India: Imagine, Invent, InnovateInspire

02-03-2011    Dr R A Mashelkar

 –by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communications

I am sitting in Fraport (aka Frankfurt International Airport in Germany), bathed in warm sunlight alongside windows overlooking the busy activity of Terminal C. I am en route back home to Vancouver after an amazing trip to Kolkata, India.

I was in Kolkata for the Frontiers of Science Symposium, a two-day symposium with about 80 participants. It was a brilliant conference, actually, one that spanned science from physics to biology to engineering and computing science and information technology with some aesthetics and art history thrown in.

I want to comment on one theme that emerged – innovation in India. As my seatmate explained to from Kolkata to Delhi where I changed planes, Kolkata is actually just known as “Kal” these days by the locals because of the series of changes in the spelling and enunciation of the classical city’s name.

Professor R.A. Mashelkar was the second keynote speaker on Day 1 (March 2, 2011). As one of the advisors to the Prime Minster of India on science and technology, he had clearly thought pretty hard about how S&T fit into present-day India and especially its future. He made some brilliant observations.

He defined innovation as distinct from invention. Innovation, he said, was the successful exploitation of a new idea. Invention is then just the successful demonstration of a new idea. “Exploitation,” he said was not about pillaging and oppressing but about “making a difference.” He went on to say that “successful” meant three things: (1) speed (timing); (2) scale; and (3) sustainability. Thus, to be innovative, a new idea would have to be developed and applied to “make a difference” in way that was timely, affected “enough” people to be interesting or noteworthy, and had to be somehow self-sufficient or ongoingly relevant. A flash in the pan doesn’t qualify as innovative.

His thesis, though, revealed a cornerstone of cultural attitude and public policy in India. There are roughly 400 million people in India in the middle or upper socio-economic classes. That’s more people than there are total in the United States. More importantly, though, everyone notes, that means there are 600 million in India below the poverty line. And as most people know after visiting the country, living in poverty in India is serious poverty. The south side of Chicago is wealthy compared to what those 600 million people are dealing with.

The bottom line: science, technology, and innovation – as tools of public policy – must respond to and address this gross inequality. Mashelkar summarized this ambition with a noble (and catchy) moniker: Do More for Less for More. He abbreviated this as MLM (which I took as multi-level marketing the first time I saw it on his slides!)

What does More for Less for More mean? (Mashelkar has an article in the Harvard Business Review on this; see blog commentary on this.)  It means that our ambitions should be to accomplish More (results, impact, or performance) for Less (costs, time, effort, or resources) for More (and more and more people). Mashelkar challenged the symposium participants, and in fact all of India, to take More for Less for More as the goal for Indian innovation. Don’t come up with a new idea that makes life better for 5 people isn’t worth it. He asked people to come up with good ideas that make a difference for 100 million or even 500 million people. THAT would be true innovation, he asserted.

It was an inspiring and impassioned beginning to the conference, one that set the bar high and also identified a clear direction. India is a proud country and one that is increasingly dedicated to addressing its woes and improving life for all of its people.

Again, what an amazing country!