Going beyond the confines of constrained imagination: joining hands with a social movement


I am often asked: if an innovation does not scale, is it any good? Such questions are a product of a mindset that does not recognize the legitimacy of niche specific needs. Let us take the case of District Dhimaji, Assam ( where ULFA was born)  where iron content in water is very high. The conventional water filters will not work there. Local improvisation are able to clean the water only to some extent but not completely. No company will address this need and develop a new product of which market is very limited. Should we wait till this problem scales up and cover 25-50 districts and then perhaps it might become worth developing a solution. Or we develop metrics in which developing solution to such niche specific problems becomes legitimate part of inclusive innovation system?

It is with this kind of concern that Honey Bee Network started scouting and documenting grassroots innovations in different parts of the country 25 years ago. Idea was to look for local solutions to what need not be local problem, actually there is any problem which is local. The neglect of the problem of tea leaf plucking workers, paddy transplanting women, a cobbler using hundred year old iron triangle are not local problems.  Thus we should reinterpret the local and global in the light of new understanding of universal human, moral and ethical rights.

Once the scouting started, it was obvious that we needed to find which of the local claims were scientifically valid or in which value could be added. There was no funding for the first five to six years. I funded it from consultancy income and instead of paying myself, paid for staff and publication of the newsletter. It worked well. More and more volunteers started joining and continue to still join since they realize that it was not to extract any privilege or rent but contribute and do so openly. It was a small fee to be paid to learn from the creativity lab at community level. But more importantly, lot of scientists mainly in public sector labs but also from private sector  came forward to serve on  various review committees and add value to people’s innovations without charging for their time. Average cost of hundred of validation and value addition was less than 2.5 lacs at NIF. Likewise, the IPR firms did not charge for their cost in India and USA and thus average cost of filing patents in India was about 13-20 thousand rupees and while in USA, it was almost zero. Many designers helped the innovators, children and others at extremely low cost. How could this be possible in a state funded institution? Let us ask this question and trigger debate about nation building. Government did not much increase the budget in real terms since 2000. It was about 1.6 cr, interest on  20 cr corpus till 2010 and now it is about 10 cr per annuam. About  1.75 crore is spent on Festival of Innovation and biennial award function and annual ignite function. All detail are available on website and we are trying to create a new standard of transparency and accountability. We are not including the cost  of my own time that IIMA has contributed so generously in kind. It is possible to work at the intersection of natural, social, ethical, and cultural and knowledge capital. Indian society is very generous, team of  NIF, SRISTI and GIAN are very hardworking and  majority of them don’t charge per diem for their travels. Whatever minimum they spend is accepted and reimbursed. The staff contributes no less for this cause in kind and foregone benefits/entitlements.  We need many more partners/collaborators who share Honey Bee Network values and are committed to take this movement beyond  its existing borders, the confines of constrained imagination.

The first Festival of Innovation (FOIN 2015) http://www.presidentofindia.nic.in/foin.htm was an unique  landmark in celebration of creativity and innovations at grassroots by Indian Head of State. As if this was not enough,  The president also invited a batch of ten innovators including school children and Mohan Lal from Kerala ( the inventor of Zdrive for fishing in sea) as Scholars in Residence for two weeks to stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan  http://presidentofindia.nic.in/innovresi.htm. No head of the state has ever accorded such an honour to the creative people of that country. Now, the ball is in our court. Every institution including Media must regularly allocate space for articulation, augmentation and reciprocation of creative voices of the frugal and empathetic innovators.  Scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, companies, fabricators, designers, IPR attorneys, writers and every body else has to join the movement to make India global leader in sustainable technologies, a mission informed to Indian Parliament while setting up NIF(nifindia.org).  We have started scouting creative and innovative voices for next FOIN hosted by The Presidents House, march 7-14, 2016.  You can be a part of this movement to search, spread, and celebrate innovation. You can also help in sensing the unmet social needs. These four functions can also be pursued through National innovation clubs at every school and college. Be a part of solving problems, not just cribbing about them…..own this movement…


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place