Does Innovation amount to Impatient Optimism?

The Gates Foundation is slowly growing into a powerful global force driving innovation around the world. Its health and developmental agendas have gradually be revised and realigned into a framework that increasingly blends improving the world with doing new things in order to be able to improve the world. Their motto, impatient optimism, seems to capture that sense of purpose and vision rather well.

Here at CKS we’ve been working closely with the Gates Foundation since 2009, when we began ethnographic research and design activities in Bihar around vaccine delivery services. The Foundation is a sponsor of our upcoming Design Public Conclave and we’ll have several of their key personnel at the event as well.

I sat down yesterday to talk with Ashok Alexander, the Country Head of the Gates Foundation in India. He talked to me about the need for immersive engagement, intimacy, understanding, between those who are trying to do good and those one is trying to help. In the case of Avahan, for instance, the Gates-supported HIV-AIDS program, Ashok said that learning about sex-workers and their lives, livelihoods, challenges and threats was all critical for designing the intervention. That kind of approach, and the learnings that came from understanding how to prevent violence against women in urban environments, turned out to have surprising impacts on how the Foundation was able to think about maternal and child health in rural areas, including in the state of Bihar.

Ashok Alexander will be speaking at the Design Public Conclave on how to better imagine India as an innovation society. He’s got the kind of engaged, critical and visionary perspective that we need to institutionalize in new ways to actually transform ourselves into an innovation society.

New NESTA Report on Innovation in India

Can growth of higher education keep up with India’s human potential? Can India’s low cost innovations disrupt the global economy? What effects do abstract social and creative innovations have in the Indian context? These are some of the questions that NESTA, in partnership with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK Research Councils, and the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, are looking to answer.

NESTA’s recent publication on Innovation in India is a survey on the changing landscape of research and innovation in the Indian environment. Meant to be a resource for policymakers, higher education institutions, and innovative companies seeking partners in India, the intensive study is based on interviews with individuals in fields of policy, business, education, research and civil society. Using these interviews and the latest data, the report notes trends as well as provides insight into critical issues in India’s innovation trajectory, finally asking if India will achieve its ambitious innovation goals, and what it will mean for the rest of the world.

This NESTA report builds on the work done by the think tank Demos, in their publication Atlas of Ideas. In particular it draws from India: the uneven innovator, by Kirsten Bound, who now works with NESTA. After spending five years as a senior researcher at Demos, where she focused on democracy and innovation in India and Brazil, Bound worked for Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative in Rwanda advising the Prime Minister on policy delivery. She consulted for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation on Investment Climate Reform, and in 2009 joined NESTA as a Lead Policy Advisor on Innovation Systems. Her published works include: Brazil: the natural knowledge economy, The Everyday Democracy Index, Mapping Governance at the Local Level, and Community Participation: Who Benefits? She has also has created several series of forums designed to increase communication and learning to create spaces for new and innovative ideas in the European context. Kirsten was in Delhi earlier this week and spent lunch talking with Aditya Dev Sood about innovation in India and Design Public III. We at CKS are very hopeful for her insight and expertise at the next edition of Design Public.

ColourNext Dialogues: Colour, Social Trends and More

Asian Paints, in partnership with the Center for Knowledge Societies, is pleased and excited to announce ColourNext Dialogues 2012, a first of its kind conclave on the social meaning of colour trends and visual directions in Indian society. The conclave will be held at a quaint restored mill in Byculla, Mumbai on January 24th, 2012.

ColourNext is a colour trend forecasting initiative for Indian interiors, conducted by Asian Paints in collaboration with CKS. The object of ColourNext is to study and truly understand evolving aesthetic moods in India based on in-depth research into visual and societal trends, expert interviews, and focus group discussions. This year, 2012, marks ten years of this initiative.

ColourNext 2012 was concluded recently, and yielded four prominent themes. ColourNext Dialogues was conceived as a means to celebrate the completion of a decade of ColourNext as well as to present these themes to the larger public. The conclave will bring together leading designers, colour theorists, social scientists, architects, interior designers and other relevant experts to discuss the social, psychological, emotive associations and design consequences of these emerging colour directions.

Speakers at ColourNext Dialogues include

agence de rencontres bordeaux http://qhublogistics.net/?ploskis=lieux-rencontre-27&e8f=31 follow url dvd rencontre avec des hommes remarquables site de rencontre tr s haut de gamme cherche femme pour lamour hombres solteros que quieran casarse go site go to link rencontre en ligne canada Shimul Javeri Kadri, Principal Architect, SJK Architects
M.P. Ranjan, Design Thinker and Independent Academic
Aparna Piramal Raje, Columnist, LiveMint
Nien Sao, Colour Specialist and HoD Fashion Dept. Pearl Academy

The four themes from ColourNext 2012 have been translated into visual and spatial installations, which will be displayed at the venue. Participants will be encouraged to absorb and be inspired by the themes and embedded contextual stories, and thereafter participate in a conversation that will explore such questions as:

. Why are we seeing an emergence of these themes and where are they being manifested?
. What socio-cultural trends are being evoked by this theme?
. What does it tell us about the moods, desires, and appetites of the people?
. How might practitioners interpret these aesthetic directions in their work?

This will be an intimate gathering, with open discussions and little distinction between speakers and participants, in order to encourage the greatest possible interactivity. The entire event will be documented audio-visually and information about each of the themes will be presented on the Design Public blog after the event.

Participation at ColourNext Dialogues is by invitation only. However, if you are interested in attending, please contact Vedika Khanna at cks@cks.in

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.

The Dark Side of Innovation

Is Innovation inherently unsustainable?

