Is There a Steve Jobs in India’s Future?

Samanth Subramanian of the New York Times Blog, India Ink, was in conversation with Aditya Dev Sood in the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing.

The question of innovation has been weighing particularly heavily on Mr. Sood’s mind because, later this week in Bangalore, his firm will host Design Public, a conference on innovation and the public interest. Mr. Sood’s first thought, unsurprisingly, concerned the Indian education system, “which prepares us for society by a series of instrumental grading mechanisms that treat us like chickens in a hatchery.” This is, he contended, a legacy of colonization, and although Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous Minute of 1835 is now deep in India’s past, it still lays out colonial sentiments on education vividly.

Subramanian’s outstanding account of that conversation along with other insights is here.

Innovation and the Indian Corporation

Anand Mahindra made waves recently when he talked about the absence of any real culture of cutting edge innovation in India. Is he right? How should we understand innovation? Is any kind of new service or money-making scheme an example of innovation? Would they, for instance, be in the same league with the kinds of things Steve Jobs became famous for creating? Where are we with India’s innovation story and where is it going?

This first panel at the Design Public Conclave will be anchored by Samar Halankar of the Hindustan Times and Mint Newspapers. He will be in conversation with Anil Narayan Sondur of TATA Elxsi and Arun Pande, the mind behind mKrishi, launched by Tata Consulting Services. Probing questions from the audience and responses from other discussants will ensue.

What does Innovation look like in India?

Innovation is emerging as one of the most important rubrics in the discourse on how to bring about greater and more consistent economic and social development in India. One observes steadily growing investments in R&D across the country, the setting up of national and state innovation bodies, as well as the introduction of government-sponsored innovation funds. There have also been several conferences and debates on innovation and how to best promote and accomplish it in India, and a number of articles on the subject, written for both formal publications (newspapers and magazines) as well as more informal platforms like online forums and blogs.

Academic engagement and Indian authorship on the subject has also exploded the last five years. A book search for “Innovation in India” on Amazon yields 790 results. Despite widespread agreement on the importance of innovation in India, there are wide gulfs between different conceptions of innovation and on the path India that should take towards securing benefits through investments in innovation.

Many Indian conversations around innovation begin by talking about jugaad, that uniquely Indian approach to making a joint, or temporary fix when something complex, like an automobile or a steam engine stops working. Initiatives like Anil K. Gupta’s Honeybee network have been started in recent times in order to document and promote the many jugaad-driven rural innovations across India. However, many observers have pointed out that while jugaad is certainly innovative, it is a response to the lack of an innovation culture — more a survival or coping mechanism at a time of need than a systematic methodology to effectively address a wide-ranging, complex set of problems.

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