Is there more to India’s poor global innovation ranking?

Is there more to India’s poor global innovation ranking?

Over the last few months, The Next Silicon Valley has worked closely with various innovation and science park conferences around the world, and noticed the distinct absence of India from much of this – yet Latin America, Africa, Russia and China were well represented. This could be interpreted as meaning India is on top of innovation and doesn’t need the world to tell it how to do innovation and hence they do not need to meet their global peers.

In addition, recent reports on India as a potential ‘fallen BRIC angel’ in a Standard & Poor’s report, as well as its low ranking way below all the other BRIC countries in the global innovation index released by the business school INSEAD, seem to suggest India is losing its charm on the international stage.

But on the other hand, we keep hearing about India’s relative success in creating ‘frugal innovation’ where innovative solutions are developed at low cost or with limited resource, or by trimming all the ‘bells and whistles’ from a product or service to address a specific need at lower cost than might have been previously possible with a more complex product or solution (an example is the Chotukool fridge, a top-loading, compact and portable cooling solution weighing only 7.8kg with no compressor, but running instead on a cooling chip along with a fan similar to those used to cool computers).

And in The Next Silicon Valley,  a paper has just been published outlining a vision of innovation in telecoms, internet, media and edutainment, with examples of how some of this is already being implemented in India (for example offering a PC in the form of software as a service and wellness apps technology – see below).

In addition Sam Pitroda, adviser to the Indian Prime Minister for public information infrastructure & innovations, made a rousing speech to the Indian diaspora at TiECON 2012 in Santa Clara, CA, USA back in May of this year, calling on all the Indian technology entrepreneurs in the audience to go back to India and help in whatever way possible to ‘come back to India’ and impart their knowledge to Indian entrepreneurs and creators of the innovation ecosystem back in India. His message was that India needs all the help it could get.

And only in the last few weeks, India’s Prime Minister said that he is dedicating something like US$880 million a year towards making India an ‘innovation hub’. The Indian PM wants innovation to address the issues of poverty, health and environment rather than focusing on the needs of the rich. “Innovation can be a game changer to move from incremental change to radical change,” he said.  The government has set up a National Innovation Council headed by Sam Pitroda to draw up a national innovation road map. The government has also agreed to set aside fund of US$88 million for the India Inclusive Innovation Fund to help entrepreneurs start business based on their innovations.

The changing landscape of technology innovation and its advance in India

In a paper published in The Next Silicon Valley, Delhi-based technologist, innovator and entrepreneur Anuraj Gambhir looks at the changing global landscape of the converging world between communications, consumer and technology, and how we are going to see even more innovation in technology that will continue to change many aspects of modern life – and especially in healthcare, wellness and education. In particular he highlights some key examples of innovation in these areas taking place in his home country, India.

In the cloud computing space, in terms of context and relevance to the mass consumer, he highlights one interesting example of a highly innovative IIT-Madras spinout company called Novatium Solutions, offering computing for the next billion via PCaaS (PC-as-a-service). As a dynamic thick-thin client and using a smart combination of grid/cloud and utility computing, it is a paradigm shift transforming a computer into an appliance – it switches on in a few seconds, faster than several LCD TVs.

This new age cloud computing is highly scalable with flexible services that are easily consumable over the Internet through a low-touch, as-needed, pay-per-use business model. Shared and optimal use of scarce resources is fundamental to scaling the offering. As a family/shared computer, it is beginning a revolution in internet computing for a substantial number of segments and a large addressable population.

A simple widget approach with one click to dedicated apps makes it highly compelling and brings the ease of use necessary for mass adaption. Broadband penetration will have a much greater impact in emerging markets with solutions deployed in the cloud space that are very simple to use.  Cloud has a multi-dimensional approach to computing that takes advantage of the scale of the Internet to connect people to each other, to information, and to do computing in new ways.