Over at the World Policy Institute, Greg Lindsay writes about the unintended consequences of innovation — specifically, of frugal and user-driven innovations. Lindsay takes the example of the 1 lakh rupee (approximately $2500) Tata Nano car, widely proclaimed as proof of India’s innovation capabilities, to demonstrate the “Jevons Paradox,” the neverending rise in consumption resulting first from technological breakthroughs and then from the subsequently introduced cheaper and more efficient versions of those breakthroughs.

Doing more with less is the essence of innovation, but the so-called “Jevons Paradox” means we do more with less—and then more.

This is what we call progress — a burst in productivity around a new innovation, trickling down as its costs fall and it achieves widespread adoption. We implicitly assume unsustainable consumption occurs at the top, not the bottom — in the form of a gas-guzzling SUV, not the Nano. But the Jevons Paradox suggests the opposite is true. If so Prahalad’s mantra that the biggest gains come in the smallest packages only threatens to make the problem worse.

He also goes on to talk about the similarly unsustainable consequences of user-driven innovation, and even of breakthrough innovations like the iPhone or iPad.

“Finding sustainable solutions isn’t about discovering new, ever-more disruptive ideas,” argues Jens Martin Skibsted, founder of the Danish design firm Skibsted Ideation. “It requires the opposite, something very un-American: standardization, slowness, and centralization.” Standards are necessary for any cradle-to-cradle recycling scheme or other forms of infinitely replenishable consumption—but they are the enemy of competitive differentiation. Well-designed products may last longer, but the corporate obsession with speed-to-market has shortened their lifecycles to the point where a growing number are obsolete before they even hit the shelf.

So what is the answer, then? Are we condemned to a future of ever-increasing relentless consumption in the face of environmental collapse? Or can we direct our process of innovation in a more ethical and sustainable fashion, and as India enters its “Decade of Innovation,” can we hope to avoid some of the unintended consequences of innovation?

Contextualizing Bihar: What’s Going on in the Neighborhood?

A lot of the work that CKS does is focused in India’s eastern state of Bihar, which is the third largest state in the country, with a population of over 100 million. Our work there covers a range of sectors, such as healthcare, telecommunications, and microfinance. We also plan to open an innovation lab in Bihar in the early part of next year, in order to better meet the state’s many needs. All this work has only been possible, in a large part, due to the changes in government policy that came about since the appointment of Nitish Kumar as the state’s Chief Minister in 2005. Prior to this, Laloo Prasad Yadav held the office for about 15 years, during which the state was notorious for its corruption and backwardness. Under Kumar’s governance, many of these negative trends are being targeted, and several programs and schemes have been implemented that are designed to robustly drive development in the state.

A very interesting development resulting from these policy changes is the trend of migrant workers returning to state. Previously, a large percentage of the unskilled and semi-skilled labour force of India came from Bihar, but this is no longer the case. As a result, a running joke of sorts is that ever since Nitish Kumar came into power, all the carpenters have disappeared. This is because Bihar is now being viewed as a growing economy with great potential, where fortunes can be harvested.

[Read more…]

Jugaad and its Relationship to Innovation

Tim Leberecht of frog design wrote in a recent article:

The term Jugaad (pronounced “joo-gaardh”) is a colloquial Hindi word that describes a creative ad hoc solution to a vexing issue, making existing things work and/or creating new things with scarce resources. Although sometimes used pejoratively (in the sense of a makeshift cheap fix), it is now widely accepted as a noun to describe Indian-style innovation (some also call it “indovation”) – describing the inventiveness of Indian grassroots engineers and scientists that have led to the pedal-powered washing machine, inspired the extra-low-cost Tata Nano car, or the success of India’s space program. It is, in short, the art of holistic (and therefore lateral) thinking, of unbound, resilient creativity, and of improvisation and rapid prototyping under severe constraints.

Interesting thoughts. But most innovation experts in India have come to see that jugaad arises as a coping strategy by those who lack other options. Jugaad is a symptom of a structural challenge in India, inadequate distribution and service networks prevent necessary goods and services from being readily available to those who most need them. Owing to that lack, improvisation steps in.

Ethnographers of Jugaad, of which there have been many over the past decade routinely alight on the most kitschy and visually provocative examples of such folk adaptations of technology. But real insight and understanding about India’s innovation needs in the future does not necessarily arise from those pretty pictures. Jugaad as a strategy and practice is certainly innovative, but it arise in societies that lack innovation as a process and as a driver of the economy.

What we need in India and in similar emerging economies are ways of learning from latent consumer needs through ethnography, creating new solutions through design analysis and better contextualization of technologies through user experience modeling. All this can ensure that new products, services, technologies and platforms can be imagined, designed, developed and rolled out.

In India today we need a better understanding of innovation and a more widespread committment to innovation. We don’t need more Jugaad.

Reasons For India’s Low Rank In The Innovation Index

This slideshow highlights some innovations that have emerged from rural India in recent years, and examines the reasons why these smart and useful ideas have not received the attention they deserve. These invariably arise from insufficient funding, lack of government initiative, and unavailable networks of angel investors. Further, there is also a gap in converting a good idea or invention (such as the earthenware refrigerator or the amphibious bicycle) into a successful, sale-able, implementable innovation. All these challenges, and more, have contributed to India’s low rank in INSEAD‘s recently released Global Innovation Index for 2011, which in turn is somewhat narrow in its guidelines.

The ranking is based mostly on innovations done commercially through the industry or through the academia and does not look at the kind of work that is done in the informal sector, where life itself is turned into a laboratory.

See the slideshow: Why India Ranks Low in Innovation