Innovation is a cleverly assembled Kadambam, Khichri or Ragamala

The Government of India has announced its new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013 (STI 2013), at the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress. What is striking about this new policy is its explicit inclusion of innovation as a component. The two earlier policies confined themselves to S and T; innovation did not find a place in those two declared policies of nation building.

Why is the present one different? Because it is more democratic and more inclusive; it sends a signal to the S&T community in the private and public domain and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which work with the aam admi. It states that STI should hitherto focus on faster, sustainable and inclusive development of the people of India. And among the “main aspirational elements” of the STI policy are “increasing accessibility, availability and affordability of innovations, especially for women, differently-abled and disadvantaged sections of society”, and “triggering ecosystem changes in attitudes, mindset values and governance system of publicly funded institutions engaged in STI activities to recognize, respect and reward performances which create wealth from S&T derived knowledge”.

What is innovation?

Stripped of all high-faluting jargon, what does it mean? In order to appreciate it, we need to go back and understand what innovation is and how it benefits daily life. Science looks at the cause of things, comes out with laws and principles, and thus generates knowledge in a concise and comprehensive fashion.

Technology applies this knowledge, uses these laws and generates products, processes and leads to inventions. An invention is a new creation that comes out of the application of science and technology. An invention is usually the “intellectual property” of the individual or group which thought about and brought about the novel product. It is thus patentable and produces wealth. Classic examples are the light bulb (invented by Edison) or the telephone (invention of Bell).

An invention is usually the result of the dogged application of the underlying science and technology, and more often than not is made by a professionally trained person or group. But innovation is different. It builds on existing inventions and products; it tweaks them, coalesces them and incrementally adds on personal ideas and applies them to find new ways to solve an existing everyday problem.

It is thus, by its very nature, a cleverly assembled Kadambam, Khichri or Ragamala. More often than not it is made by the aam admi, who has found existing solution or product wanting, and goes ahead to find a solution. He may not have a PhD, M Tech, or MD- might not even have gone to college, yet produces a product!

Steve Jobs of iPhone is the poster-boy of innovations, and of course even he needed the laptop/palmtop computer invented by someone else for his product.

The classic example of an innovation is the “missed call” on the cell phone. A more elaborate example is the domestic cooler that substitutes for an air conditioner in many homes. It uses existing invented products- exhaust fan (turned inwards towards the room), submersible water pump, and tubes with spaced holes through which water drips, and a box enclosing them.

The motorcycle- based ploughing machine, developed and patented by Mr. Mansukhbai Jagani is another such innovation. In the social sector, Mohammed Yunus’s Grameen Bank or the microfinance scheme is an innovation. Professor Anil Gupta of IIM Ahmedabad has meticulously collected and compiled such innovations, and runs the “Honeybee Network” which has almost 1000 innovations, most of them created and used by rural folk. Please access http://www.sristi.org/hbnew/ and see what all innovative products ordinary people have developed, each just as useful, yet specific for a set of given needs. Innovations come about when an ordinary person uses his mind to come out with useful products, just as a technologist does. Dr Abdul Kalam says: “Innovation opens up new vistas of knowledge and new dimensions to our imagination to make everyday life more meaningful and richer in depth and content”. It is thanks to this evangelical spirit to push the recognition of such creative innovations, and the support this has received from the National Innovation Council that the government has realized the importance of innovation.

Innovation does not always have to involve nuts and bolts, machines and materials. It could make use of, and even affect the mind and attitudes of people. Grameen Bank or the Amul Dairy Project are two outstanding examples. These projects use soft science- economics, sociology and behavioural psychology for their success.

They turn the minds of people towards the common good. In other words, the major S&T component here is as much ‘soft science’ as hard science or technology. Along these lines, can we, in the proposed STI policy take up the enormous task of providing public toilets and sanitary facilities across the country, plus change the mindsets of people so that they do not dirty the environment?

The health and welfare benefits are clear; if we do not provide then, the future consequences are dreadful to even think of (see the article by Dean Spears in the March 14th issue of The Hindu, and his article http://google/PFy43).

The technology is available, innovations are published, and the government commitment is there as well. A country with where only 47% have toilets, and the disgusting habit of urinating in public by even those who have toilets at home is unacceptable. What is needed here are innovative methods to change the mindsets of people, and that needs not science but sociology, behavioral, psychology.

The task is enormous but I believe it can be done. Our parents and grandparents went Swadeshi, discarded western clothes for Khadi, marched against salt tax, and let Harijans enter temples.

These were enormous shifts on mindsets, where the dreary desert sands of dead habit were won over by the clear stream of reason. Can we use our new STI policy to do a similar thing, using methods of sociology and psychology, and bring about a cleaner, safe and healthy India?

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