Can India's Innovators Lead the Way?

Excerpt: Navi Radjou tells "an interesting growth story about India" at the Asia Society on Jan. 28, 2010.

NEW YORK, January 28, 2010 – "Fantastic trajectories of global innovation" will result from innovations currently being pioneered in India, according to Navi Radjou, Executive Director at the Centre for India and Global Business, Judge Business School, Cambridge University.

"Increasingly, the Indian innovation formula of 'More for less for more'" is changing innovation mindsets in the West, Radjou said, speaking at Asia Society's New York Center.

According to Radjou, life in India is defined by the four factors that drive innovation. He cited three of these—liberty, connectivity, and diversity—as assets, while positing the fourth, scarcity, as a liability; but taken together, he argued, these factors become the ingredients of a cocktail which, "when shaken up," results in the uniquely Indian model of innovation.

Radjou also described the criteria that determine whether an innovation will be successful as being contingent on the needs of the masses who consume and use new products. In any developing country, he said, innovations need to be simple, affordable, and offer high value to consumers. Additionally, any given innovation needs to offer scalability to the innovator so that its mass adoption can become possible.

Another critical factor is the empowerment of local communities to adopt innovations and ensure their acceptance. Video examples highlighted this point, showing social enterprises like Dr. V. Mohan's mobile diabetes testing clinic and Selco, a Bangalore-based company that provides sustainable solar energy solutions to underserved households and businesses. According to Selco Managing Director Harish Hande  (who was featured in the video presentation), he had set out "... to destroy myths that the poor cannot afford technologies, or can’t run and maintain technologies ... or that you can’t run a commercial venture while trying to meet social objectives." Through empowerment and appropriate knowledge transfer, the poor can be some of the most efficient and conscientious users of technologies.

Radjou then moderated a follow-up discussion with Simone Ahuja, the founder of Blood Orange Media, PepsiCo India's Executive Director for Marketing Punita Lal, and Sourabh Sen, co-chairman and co-founder of Astonfield Renewable Resources Ltd, which further assessed both the potential and limitations inherent in the Indian innovation model.

Ahuja saw Indian innovations as having proved successful in particular as a result of jugaad. An integral part of the Indian innovation mindset, jugaad—loosely defined as mental flexibility and the ability to improvise around limited resources—is the trait that makes Indian innovation especially relevant to the West. Frugal innovation is the process through which the West, and the US in particular, can find solutions to its pressing problems of health care and clean energy.

Comparing Indian innovation to other countries, in particular the model followed by the so-called "Asian tigers" (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), the panelists highlighted issues that need to be resolved in order for India to remain on its growth path. Foremost among these, the panel suggested, are a lack of respect for intellectual property rights and pressing needs for improvement in India’s infrastructure.

Reported by Faiza Mawjee