Innovation works best when government does least?

The question of the nature of government’s role in social issues and the market has been debated to an impasse. So too, it seems, has its role in innovation. Does government support foster innovation? Or, does innovation work best when government does least? In 2010, the Economist magazine hosted a debate between the two camps, and fleshed out the arguments for greater or lesser contributions by government to the process of innovation.

Defending the theory that innovation works best when government does least, Amar Bhide of Harvard University and author of The Venturesome Economy argues that too-involved governments inevitably muddle the innovation process; they choose the wrong winner by supporting projects that are politically popular, as opposed to those deserving of investment. [Read more…]

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? [Read more…]

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.

Effective Technology in Education Innovation

Khan Academy, which began in 2004 as a small collection of youtube tutorials by Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard, has become a library of free educational videos that has has earned the recognition and support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. With over 3,000 mini lectures in 15 subjects, mostly in sciences, technology, and math, Khan Academy’s mission of “providing a free world class education to anyone, anywhere,” is reaching across the globe, from rural Asia to classrooms in America, and is transforming the paradigm of education with a de-centralized, student-centered approach to learning.

At KhanAcademy.org, video lectures are simple, the only audio being Khan’s voice and the only visual a colorful virtual whiteboard. They are also short, each lesson about fifteen minutes long, despite covering subjects in diverse fields levels K-12. However, Khan has found that he simplicity lends accessibility. In an interview with 60 minutes he said, “I’ve got a lot of feedback from people who say it feels like I’m sitting next to them and we’re looking at the paper together…I think that’s what people like, the humanity of it.” In addition, the website also offers practice exercises and peer-to-peer tutorials, and software to track one’s own progress.
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How are Innovation and Excellence related?

 

Jeby Cherian wrote me a note the other day saying, and I quote: ‘one of my pet peeves is our “just enough is good enough” attitude.’ Jeby wants us to make a commitment to excellence in everything we do in India, from the design of transportation systems to roads and sidewalks to airports and other forms of urban infrastructure. Jeby points to the outstanding conceptualization, planning and execution of the Delhi Metro as a counter-example to the way things are normally done in India. This kind of haphazard and ill-conceived infrastructure and environmental planning is also often excused in the name of jugaad, or indovation.

What is the essential relationship between excellence and innovation? I think Jeby is on to something, and that this relationship bears more thought and discussion.

The first thing that comes to mind is that excellence may also encompass a notion of the ‘ideal fitness of things,’ which can only come about by continuing to ‘make things right’ until they achieve that state. Another name for this repetitive or iterative effort to keep making things better until they are ‘right’ and ‘fit’ and ‘excellent’ is design.

Another thought one might offer is that conceptually the word jugaad refers to a joining of unlike things, that don’t necessarily usually or naturally fit together. Continuing to work on that assemblage until the elements do naturally fit together, again, represents something more intentionally and careful, and this is one way in which we can distinguish the products of design from jugaad.

Check out our prior thoughts on jugaad and indovation here. What more can be done to help people understand the value of design and innovation in making new things possible? Your thoughts welcome below…

On the Relationship between Trust and Innovation

As Design Public III inches ever closer, we’ve been trying to articulate, and more deeply understand for ourselves, what we mean by Trust, Participation and Innovation, and how they relate to each other. Over the next weeks, we will be sharing our thoughts and research on these questions, the first of which is concerned with trust and how it relates to creativity, and by extension, innovation.

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This past year has been rife with protest, from the Ram Lila grounds to Tahrir Square and Zucotti Park, all of which appear to have sprung from a breakdown in trust: society, or the public at large, seems to have lost faith in their governments as well as private corporations, no longer trusting that these entities are working in their interest. This breakdown in society’s trust in its largest, most long-standing institutions is a crisis with very wide-ranging consequences in the social as well political sphere.

Anna Hazare en route to Ram Lila grounds

At CKS, however, we are most concerned with how this crisis of trust impacts innovation, which as we see it, is twofold. [Read more…]

Experience Based Design: Healthcare

Public institutions are often criticized as being bureaucratic, inefficient, or ineffective at fulfilling the purposes they are designed to do, compared with private, user-centric, industries. Often in the case of public institutions, individuals have no opportunity to choose a better product, as is the case in the private sector. That therefore leaves little incentive to innovate the design of public services. However initiatives are not absent. ThinkPublic, a social design agency, has worked with hospitals in the UK to redesign the National Health Service to become a more patient-centered public service. Their experience based design methodology involves individuals’ experiences, existing and aspirational, in the design process. Interviews, videos, photographs, journals, and web blogs of patients, carers, and hospital staff have all been used to design new, patient-centered, solutions for several difficult areas of health care, while simultaneously encouraging patients, carers, and staff to work together to address problems.
[Read more…]

ColourNext Dialogues in New Delhi: An Overview

The second edition of ColourNext Dialogues, a discussion on the trends identified in Asian Paint’s ColourNext project for 2012, was held in Delhi on February 28th. Fashion designers, artists, architects, interior designers, and students met for an evening to interact with the ideas, give their critiques, and discuss the social trends behind the colour palettes.

To open the event, Anand Vijayan of CKS, spoke about the inspiration for ColourNext Dialogues, and the opportunity to look deeper into the colour trends for real meaning. Ekta Ohri, head of projects at CKS, invited participants to talk about their own relationship with colour. Some professionals spoke about their use of colour in design and art, and observed a growing trend to more neutral, blank colours. Several participants spoke about colour as the first and primary means of communication with the world, making colour the defining aspect in an object’s identity. Whether professionals, students, or neither, all the participants enjoyed colour as more than a visual experience. They spoke about how colour as an expression reflects mood, emotion, and even personal identity.
[Read more…]

Design Public III: Why We Focus on Trust, Participation and Innovation

Design Public began as a conversation around the question of how design thinking and innovation can be used by organizations and actors outside the private sector, specifically government organizations and social sector agencies. As we enter this third edition of the Design Public Conclave, we see not only that our questions and deliberations have become so much more sophisticated, layered and granular, but also that there is a clear need to move beyond mere conversation, to the actual establishment of diverse consortia, partnerships and alliances that will bring this agenda to practical realization.

At our first conclave in Delhi, we focused on the question of Governance Innovation: Can or should government agencies use user-centered design solutions to develop and deploy better solutions? The easy answer is yes, but the question remains, where can we find the special expertise that allows them to do this? Out of this question was born the concept of what we call the Bihar Innovation Lab. [Read more…]