As the economic reforms of the last two decades start to bear fruit in India, a few notable ideas around innovation inside the country are also beginning to bloom.
First came "Indovation," the idea that if innovation could ever have a national flavor, then a
distinctly Indian one would soon emerge in the global marketplace. Then the "Bottom of the
Pyramid" followed. Advanced by the "world's most influential management thinker" University
of Michigan professor C.K. Prahalad's exploration of the poorest of the poor as customers to be
courted highlighted India's potential as a major consumer market for innovative products and
services. Now Jugaad (roughly translated from Hindi as "frugal innovation") is weaving its way through business, design, academic & policy circles. In doing so, will Jugaad -- the traditional (and highly unconventional in Western eyes) idea of improvising raw solutions through scarce resources under imperfect conditions -- emerge as the next frontier of innovation science?
The University of Toronto is going to find out. A new interdisciplinary research initiative, simply
titled the "India Innovation Institute", was launched in October 2011 to explore the parameters
around innovation in India, with the role played by the diaspora central to its scope of research.
The Institute will ask questions about the very nature of innovation and will attempt to explain why it works when it does and understand when it doesn't.
Take Jugaad, which represents a completely new way to frame innovation according to the Institute's inaugural director and Rotman School of Management professor, Dilip Soman: "In the western world there is a belief that in order to create good innovations (such as Apple's line of shiny and much-beloved gadgets) you need to have people free of constraints and the cost of failure shouldn't be too high..." he explains. "We think in India that we see the opposite story." He says it starts with how people view obstacles in front of them: problems to complain about or opportunities to fix?
"Imagine you wake up in the morning in Bombay and you turn on the taps and there's no water. Now if this happened in Toronto somebody would have protested, there would be 600 wall posts on somebody's Facebook page saying there's no water, complaints about the mayor etc. None of that happens in India. What happens in India is that some enterprising fellow will hire 6 local boys who will go to the municipality tap and bring you a bucket of water for 5 Rupees. This highlights the fact that the average Indian sees an opportunity in an inefficient system. The average Canadian doesn't."
In a land of constraints (is there a better euphemism for India?) people are forced to come up
with ingenious solutions to their problems, often by relying on the barest of essentials. MP and former UN Undersecretary General Sashi Tharoor explained at the Institute's launch in Toronto, this method of innovating on the cheap has resulted in a number of success: from the manufacture of the world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano, to an $800 electrocardiogram by General Electric to bite-sized shampoo packages for those same Bottom of the Pyramid dwellers. "Indians have become natural innovators in frugal innovation without anyone telling them about the concept."
It has certainly caught the eye of major multinational businesses at the same event: Indian
ambassador to Canada Consul General Preeti Saran noted that 60 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are now examining frugal innovation and its role in the knowledge economy. As University of Toronto President and frequent visitor to India David Naylor said, the III will join the conversation and "advance our understanding of the traffic between India and Canada in every way." The particular focus on Jugaad highlights innovation as more than just simply the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) branch on the tree of knowledge. "Innovation is embedded in the way a culture does things" says Soman.
Practiced in a civic sense, such as the tested-and-true techniques used to navigate the country's notorious bureaucracy, he admits that Jugaad has evolved in part as a rebuke to the country's sclerotic institutions. Citing the missed-call phenomenon (where users communicate with other for free by deliberately not answering their mobile telephones) Soman, who was named as one of the Financial Times "Professors to Watch", says the Institute will explore the impact socio-cultural background has in innovation, an element that often goes overlooked. He is particularly interested in the behavioral economics that undergird these scenarios: "We are trying to understand what the role of constraints are, what the role of poverty is, what the role of family upbringing has--all of those things are present in the ability to become an innovator. Our thesis is that frugal innovation is a mindset--once you get people to think of objects as resources instead of objects simply as objects, you can change the way they start combining objects into meaningful solutions."
The Institute will also look at when innovative practices in India fail to catch on, particularly when solutions fail to extend and scale across the nation. Why, for example, can a small army of Dabbawallas feed hundreds of thousands of hungry Mumbaikers home-cooked lunches every day--at a Six Sigma accuracy rate of delivery (1 error in 16 million deliveries)--but not do so in Delhi? (The answer, Soman suspects, is due to Mumbai's unique geographic layout and north-south infrastructure axis). Similarly, if the Aravind Eye hospital can treat millions of patients efficiently and cheaply, "Why are there not a thousand Aravind Eye hospitals across India?"
The Institute will attempt to identify the "core efficiency drivers" that make these phenomenon
successful in the first place and understand how they can be replicated elsewhere. The third platform of the research agenda will look at the role the diaspora is playing in Indian innovation. According to Matt Mendehlson, the executive director of the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, most conventional attention to diasporas comes down to either political pandering (when politicians routinely court "the ethnic vote" during election campaigns) or influencing policy on the host country's relations with the home country (i.e. the vigorous lobbying Indian communities in Canada and the US made to remove India from official government sanction after its nuclear tests in 1998). "Diaspora networks have been an afterthought on public policy even in areas they are relevant such as trade, exports and remittances." Furthermore, traditional diaspora research tends to examine the impact overlapping identities have on the host country (i.e. Canada). So instead, the Institute will examine the impact of diaspora networks have on the home country: India. Soman asks "How important is the diaspora to India and what are the economic impacts of that? How involved should the (consular) missions be in seeding and collecting and organizing the diaspora?" He says that at a minimum, diasporas can transmit best practices wherever they occur: "People across the world can act as your eyes and ears and say 'Here's an idea for how things are done in Toronto and could work in Delhi'."
Though universities across the West are looking at Indian innovation, including Harvard
University's India Research Centre and the Aditya Birla India Centre at the London School of
Business, Soman says this is the first time that a distinctively multidisciplinary approach, led by
the Rotman School and the Munk School of Global Affairs across the street at the University of
Toronto will be used. Other initiatives include the creation of the Prosperity Institute of India, a
joint collaboration between the Martin Prosperity Institute (led by urban guru Richard Florida),
the Rotman School and Harvard to investigate India's creative economy, centered around
Florida's "Three T's of Innovation Theory": technology, talent and tolerance. Some are geared to
have immediate on-the-ground impacts: the Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce is planning to work with the Institute to connect Indian students with small and medium-sized businesses in the Toronto area. All of this collaboration takes place against the backdrop of an increasingly vibrant relationship between the two Commonwealth countries: 2011 was the "Year of India in Canada", marked by conferences, gala exhibits and the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Toronto and overall trade is expected to triple to $15 billion by 2015 with a free-trade pact under negotiation.
Ultimately, Soman hopes the findings of the III will go beyond India's particular circumstances to address problems in emerging economies around the world: "Our story is more about what
succeeds and what fails and what are the abstract principles that you can draw from it--not just in the Global South but in Western markets as well."