Innovation, India-Style

R. Gopalakrishnan of Tata Sons offers a surprising take on what’s truly new
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Quick: how do you define innovation?

The flippant answer is “anything made by Apple,” says R. Gopalakrishnan (Gopal to his friends), non-executive director of Tata Sons.

To him, “innovation is simply a new way of solving a problem,” he said at the recent Khemka Distinguished Speaker Forum, presented by the India Business Initiative of the Chazen Institute. “But how do you measure innovation?” he continued. “By number of patents? By profits from an invention? By number of people affected?”

The answer may be “all of the above,” but Gopalakrishnan cautioned it’s important to view innovation in the context of the market it serves and the impact it makes. Innovation isn’t always a startling new concept as much as a new approach adapted to a specific context, he said. And management and marketing tools may be just as important to innovation as technology.

That’s especially true in India, whose set of problems differs pointedly from those faced by the developed world. Rather than the elegant high-tech answers offered by Silicon Valley, India’s solutions may come through frugal innovation that keeps affordability in mind, as well as reverse innovation that pares solutions down to basics.

5 Life-Changers

In a presentation chock full of anecdotes, Gopalakrishnan ticked off some problems solved through Indian innovation:

  • Milk: India has the most babies in the world, and also the largest bovine population, but for years poor babies went without, and India imported milk. Following a cooperative approach that instilled best practices among dairy farmers, India became the world’s leading milk exporter.

  • Eye care: Thanks to the pioneering methods of one surgeon whose techniques have been replicated throughout India’s cities, a cataract operation can now be had for $50, he said. “I see us becoming the cataract surgery capital of the world.”
  • Curbing corruption: Acknowledging that “India is still enveloped in corruption spaghetti,” Gopalakrishnan said technology has erased the need for bribes in many cases. For example, rather than slip rupees under the table to local bureaucrats, Indians can apply online for a passport and get it a week later. Voter fraud is also down since each of India’s 3 million (!) elected officials is chosen through electronic balloting. “That's something that doesn't happen even in the United States,” he said.
  • Salt — and fresh water: A chemical plant on India’s Western coast was erected to extract salt from seawater. But executives soon determined the fresh water that was left from the process was more valuable than the mountains of NaCl left behind. “Rather than vacuum up the stuff, they let someone else take the salt away,” said Gopalakrishnan. “Today it removes iron deficiency from 1 billion people.” It also makes clean, crystal-clear water.
  • Sanitation: India knows how to build toilets, but still the country’s fields and roadside gutters are the largest outdoor facility in the world. The innovation here involves marketing and social engineering meant to make sanitation a priority. The Swachh Bharat (“neat and clean”) campaign endorsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as scientists and social workers throughout the country stresses the health benefits of sanitation and addresses practical issues. “If five families share a toilet, who is responsible for cleaning it?” asked Gopalakrishnan, who has recruited both Indian Railways and India Post to get the Swachh Bharat message out.

The Government’s Role

Governments can and should prepare a fertile soil for change, he noted. Although legislation provides some protection for intellectual property, this protection is primitive at best. “America has a hundred-year jump on developing standards," he said. Without patent protection akin to US standards, venture capital investment will be hampered, he noted.

The government provides some grants to foster innovation and is struggling to encourage public/private partnerships. But, in the end, “innovative government is an oxymoron — not just in India, but in the United States as well,” he said.

That’s okay, because the pace of private innovation is on the rise in India, Gopalakrishnan said, pointing to some 850 multinational research labs throughout the country. A case in point: GE’s first lab outside the United States was in Bangalore.

Thanks to the Internet, knowledge is shared today on a global basis, which makes adaptation far more accessible than in the past — and perhaps tailor-made for India. “India comes out of the mindset of colonialism and socialism,” said Gopalakrishnan. “Research is more collaborative here than in many parts of the world.”

Given India's launching pad, Gopalakrishnan is “hugely, hugely optimistic” about how innovation can transform his country. “Nations are like human beings. They have to go through infancy and childhood and adolescence before reaching adulthood.” Pointing to the rewards of innovation — social and environmental as well as fiscal — he believes India is on its way.

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