09 Feb 2016 18:20 IST

Innovation is key to India’s future

Why the ‘I’ word is even more important in a country like ours

Not many people would disagree with the headline. In fact, people around the world would substitute their home country’s name and assert that innovation is important to their country’s future as well.

But India’s circumstances are unique. We are a rapidly growing population, all set to eclipse China as the world’s largest population.

It took China draconian measures — limiting families to just one child for nearly 36 years — to contain its population growth. It was only last year that it relaxed its policies and allowed each family to have two children.

India, being a democracy, cannot impose such rules. As a result, we have had to rely only on educating our people about the dangers of overpopulation — and, judging by outcomes, we are clearly not doing a great job.

What this means

More people mean more graduates — and the numbers are staggering. India produces nearly 50 lakh new college graduates every year, and a third of them are engineers, supposedly people with the most employable skills.

But where will all of them find jobs? What about the non-engineering graduates?

Dr Craig Jeffrey, a professor of development geography at Oxford University, an expert on India’s unemployed youth, said in a 2014 interview with the BBC: “In the past, India was seen as the country of the bus conductor with a BA. Now, it is the country of the MA manual labourer. It has got so much worse.”

At a conference of engineering deans in Pune last month, speaker after speaker got up to implore the audience — made up of a few engineering students — to consider entrepreneurship as a career path as opposed to seeking placement with companies that come to campus.

The tone was consistent and, to a certain extent, one of desperation. Not only was starting your own company fulfilling because you would be your own boss, but for the first time, the plea was patriotic: start a company so that you can go out and hire someone.

Fear of the unknown

Whenever the term ‘innovation’ is mentioned, it makes people nervous; it’s almost as though the word belongs to an exclusive club of overachievers. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Innovation, as the Business Dictionary defines it, is simply the “process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service, that creates value or something for which customers will pay”. The critical phrase here is the value creation part. In other words, any change that brings about a platform where we can do more with less, could potentially be innovative. One doesn’t have to think about developing the next iPhone to have ideas that qualify as being innovative.

Give imagination free rein

Three weeks ago, my colleague Hemant Karandikar, wrote a wonderful column — Calling all ‘imaginators’! — and extolled the virtues of IoT (Internet of Things), decoding it as an invitation to breakthrough thinking, where imagination can be let loose.

We need such a mindset to solve problems — and perhaps set up companies which can create value. Here’s an example of such a mindset, where solutions to ordinary problems can create outcomes that are disproportionately positive.

Two weeks ago, I was talking to a friend, Subbiah Sharadaprasad, Chairman and Managing Director of Klas Group, a private conglomerate in Bangalore which has diversified interests in manufacturing, technology, and hospitality. One of his companies, Konarak Industria, is working with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) to test out smart water meters using IoT.

Smart meters

The concept of smart water meters is not new. The smart meter has a chip and a cheap SIM card that automatically transmits readings to a central computer as often as you wish. It is the simplest example of an IoT implementation, and has been used in the US for at least a decade.

But in the Indian context, smart meters take on added importance because of all the value they can create. The most obvious advantage is that it eliminates the need for low-skilled meter readers to go from home to home to jot down the monthly reading. These employees can be either redirected to more productive jobs within the utility or simply let go through attrition, lowering workforce costs in the long run.

The value-add, however, doesn’t come from direct labour cost savings. With smart meters you also eliminate petty corruption. The meter reader cannot artificially under-report a reading in exchange for a small bribe.

But wait, there’s more.

In a city where BWSSB statistics show that 30 per cent of all water is wasted due to leaks being plugged too late, Sharadaprasad has proposed that cheap IoT-enabled sensors be installed on all water pipe junctions in the city, and on the sub-system plumbing. These sensors measure simple things such as water flow and pressure and report readings to the central computer.

Any deviations from normal readings could indicate a leak. A crew can then be instantly dispatched to save the water leak from becoming bigger. Sure, there could be a few false alarms but this is much better than the alternative — a leak being fixed 24 hours after the occurrence because of a slow, bureaucratic response.

What’s your choice?

This is what innovation truly is and exemplifies what Hemant Karandikar says when he talks about letting one's imagination loose.

So, I ask today’s MBA graduates to not just look at cushy jobs at established companies — something IIM-A graduates are reported to covet. Instead, look around you and see problems that ail your street, neighbourhood or locality. Use your business-thinking hat and ask yourself if things could be done better, bringing in more value.

In other words, let your imagination loose. If you do, you could well become an entrepreneur who would go to your current alma mater a few years from now, and recruit from another batch of MBAs.

Now that’s a dream that is easily realisable in an economy that is growing as rapidly as India’s.

To read more from the Worldview section, click here .

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