Sam Pitroda, IT and innovation advisor to India’s prime minister, speaks to INSEAD Knowledge Editor Stuart Pallister about innovation and the need for a new paradigm.
We cannot just rely on research and development departments and specialists to bring about innovation; instead we need to include as many people as possible in the process. That’s the view of Sam Pitroda, who is spearheading India’s plans to spend billions dollars to stimulate innovation in the country.
“Our job is really to be cheerleaders,” Sam Pitroda told INSEAD Knowledge on the sidelines of the Global Entrepolis Summit held in Singapore. “We are saying innovation has to be a platform. We want to see innovation ecosystems. We want to emphasise drivers.”
The chairman of India’s National Innovation Council says substantial funding will be going into several initiatives. “For example, one, we want to create a billion dollar innovation fund which focuses on inclusive growth-based innovations. So innovations from the bottom of the pyramid. It will be a fund of a fund. It will be a private fund. The government may invest some little money in seed capital.”
Another initiative, he says, involves identifying some 20 innovation clusters in areas where the local industries are traditional. “It could be in machine tools, pharmaceuticals, the auto industry, auto parts, where we could seed innovation … and really build these 20 clusters as innovation clusters.”
This will also involve identifying 20 universities to stimulate an ‘innovation culture’ and, in addition, Pitroda expects councils from sectors such as biotech, agriculture and auto parts to encourage domain experts to “put together a blueprint for a decade of innovation.”
“At the end of the day, domain experts know their field better than anybody else. They will have to be active to give us a roadmap for the decade of innovation in their sector.”
Although not all sectors will turn out to be successful, he says, “this way we will encourage innovation culture. It’s all about mindset. Our job is to change the mindset in the country; in a country of a billion people, it’s very difficult. It doesn’t come easy.”
Pitroda says the National Innovation Council is also looking into awards and incentives – for example, a reality TV show on innovation. “You do lots of these things to really get everybody excited about innovation.”
If innovation were to be measured just in terms of patents granted, India would not rank very highly. However, Pitroda argues: “Just because you have lots of patents doesn’t mean you’re the most innovative.”
“I would say diversity is a fertile ground for innovation,” he says, adding that India has great cultural diversity, as well as a tradition of innovation. “India invented ‘zero’, with which you could write a big number. Nobody could write a big number before. You put zero and now you can write a big number. It’s a simple idea.”
As for modern innovation, India has some 550 million young people below the age of 25, he says, and with the internet adding a “new dimension to innovation,” you can access the world from a remote village.
“So our job is to build the infrastructure for innovation by providing high capacity, broadband connectivity to our universities, libraries, to our R&D institutions, to lots of young people. And they in turn would use these tools to solve their problems.”
In short, Pitroda believes innovation – whether ‘frugal’ (Jugaad) or ultra low-cost innovation for the very poor, or more high-tech in nature – has to involve large numbers of people and not just research and development teams. Echoing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Pitroda believes innovation should be ‘for the people, by the people.’ “Innovation should not be the domain of R&D experts and laboratories.”
“You need new institutions. You need a new way of looking at things.” For example, the ‘antiquated’ patent system needs to be fixed, he says. “As an inventor, I have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars in translating patents … So how can you say that you are a global economy, when you don’t have global patents?”
“But unfortunately everybody, like the herd mentality, is focused on one way of doing it and not questioning the very foundation of how we are doing it today. I believe the 21st century offers a unique opportunity to change the paradigm, mainly because of the revolution in information and communication technology, mobile phones, high-speed computing, coupled with biotech, nanotech, genetics. There is a huge potential to innovate, but you can’t innovate based on the old paradigm. You’ve got to create a new paradigm.”
“I am beginning to question everything we do and not that everything I question is right. But out of that will come answers. I may not be around to see the answers, but we’ve got to restructure this world for a large number of people who are the bottom of the pyramid (as well as) the young generation.”
“We cannot continue the world the way it has been … Everybody wants to put a lot of money in the system to go back to what it was, as opposed to saying, ‘wait a minute, you can’t go back to what it was … You’ve got to go forward. And going forward, it is not going to be the way it was. Accept that.”
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