Can Innovation be Routinized?

By Aditya Dev Sood

I am told by those who study these things that agriculture came about more or less by accident. Our early ancestors found fruits and berries, corn, edible plants and other vegetation and ate the good parts, discarding the seeds without thought, here and there, or in the garbage. In other cases they ate the seeds, which passed through them to find themselves in newly fertilized ground. In this early period, one would have to conclude, agriculture was not yet routinized, even though it came to be later on.

I have also heard, from several reliable authorities, that we have entered, or are entering the age of innovation. I am not entirely certain I know what this means, but I wonder if it might not mean that the dominant mode of production in these emerging times involves the creation of incrementally — or drastically — more valuable outputs given the same inputs. For some, this is the very definition of capitalism.

I find the parallel with the age of early agriculture compelling. Even though innovation is being practiced all around us, we are still in a very preliminary phase of being able to actually understand what is going on, how it yields us benefit, and what parts of the process are critical to its success in different climates, sectors of industry and world cultures.

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On India’s Innovation Path: Where is it Leading?

Over at 3quarksdaily, our own Aditya Dev Sood wrote a thought-provoking (if somewhat rambling) article on India’s Innovation Path. He talks about how discourse around innovation in India is still at a very preliminary stage, and so far has been largely centered around jugaad and frugal innovation. Aditya argues that, while these may constitute “a first, necessary, and preliminary phase of innovation from India,” there is a need for more systematic and higher-order forms of innovation.

These require more sophisticated approaches than the ad hoc jugaad approach: they necessitate a deep understanding of human behavior, social interaction and everyday practices. Knowledge of these, he argues, can be gained through ethnographic processes, especially using visual and design oriented approaches. The information collected in this way then has to subjected to thorough design analysis, so that meaningful solutions can be designed, tested and finally implemented.

This systematic, highly-intentional approach to innovation is pretty much diametrically opposite to the adaptive, improvised jugaad approach. So what is the way forward for innovation in India? We can’t possibly disassociate ourselves from the culture of jugaad that has thrived for ages and will probably continue to flourish, but there should be a simultaneous move towards more systematic processes. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive since the creative skills and capacities needed for both methods are very similar. Maybe the answer is that we should embrace both approaches, and invite experts on jugaad and frugal engineering to collaborate with those attempting more systematic innovators. Perhaps that could be the best way to tap into the incredible creative capacities of our jugaad experts, but channel them into a more intentional innovation strategy? Comments welcome.