Curiosity can kill the C A Ts

To make a giant leap in the Global Innovation Index, institutions and faculty must do a serious rethink to cultivate curiosity among students

January 11, 2020 12:16 pm | Updated 12:16 pm IST

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

India, at present, is ranked 52nd in the Global Innovation Index. Policy-makers would like the country to leapfrog into the top 25 in the next few years. One of the visible signs of the policy initiatives, both in the academia and the industry, is the increased number and scale of innovation contests. Invariably, these contests target the engineering students, guided by an implicit assumption that young minds are better equipped to find creative solutions for the persistent problems faced by the industry and society.


While innovation contests are not a bad idea, they have their limitations in producing innovation due to two reasons. First, it is difficult for students to produce radically new and practically feasible solutions without a deep appreciation of the problem’s context. In most cases, the solutions tend to be techno-centric in nature like IoT/Blockchain-enabled farming. Second, students whose ideas are not shortlisted, lose interest in the problems and the contests. As a result, the contests may not be the best tools to seed a culture of innovation.

In order to develop a culture of innovation, it is important to pay attention to the key driver of creativity and innovation — curiosity. In the past couple of years, I have been doing a few exercises with students and experienced professionals to understand the relationship between curiosity, creativity and innovation. One of them involves asking the participants to observe things in their context and document on a piece of paper. To my surprise, I did not notice any difference in the way young minds and experienced professionals responded to the exercise.

For most of the participants, the context was either too familiar or did not exist at all and it did not trigger any curiosity. The few participants who did exhibit some curiosity, did not explore it. This behaviour can be traced to the fear of failure that is cultivated through our education, competitive exams, and risk-reward systems. And we seem to have accepted the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” as an axiom. I think it is time we put the negative connotation of curiosity to rest.


Today, there is an improved understanding of curiosity, its inhibitors and enablers. Research studies indicate that five types of curiosity are relevant for professional work — specific, diversive, social, perceptual and epistemic.

Engineers typically exhibit specific curiosity , i.e., curiosity to engage with specific problems like mathematical equations or puzzles. However, this type of curiosity tends to decline when the problem is either ambiguous or the knowledge gap is high.

Diversive curiosity is an interest to know a variety of things (seeking novelty). However, the interest to know a variety of things related to professional work reduces with increased specialisation. One way to overcome this is by deliberately shifting from one topic to another or taking cross functional roles at different times and integrating the diverse experiences. Diversive curiosity helps deal with ambiguity in problem-solving and boosts creativity.

Social curiosity is the interest to know about other people. Cultivating social curiosity requires a pluralistic, non-judgmental way of engagement. Engineers can learn from anthropologists. Social curiosity can open possibilities for collaboration which can help address knowledge gaps and lead to new meanings.

The fourth type — perceptual curiosity — is very natural to all of us. Anything new in our context easily excites us. However, perceptual curiosity reduces as familiarity increases. We stop observing or seeing everyday routine things. Lack of perceptual curiosity can affect both diversive and social curiosity. Artists and designers know how to cultivate perceptual curiosity. That is the reason why engineers today are being asked to learn from artists and designers.

Finally, there is epistemic curiosity that is critical to developing creative confidence. It is the process of learning to create new knowledge, which can happen only by trying things out or testing the hypothesis, i.e., problem-based learning.

Academic institutions and faculty must do a serious rethink to cultivate curiosity among students. A good starting point is to revisit Anatole France’s observation that “the whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards”. Maybe the character ‘c’ in the word faculty is meant to highlight the central role of curiosity. In other words, what would be a faculty without the ‘c’?

One way to drive home the point is to make curiosity an important parameter in faculty evaluation and recruitment. If institutions take steps in this direction, then at least in 10 years from now, we can create an environment where increased curiosity among engineering students kills the blind pursuit of CAT, GATE and other competitive exams and enhances the creative confidence to pursue innovation and entrepreneurship. Only this can help the country make a giant leap in the Global Innovation Index.

The writer is Dean (Design, Innovation & Incubation), IIITDM Kancheepuram.

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