Nurturing Risk is Essential to Innovation

Jacob Koshy, in a recent WSJ article, wrote about how, despite the fact that India has been labelled as a nation of innovators and has embarked on a self-declared decade of innovation, this is only true in the loosest sense of the word. Most often, examples of so-called ‘Indian innovation’ are limited to improvising, tinkering, and quick-fix solutions – in other words, jugaad. Koshy observes:

…apart from the immediate, simplistic appeal that this tinkering or ‘jugaad,’ presents—of a poor, uneducated villager developing a water-bicycle that can be pedaled across a river, or a school dropout fashioning a pedal pump-powered washing machine—we rarely hear of these mavericks improving on their designs, or licensing their work to a company.

Why is there such a failure in translating these creative improvisations into successful, marketable innovations that add real value? Because of an aversion to taking and nurturing risks, says Koshy, indicating that even a cursory glance at investment trends by venture capitalists and angel investors for Indian enterprises shows that most are linked to organized retail or business plan ventures rather than technical or service innovations. According to Koshy, this dearth in funding towards some of the more experimental avenues of innovation comes from a lack of policy that nurtures risk-taking, from both governments as well as private firms.

The issue of risk-aversion and its inhibitory effect on innovation was something that we talked about quite extensively in Design Public II during the panel discussion on Startup Innovations. Participants talked about how consumers as well as service and product providers – government and corporate – are averse to taking risks, which in turn is related to a lack of sufficient trust. Zackery Denfeld, speaking about some of the cultural differences between the U.S. and India and how they affect innovation, said that the lack of mentorship and the fear of failure are the two greatest inhibitors to a robust startup ecology in India. Others added that there is an inherent aversion to taking risks in India because of a deep-seated socio-cultural fear of failure, where failure is seen as a negative, shameful and undesirable occurrence rather than as an opportunity for learning, growth and improvement.

How can educational institutes, government agencies, corporations and players in other sectors design their policies to encourage risk-taking, accepting failure, and by extension, increasing trust, creativity and innovation? How can we make the transition from a nation of tinkerers and improvisers to a nation that routinely innovates? These are questions we hope to tackle at Design Public III.

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