Wellness is another area in which India (and other parts of the world) is seeing convergence with technology and the mobile world. With rising stress levels, the desire for harmonious living and a balanced well-being is increasingly important. Hence there is likely to be disruptive innovation in the making where mobile devices will utilize all five senses and go beyond that with the integration potential from the healthcare/fitness-sports domain and also involving subtler spiritual aspects.

Gambhir says this is being led well in India – the home of Ayurveda, spirituality, yoga, meditation, Art of Living, naturopathy, aromatherapy and more. Lives could be transformed with a ‘spa’ in people’s hands that will greatly enrich their well-being. Wirelessly enabled sensors of various types will take on the form to create whole new products and experiences. In this case networked heart rate, pulse, glucometer, mind sensors will assist with measuring stress and other health variables so that we can proactively manage well-being. There is a potential to use camera phones (via optical detection) to check blood pressure and heart health (e.g. pulse, respiration, blood-oxygen levels) that has been proven by the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program.

A glimpse of the above is already visible via the multitude of apps available mostly for iOS and Android platforms e.g. Yogalite, Medicine Buddha, iRelax, Fitness Trainer, iZen. With the worlds of augmented reality, 3D, holography coming together along with embedded sensors, very interesting mashups of apps and content are likely to come into play.

Education and healthcare are also becoming more critical as global emerging economies grow along with other industry verticals such as government and transportation playing important roles in the infrastructure development. An initiative (rather showcase) in India called Gramjyoti (meaning ‘light of the village’) put Ericsson at the forefront of demonstrating a meaningful application of 3G/HSPA mobile technology for the masses and rural (generally underserved) parts of the population. Tele-medicine (in partnership with Apollo hospital), tele-education, e-governance were exhibited with direct benefits for the rural communities in 18 towns and villages in Tamil Nadu (southern India).

Gambhir also talks about the content industry undergoing major transformations, as the key players attempt to address the most compelling needs in the market. In India for example, we are evolving from the ‘astrology, Bollywood, cricket and devotional’ content genres to a much wider selection of locally and contextually relevant vernacular content.

Multimedia in all its forms is having profound implications – such as video which itself is predicted to account for 66% of global mobile data traffic by 2014; some organizations such as Huawei predict much higher figures. A picture tells a thousand words, but moving images or video a million. It transcends the language barrier and a lot can be told by just body language and motion.

Video conferencing is making a comeback with increased significance and value for rural folks migrating to peri-urban/metros, to keep in touch with their families. A pilot in India called ‘Aamne-Saamne’ (meaning in front of each other) with a 3G operator is already revealing promising results. Video brings a mass emotional connect for communities – to see and talk with families who feel never away from home. Video is also a universal media as it can play a vital role in education specially in reaching out to the illiterate.

India’s place in global innovation

So if we are seeing all this activity, why does India rank so low in the innovation index? According to Gopichand Katragadda, managing director of General Electric’s John F. Welch Technology Center in Bangalore, “The results of the study [the global innovation index] point to the fact that, in India, the innovation ecosystem (input) is poor while the knowledge/creative output under the constraints is good. One interpretation of this is that we need better government measures on regulations, education and infrastructure to tap the demonstrated potential of talented people.”

According to Katragadda, if India does not get its act together on the innovation front, the country could lose the opportunity ‘to make this a century of Indian innovation, tapping into the brilliant technical minds of the region.’

In the past I have written about India being great at producing talent that can follow a process and follow instructions either in software or hardware or research and development – but not necessarily in creating totally new innovation. But we have seen glimpses of innovation in areas as highlighted above in cloud computing, communications, health and education. In the past, technology ministers in Indian government have openly declared that India has been good at ‘screwdriver technology’ – in other words assembling or disassembling technology, products or solutions from other parts of the world. The indicators today from studies like that created by INSEAD (the global innovation index) seem to suggest that India still has some way to go to really impact the global stage with its innovation.

Nitin Dahad, The Next Silicon Valley

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