Innovation's real test



The greatest test of innovation is in its adoption "” adoption by millions of people, to whom a simple solution for solving an everyday, living problem makes a big difference. That is why the world loves Lycra; that is why every mother wants the teenager to carry a cell phone and is also willing to pay for it; that is also the reason the digital camera has changed our way of thinking about photography.
Any innovation that requires sophisticated understanding has elitism built into its social contract and, therefore, has limited adoption. The world is always hungry for things it can easily understand, easily touch and feel and smell and hold and carry and throw away.
Just as I learnt so much from Yves Doz and Steve Jobs, I also learnt a lot about innovation from the famous brand designer Shombit Sengupta. Story has it that every European kitchen has, at the least, six things that carry his design. These could be anything from the Dannon yogurt cup to a high-end Remy Martin cognac bottle.
From Sengupta I learnt that innovation comes from struggle. The first half of the past century saw one of the most difficult times for human beings ever. Between the two World Wars, 78 million people died. Under Hitler's fascist regime, 6 million Jews were exterminated in cattle trains and gas chambers.
The Atom Bomb singed every living being in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and damaged future generations as well. It ripped the uniform of war from the mangled body of political patriotism. Periods of great struggle and periods of innovation are sadly, happily intertwined. India, according to Sengupta, has not struggled enough to be innovative enough. I reflect on that one statement and begin to wonder if it can be fully denied.
The last time we built something unique and gave it to the world was...when? After Hampi, Belur-Halebidu in the deep South and the Taj in the North, for hundreds of years, a nation has hibernated. We have not built anything that is architecturally unique.
From Lutyen's Delhi to the Mysore Palace to the Bahá'í Temple in New Delhi to the bridge over Howrah, each is only a reminiscence. When a nation flounders in an architectural sense, it also flounders in every other aspect of creativity.
Creative fields like art, literature, music, dance, fashion, scientific quest, geographic exploration, spiritualism and architectural design are all interlinked. By looking at the architectural design of a civilisation at a given time, one can immediately understand what was going on in the minds of people who lived in it.
Architecture externalises everything else. When India stopped building the temples and the mosques and the courtyards and the walled staircases, India also slid from the existential layer to the adaptive.
But I think this is about to undergo a change. I believe that we are in the cusp of a millennial shift in which India will, once again, innovate. I see the first signs of spring after the civilisational hibernation that afflicted an entire people for the past few centuries.
I see that unmistakable step of spring in the fiction of Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy, who are telling the world that people with difficult-to-pronounce names can also write for a global audience. I see the signs when people across the world curl up on their living room sofa to scream or smile at the will of Manoj Night Shyamalan and Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha.
I see a nation of silkworm-breeders and cotton-weavers begin to drape the world's catwalks with the sensuousness of a creation by Ritu Beri or Tarun Tahiliani. All this is extending to the spheres of sports and hospitality, healthcare and drug research.
The sudden splurge of creativity in the high technology sector in India is being seen with understandable nervousness in some quarters. To me that nervousness is largely misplaced because the future is not the delta of the past and the present, nor is it the sigma of the two.
While it is difficult to predict what the future will be, I am more certain than ever before that innovation will be far more broad-based and inherently symbiotic. People, and not nations, will determine the flow of needs, desires and wants. The human effort to create new value will increasingly emerge through porous national borders.
The Internet will intertwine the creative powers of people separated by time, space and coloration, more than ever before. The Silicon Valley will be a state of mind. There will be democratisation of ideas and the ideation process because the population shift of the world will place new economic power in the hands of that third of the planet that, until recently, went unnoticed. In all this, a new co-operative model will emerge.
Yes, in saying all this, I risk crossing over from being the voice of reason to the voice of hope "” but that is a risk I am willing to take.
Innovation: aspirational or state of being?
Just as I have learnt so much from people like Doz and Sengupta, I have also learnt immensely from an architect friend named Prem Chandavarkar. It was he who first opened my mind to something I was only faintly aware of.
Is innovation an aspirational state? Or, is it a being? That in itself is such a wonderful thought; powerful in its ability to split us the same way the theory of dualism has people fervently taking positions in arguing each side.
In his quest for the truth, Chandavarkar looks around for research by people like Donald Schon, who wrote The Reflective Practitioner, and Russian philosopher Viktor Shklovsky. It was Schon who rejected the idea of contemplation and action as different and made us aware of work as contemplative action.
Like that concept, we need to consider whether innovation is a higher state. Chandavarkar believes that sustained innovation requires stepping out of the thought that it is a higher state. It requires us to embrace the notion of "living innovation" as against aspiring for it. He shifts from Schon to Shklovsky and introduces us to the concept of "making strange".
Shklovsky defines the central purpose of art as "making strange" and goes on to say that art is like a Knight's move on a board of chess; it is one move straight and one move crooked. The presence of the crooked move is what renews us.
It is our connection to a reality that is greater than ourselves. Without it, we get trapped within the limited, blinke red, linear logic of habit. This is why we must live innovation and not merely aspire to it.
Modern management, a child of modern science, sees too much causality in the state of things. As a result, it tells us things like:
"I must innovate in order to survive."
"I must innovate in order to improve profitability."
"I must innovate in order to gain market share."
"I must innovate in order to achieve business success."
All of the above, says Chandavarkar, are true but not sufficient. To stop at that level is to place innovation outside our hearts. This would cause innovation to eventually dissipate and become stale. Long-term sustainability can come only from inner passion and a foundational belief that "I must innovate because I am like that only" (Good old Indian English).
Innovation thrives in diversity
To flourish, innovation requires a certain fertility condition on the ground. Without it, a creative act is like a good seed that falls on hard, unreceptive soil. It is not without reason, therefore, that trees grow strong and tall in rainforests. The rain forests provide a unique eco-system that leads to spectacular life, myriad hues and a certain vibrancy that you see nowhere else.
Behind the great eco-system of the rainforest is the diversity of nature. The power of diversity in the flora and fauna lead to the possibility of highest growth for any life form in the jungles of Brazil or the Western Ghats of India or under the watchful volcano in Indonesia.
Cut to New York City
You get into a PATH train or an MTA bus and you look around at your co-passengers. In peak hours, chances are that among them, you are bound to notice people of at least six other national origins, not counting yourself.
You step out of the subway or the bus, into the busy streets, and again you look around. In the same block where you stand, you will find food from six different ethnic origins. That diversity is the competitive advantage of New York City. It makes New York the undisputed capital of human civilisation today.
The ethnic diversity of New York gives it a certain edge in innovation that no other city can take away. Like the rainforest that is the city of New York, when organisations learn to live with and celebrate diversity, they surge ahead in innovation. It is not without reason that innovation seldom comes from monochromatic societies. The more like a rainforest a society is, the more likely it is to innovate.
Click here to read Part I
The writer is Co-founder and
Chief Operating Officer of MindTree Consulting.
Grateful acknowledgments: Yves Doz, Shombit Sengupta, Prem Chadavarkar and other referenced individuals.

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First Published: Feb 21 2006 | 0:00 AM IST

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