Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Innovation from India

Rahul has been pointing to some studies that Indians are not leading in innovation etc. Here's my response to the posts on his blog: There's no reason to think that India is behind in technology innovation or anything.

For one thing, Indians are not un-innovative, and yes, we're not trained to think out-of-the-box, but by that standard, the German education system isn't that much better, for example. Students from India come to US universities regularly and start winning innovation/business plan competitions within their first couple of years here.

Tech companies in India are also innovating - big time. Infosys and TCS's business models are not based on innovative technology but innovative processes, and therefore Narayan Murthy does not have to worry about tech innovation just yet. Infosys's processes, for example, are a lot smarter than IBM's, for example, when it comes to offshoring/outsourcing tech work. You can't look down on that.

Tata Elxsi, the lesser-known high-tech services shop in the Tata stable, is doing $80M worth of extremely innovative technologies in partnership with inventors large and small every year. Dozens of Silicon Valley startups owe the real smart innovative firmware/hardware to Tata Elxsi.

I'd further say that there's nothing like "Indian innovation" or "American innovation." All innovation happens in context and the best innovation is that which touches and helps all human beings. Grameen Bank is an interesting and successful idea, but cell phones have had a much bigger impact on everyone's life - rich or poor - than Grameen Bank, for example. If Infosys continues with its process innovation, it will have a pretty major effect on everyone's lives too.

It is dangerous to confuse 'innovativeness of Indians' with 'system of innovation in India', because any discussion on the latter will tend to drown in jingoistic posturing about the former. Sarosh goes down that route (in his post on my blog), and you seem to have walked into the trap.

I am in full agreement when you say that Indians are not un-innovative or that our education system does not stunt our innovativeness, as it is often accused of. But the success of Indian innovators abroad rests on two conditions which are taken for granted - (1) laws that protect ideas, and (2) markets that reward them. While foreign markets will continue to reward innovative Indians, as you point out with the Infosys example, innovation "for Indians by Indians" as an institution will never take root without the first condition.

That said, should examples of excellence in innovation stop at Infosys and Tata? Of course they shouldnt, but sadly they do. As IIMA's Prof Anil Gupta will tell you, real innovation will bloom only when a small-time farmer-innovator with an efficient weeder or the electronic-repairman with a new circuit finds their rights and ideas protected. To say that India is not behind in innovation is to close your eyes to the problem.
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