Friday, August 20, 2010

The Radio Interview: Painful transition, New Generation

On India's 64th Independance day (August 15th, 2010), George Eby Mathew, author of India's Innovation Blueprint was invited for a discussion on India's progress with EastSideFM's Shailja Chandra. The following is an abridged version of the aired discussion on radio edited for brevity and clarity.

You can also listen to this interview as a podcast here (MP3, 36MB)

89.7 FM. What made you write the book and give us a view of the journey you took doing that?

First of all thanks for having me and it’s a pleasure to be here. The driver was the change I was seeing. If we look at my own background, I grew up in the license raj. When I graduated from University in 1992, like many other Indians in my generation, I got the first opportunity to work in a free market economy. That was a mind boggling change. However my first job was with a public sector company and when I left it to join the private sector in 3 months my entire family was perplexed as to why someone would leave a safe central government job. For many people that change was unfathomable.

There is a lot of negativism that comes from India – people dying from preventable diseases, lack of infrastructure and so on but from within that stereotyped view of India there is a new India emerging. Many people see it and many people don’t. The tension between the old India and the new India is visible. It’s sort of screeching and screaming at the edges and the peripheries of the two are loud. Any issue you tend to take in India now can be seen from these two perspectives and it is important to have those two perspectives. Documenting, narrating and chronicling the macro events building the new India and lending an explanation for the change I was witnessing from the vantage point I had standing at the inflexion points is really what the book covers.

89.7 FM: So you call it the old India and the new India? Are these two detached from one another?

The two Indias exist in the form of mindsets and legacy of how things were done in the past. You see the contrasts. It will not be possible to separate one from the other. For a reasonable time in our history we will see elements of both the old and new India and both forces will play at every key initiative. The hope is in the younger generation those that are below the age of 25. You see a different post 1991 generation (1991 was the year India liberalised its economy). These populations who would change India. Our responsibility to give them the support, education, healthcare and employment. It’s not easy to change old India. I would go to the extent that it is futile to do so. We need to focus on the new India instead.

89.7 FM: How can we be so bullish on innovation when we have so many problems to solve? Why is inclusive innovation important?

First of all we have to define the terms we are using here. Innovation is often associated with new technologies, products and new capabilities and you can think of incremental innovation, disruptive innovation, product innovation and services innovation. I don’t use the term innovation to mean science, technology and product alone. It could also be social innovation. The problems you can solve when you look at any problem from an innovation perspective is mind boggling. If we can support a farmer to solve his own problems by himself, that will be a huge success. The fundamental difference we are looking for at is that for the last 64 years we have tried to solve India’s rural problems sitting in Delhi, or the comfort zone of a wood panelled office or a boardroom.

89.7 FM: You cite low-cost ATM machines with biometric authentication to formalise rural banking as an example of inclusive innovation. Isn’t it paradoxical that we need biometric authentication purely because our illiteracy is high. How is inclusive innovation the solution?

A very good question. One of the things we haven’t properly identified and invested in is a portfolio of developmental initiatives that need to be looked at. And we need a balanced portfolio. The reason why ATMS are needed is that there is a current mass of people that needs to be supported. That is not instead of education.
At the same time India’s economy has always grown through entrepreneurship whether it is a small scale or large Indian multinational buying assets overseas., there is a scale of entrepreneurship that is very distinct from China. China‘s growth has been pushed on people sometimes against their will. The GFC didn’t affect Indian economy largely because a large number of entrepreneurs generated the wealth from within. That is inclusive growth. That is where innovation helps because without innovation wealth cannot be created. Inclusive innovation is about using innovation to include all of India's population in the wealth creation process for national good. I believe greater emphasis should be made in including the people who live in villages and help them to enhance rural GDP. I believe that the future of the nation comes from innovation at multiple levels; inclusive innovation at the rural and grassroots level scaling up to the corporate level for global competitiveness.

89.7 FM : Are there other examples of rural innovation

Yes. For starts, the national innovation foundation has a database of 100, 000 innovations that solve fundamental rural problems. Several of these innovations are unique to solving rural problems.

89.7 FM: How do you explain the Commonwealth games fiasco?

Commonwealth games is a good example from the perspective of the competing forces India has to content with till we can overwhelm our past. It is a good example of a development activity with aspirations of a new India. If we analyse the problems behind this particular instance one needs to look at which India was involved in running, executing and delivering it. The old Indian mindset still lingers in our bureaucracy, political circles and administration in terms of corruption and lack of coordination etc. When you build infrastructure of the scale of the commonwealth games where multiple departments involved - the pwd, roads department, and city planning - that were never meant or designed to be work together. There are still many Indians who would encourage siloed functioning for their own ends. Collaboration requires transparency which is counter intuitive to old India’s mindsets.

89.7 FM: When do we get it right?

I think it will take time. As I said before we will swing forward and backward for a time till change is ingrained in the system – this is where a new generation has to take their place in bureaucracy, administration and even politics. We will probably fail a few more times until the predominant driving force is new India.
The government of Andra Pradesh has a 100,000 people on its rolls. I have no idea what those people do. Many of India’s private sector companies also have over a 100,000 people . Compare the efficiencies of these organisations. We have in the same country we have diverse forces. 20 years ago the private sector forces didn’t exist. It is a significant economic power.

In the transitionary period, for every few step forward we will make a few steps backward. There is a residual progress that has remained. For example, you don’t wait 8 years for a phone connection any more. For the first time this year, the contribution to the GDP from manufacturing has surpassed the agricultural contribution. 20 years ago we wouldn’t even discussing whether we are becoming an industrialised society.

Listen to the full interview as a podcast here (MP3, 36MB)
If you enjoyed reading this, consider buying India's Innovation Blueprint

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