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?

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: An Interview with Ekta Ohri

By Ayesha Vemuri

Ekta Ohri, the Head of Project Operations at CKS, recently attended a workshop organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in Seattle. I spoke with Ekta about her experience there, and wanted to share some excerpts from our conversation.

rencontre mrlev12 girl i'm dating is shy special info find out visite site rencontres seniors 63 weblink Ayesha: Could you briefly describe the purpose of the workshop: why was it held, what was the agenda, who were the participants, and what was your role within it?

Ekta: The workshop was a four-day event organized by the Gates Foundation because they want to develop an integrated ICT platform in Bihar for all their grantees. They wanted to discuss how to set up the platform, what its component pieces would need to be, and for the grantees to come to a common understanding in order to work together to develop, deploy and manage the platform. My role – and CKS’s role – in this workshop was to bring in the knowledge around developing effective solutions for improving maternal and child healthcare in Bihar, acquired in the process of working on other Gates Foundation initiatives.

Ayesha: What did you learn by being at this workshop? Is there any one insight that really struck you?

Ekta: It was very interesting, naturally, to meet with the different participants and to learn about their different initiatives in Bihar. But I guess that one lesson to take away from the entire experience is that user-centered approach to innovation is really necessary for creating solutions that create an impact on ground.

For instance, it was discussed that to register beneficiaries into the health system one also needs to map their cultural background (religion, caste) besides recording other vitals. But on the other hand, I knew from the extensive shadowing of health workers we’ve done as part of ethnographic processes in the past in Bihar, that while Hindu workers do face resistance from Muslim communities, areas that are very remote or hard to reach tend to be more excluded as workers consciously avoid visiting such areas. Hence, it would be more useful for the registration tool to take both geography and terrain into account in addition to the cultural background of beneficiaries.

Also we learnt while conducting ethnographic research in Bihar that all the different frontline health workers have different roles, different motivation levels and varying literacy and knowledge levels. Therefore, a single service or application – or even a single type of mobile device – may not be appropriate or valuable for all. Many ASHAs, for instance, have only completed primary school, whereas ANMs may have studied until 12th grade. So if you give them all JAVA enabled mobile phones to support applications designed as job aids, for example, ASHAs may not benefit at all because they may not be able to effectively use the applications.

Ayesha: So I guess one size doesn’t fit all, and that’s where ethnography is really useful – to really investigate and understand what different people need…so that you can design solutions that really do cater to their needs.

Ekta: Yes, absolutely, and that’s where our work – and the work of organizations like CKS – can really add value. In order to design more effective solutions, the first step would be to conduct this kind of in-depth ethnographic research and analysis.

After this, the next very challenging step is to convince the government of the value of that solution. Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is a sensible leader who has shown himself to be passionate and committed to developing the state. So to convince him of the value of a solution, that inherent value must be very apparent. Again, ethnographic research ensures that the solutions are based on the real needs of the people, and have been developed after much research and thought. Ultimately, the whole process may appear to take longer, but in fact it increases the efficacy of solutions creating a more lasting impact on the ground.