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June 6, 2014

Firing Up the Ecosystem

Accelerating innovation to realise India’s potential.

India’s potential has exceeded its performance for as long as one can remember. The sorry state of affairs have usually been blamed on coalition dharma, on democracy, on bureaucracy, on the federal structure of India and countless other ready excuses. To be sure, political logjam has much to answer for. Now, for the first time in three decades, Indians have provided a decisive mandate to a party, a mandate that has been interpreted as one for change and progress. Far too often, though, progress has been seen as someone else’s job, usually the government or more realistically, driven by a visionary leader. The new government will doubtless have its hands occupied by righting many wrongs, providing various incentives and steering the ship through uncertain waters. What may citizens help in creating progress, innovating at grassroots and ivory towers alike and implementing solutions quickly?  India needs to quickly create an ecosystem to accelerate innovations needed to transform the nation and realise the potential of Indians.

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Interestingly, two models of innovation ecosystems use natural analogies to explain their approach. The innovation reef, an idea first cited by venture philantrophist Mario Morino, refers to actual coral reefs. No one quite knows how these form, but once they do, they are able to shelter a variety of life, creating a vibrant and successful community. The key takeaway from this analogy is to nurture and protect and not govern and micromanage.

The second, the innovation rainforest has been conceptualised by T2 Venture Creation.“Rainforests are nurtured by several key cultural traits: connectivity, diversity of ideas and talents, deep levels of trust, motivations that rise above short-term zero-sum calculation, and cultural norms that encourage dreaming, risk-taking, and paying it forward. We call this the invisible infrastructure of a community.”

It is time to think bigger, to create opportunities for innovation that transforms innovation that is people powered and built from the ground up. The story of innovation is usually chronicled as a story of heroes, be they Steve Jobs or Deng Xiao Ping, The reality of innovation is messier and involves many people, coalescing around an idea or at a place and driving things forward. As Professor Art Markman opines, it is about creating a structure that promotes innovation but need not govern outcomes. Doing so will direct energies towards creation rather than managing. In the spirit of jugaad or frugal innovation that Indians are experts in, let’s hack things, shall we?

First, the innovation ecosystem needs spaces to work and to interact. Our educational institutions have ample space to use, once students and staff have departed for the day. Create open innovation spaces attached to each elite institution to begin with. Think of school playgrounds that neighbourhood children sneak in to play, use the same model. Sure, there will issues, of security, of identity, of intent, to deal with. The community can ensure that.

Second, seed the community by attracting the right kind of leaders. Educational institutions have an immediate catchment of students and teachers who could be the nucleus. Align with NGOs such as Ashoka, who work in allied fields, have robust processes to identify and train innovators. Coopt those who are already acting to create change. Tools to recruit volunteers already exist, let the community chose what they wish to use. An immediate source could be the technology used by the BJP IT Cell to manage its army of volunteers.

Third, learning to do. For sure, our formal education system is in shambles, paradoxically at a time when the knowledge of the world is available literally at one’s fingertips. Jumpstarting the process by design thinking is an approach that has found many takers around the globe, in developing and developed countries alike. It is an engaging way to involve a variety of people in thinking through aspects of a problem, arrive at solutions and then create prototypes of their solution. The *Weekend movement in Malaysia is an excellent example of design thinking in action, of learning to do things rather than pontificate about what must be done. Designing.ph, an initiative in the Philippines, is another successful example. Across the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar, we have another experiment. In UK, Nesta are doing sterling work in this domain. 

Fourth, connecting everyone who can benefit from being connected to someone thinking or solving similar problems. The dominant organisational structure of the past centuries, that of siloed departments, often secretive and duplicating work, is highly inefficient. Collaboration and communication is now second nature to citizens, thanks to wide scale adoption of social networking and mobile telephony. Interestingly, social collaboration is now being used by enterprises to free energy and creativity, while benefiting from self-governance, initiative and transparency. Facebook like open interaction for innovation, anyone?

Fifth, communicating the need for innovation to transform India by involving Indians. A clarion call is required to initiate, not blowing one’s trumpets at achievements.  There is enormous talent in communication, marketing and advertising, time to put those to use for the entire nation.

Finally, create a marketplace for ideas to raise capital. Setting up innovation exchanges, modeled on successful crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter, Kiva or Milaap will create a market for innovative ideas and projects, which can then be funded.

India has to think differently and act with alacrity to make up for lost time. While massive central initiatives take their own due course, building an ecosystem to release the pent-up energy, acumen and initiative of Indians can be done swiftly. What will it be, a rainforest or a reef?

Photo: Brian Talbot


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