO because other countries don’t measure it. India can choose to institutionalize similar indifference to important indicators for redefining Indian destiny or can follow a western construction which is not inclusive enough. The choice is ours.
While growth comparisons with China are unavoidable, the support systems for triggering innovations are seldom compared. The patent filing rate can be improved within one year if platforms like techpedia.sristi.org having information of around 200,000 engineering projects by students are empowered for the purpose. As against total filing of about 10000 patents by Indians in India, one can double or treble it by motivating and mentoring a million students passing out every year. The MANAK [Million Minds for Augmenting National Aspiration and Knowledge] in conjunction with INSPIRE, Department of Science and Technology will mobilise 10,00,000 ideas from 4.50 lacs schools. Finding at least thousand ideas worth productizing and patenting is not impossible. At present, NIF files 25 to 30 patents out of 20,000 ideas received every year. Maintaining the same ratio, the target is achievable.
The district or sub-provincial level system for supporting innovations is quite strong in China. There are innovation labs created by pioneering farmer innovators through such support from the government. In India, we have not built institutions around achievers in various sectors. The district planning committee doesn’t have a permanent standing committee on science, technology and innovation. Thus, the existing scientific institutions whether part of CSIR, ICAR, ICMR, DBT, etc., are not involved systematically in the district and state planning system and process at all. Without a precise process of incorporating scientific and technological findings in sectoral plans, how would we improve our productivity and overall pace of progress.
The ecosystem for harnessing the ideas of industrial and farm workers, women home makers and others needs to be put in place. There is a need to step back and look at the imperatives for linking science, technology, education and innovation in an integral manner. Every project, thesis and research pursuit can be made more productive. The linkage between informal or grassroots innovation system and formal institutions including public service delivery systems is inevitable. The question is are we willing to shed some of the existing ways of thinking, feeling and doing so that space for new ideas can emerge.