September 07, 2008

Are We Inventive Enough? - By Sanjay Anandaram

Over the weekend, I was immersed in reading Madcap Crazy Inventions by Gyles Brandreth, a slim volume published in 1997 as a tribute to the imaginative people from around the Western world. These quite remarkable people dreamt up an incredible variety of inventions that, no doubt, they thought would prove very useful but which we recognize today as being simply ridiculous. Of course, the inventors themselves had faith in their inventions! The inventions range from a spaghetti eating tool to a robber catcher to a rat scarer to a stammer stopper to reversible trousers to the Smellorama (where smells were made to match the action on a movie screen!). Most of the inventions were made in the 1st half of the 20th century.

On February 28, 1856, the Government of India promulgated legislation to grant what was then termed as "exclusive privileges for the encouragement of inventions of new manufactures". On March 3, 1856, a civil engineer, George Alfred DePenning of 7, Grant's Lane, Calcutta petitioned the Government of India for grant of exclusive privileges for his invention — "An Efficient Punkah Pulling Machine". On September 2nd, DePenning, submitted the Specifications for his invention along with drawings to illustrate its working. These were accepted and the invention was granted the first ever Intellectual Property protection or patent in India!

After the patent for the “efficient punkah pulling machine” one would have imagined that the electric fan would have been patented in India electricity having come to India in 1906. Look around and see the environment around – there are thousands of opportunities for innovation and invention. Yet the story of inventions and patents in India has been a long and sorry one.

That set me thinking. What would a list of Madcap Crazy Inventions look like for India? I suspect our list, if at all, there were one would be rather short and boring. And why should that be the case?

Madcap and Crazy are two words that as most stereotypes would have us believe adjectives that describe brainy scientists and inventors. Would we describe our scientists and inventors as “madcaps” and “crazy”? Why not? I think the problem lies in our social milieu. To make truly quantum leaps in science and innovation, one needs to be imaginative, unafraid to question the status quo and be willing to experiment. And even more unafraid of failing. Einstein imagined what it would be like if he were to ride atop a beam of light – A madcap idea? Yes! Crazy idea? Yes!! Edison is supposed to have tried several hundred materials before he chose the tungsten filament for his electric bulb. Our social milieu frowns upon questioning, imagination, experimentation and indeed failure.

True innovation comes from both right and left brain thinking. Not valuing or appreciating the arts and humanities adequately leads to atrophying of creative powers and insight. Creating “insanely great” products like what Apple routinely churns out, for example, requires not just engineering smarts but a high degree of creativity. As a nation, we’ve consistently under-emphasized the arts (the economic rationale is appreciated but that’s not the point) over the last 50 years and are now therefore left wondering about the arcane intricacies of say, user interface design, which is all about understanding how humans interact with each other. Movie making, for example, is another field which requires an enormous amount of creativity – from writing a top class script to visualizing the scenes to creating the mood to the music. Without the training in giving free reign to one’s imagination, experimenting and failing, it is hard to see how top class movie making talent from India can stand up on the world stage and be counted.

Another example: how many of our youngsters read science fiction for example? How many writers of sci-fi do we have? How many of our youngsters read or write or undertake creative pursuits? Sci-Fi by its very genre challenges the writer and the reader to imagine worlds that don’t exist. Innovation will ensure that these worlds come to pass! Is it a coincidence that the US and Japan have the world’s most evolved and robust sci-fi sub-cultures?

Sure, there have been truly Indian innovations that have addressed Indian problems but these have been sporadic and highly uneven. The National Innovation Foundation, the GIAN-Honeybee network are terrific initiatives to harness innovation and grass-roots inventions. But there needs to be many more such programmes especially ones that can be scaled.

With India’s booming economy and growth prospects, it can only be hoped that more and more madcap and crazy ideas will be worked upon, failures notwithstanding. After all, as the saying goes, if you haven’t failed it means you haven’t tried hard enough.

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.