India’s Innovation Path

by Aditya Dev Sood

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One day, I came home from school to a big commotion in the living room. My dad was working with an electrician and a mason, and they were together struggling to figure out how this enormous apparatus was going to work. What is it, I asked? A split-unit air-conditioner, my dad said! The thing was a deep and dark gray, with fierce frowning fins all around. It sat in our living room that day like a fine objet, detached slightly from the wall into which its cables would soon run, locking firmly into the masonry and coming out the other side, into the sunless side yard we then had, where I also parked my bicycle. The thing was powerful alright, having been designed for industrial use, and it hummed quietly to itself, rather than roaring and groaning in the way air-conditioners usually did back then. No one in our friends or family circle had ever seen or heard of a split-unit AC, and it was quite the source of living-room family pride.

My dad had bought the thing at an auction at the American embassy, which was upgrading from these four-year-old split-units to central air-conditioning. He must have paid, maybe forty thousand rupees for the thing, almost two thousand bucks in 1980s US dollars. But even this second-hand industrial unit must have seemed a good investment, as compared with the kinds of ACs that were available in the market then — old technologies that were made even more expensive by heavy import duties. And when I think back on it, I realize that many of the appliances and consumer goods we enjoyed in our home came from these sales at diplomatic compounds, or else imported by someone else and then sold locally. Our enormous six-burner stove-oven, our banana-yellow Isuzu car, our small upstairs stereo system, our several VCRs, even my silver ten-speed bike, all of these appurtenances came into lives second-hand, through foreign contacts. Nothing like them was then available in India's local markets.

Eventually our stove-burner was rusting out, so we had to send it to the welder to get a new sheeting on the back, the better to keep the rats out of the kitchen. The Isuzu was in and out of the shop a lot, and we once considered switching out its engine with a new local one. And when the woofer on the small stereo tore, I took the two speakers to Lajpat Rai Market to have them replaced with a spare ripped out of another speaker. To participate in consumer culture in India back then was like living in a Mad Max movie — the fragments of a more advanced technological and material culture surrounded us, and we made tactical use of whatever we could find. But we seemed doomed never to be able to inhabit that technological horizon. The technology of everyday life seemed to come to us from far away, and always without proper distribution, support, service.

We described these aspects of life in India to visitors from the West with a kind of gallows humor. There is something a bit embarrassing about it all, and yet, one must confess, there is the obvious ingenuity of mechanics, electricians, and all-purpose repairmen, who were able to lift your spirits up from the depths of despondency in electro-mechanical failure, to sudden joy at having your contraption sputter to life again. Nor have these cultures of repair and refurbishment completely died out in India over the last couple of decade, and every now and again one encounters an article in the American business press about jugaad, the uniquely Indian capacity to join broken things, and make them work again, using country fixes. In on-going debates about innovation in India, it seems inevitable that one returns to the ‘ingenious fixes’ of those days, to ask how that talent and human inventiveness can be better harnessed towards the future.

The classic theory of innovation is provided in economic terms by Joseph Schumpeter, who listed several different kinds of changes that could be brought about through entrepreneurial action. These included the discovery and creation of new markets, the development of new methods of production and transportation, as well as new forms of industrial organization, and — this is critical — new kinds of consumer goods and the new experiences of value that they afford. It is striking to me that even though the country-mechanics and other jugaad specialists of India are capable of achieving none of these aims, they are still held up as somehow occupying a place or showing a kind of direction for innovation, that is not otherwise visible to us. It is as if we know, somehow, that all the abstract jargon of business thinking and economic reasoning has its place, but that it cannot replace that hands-on messing about with tools and things that artisans, craftspeople, and repairmen share. Jugaad seems to serve as a figure for design-thinking and problem-solving in the real world, capabilities which are scarce to the point of being unknown and unheard in many corners of Indian industry and public life.

The static, torpid, Hindu-rate-of-growth-India of my childhood began to end in the early nineties with economic liberalization. In the first stage, global manufacturers newly allowed into India offer basic or utility lines of their global product line, thereby extending the lifecycle of technologies that might already have been rendered obsolete. Even though Indian consumers might buy a technology product first-hand from a store, it was still, in a sense, second-hand, for it had likely been developed somewhere else, for another target segment or consuming population, and was now merely repositioned for Indian distribution. One leftist cultural theorist described India’s peculiar situation as a form of ‘recycled’ modernity — which would apply, therefore, not only to the actual second-hand goods and e-waste reused and recycled to new purposes in India, but also to the ‘consumption-after-the-fact’ of second-hand intellectual property, as articulated in consumer goods that were new from the store.

The marketing and distribution arms of global consumer goods companies were no less concerned about the growing discernment of Indian consumers. To succeed in an ever more competitive Indian marketplace, they could no longer be seen to be hocking another culture’s technological leavings. Rather, they began localizing their portfolio of products for India and similar 'emerging market economies.' In this era, therefore we got cars with stronger suspensions for Indian roads, more powerful air-conditioners for the Indian summer, and mobile phones that were dust and grease proof, all, it was claimed, 'Made for India.' The thrust of innovation in these localization campaigns was a kind of combination of a critical success factor — a particular color, feature or functionality, or all-round robustness — with a feel-good India-focused consumer message. India and the world were made to connect symbolically in a variety of different ways, all of which appealed to an emerging middle class with growing pride in its consumer access, purchasing power, and ready participation in the global consumer economy.

Today, just about everything in the world is now available in Indian markets and malls, and Indian online shopping portals now guarantee the delivery of goods from anywhere in the world. There are now major Indian makers of home appliances, home media, automobiles, watches, eyewear, and innumerable global distributors for every other kind of consumer good on which one might expend one's disposable income. We are finally arriving at a new third stage of economic life in India, where the gale force of capitalism and its continuing impact on society must be understood and experienced as arising not from outside somewhere, but from within the social market itself.

Despite the incredible social change that urban as well as rural India are already undergoing, and their concomitant appetite for socio-technical innovation, the discourse around innovation in India remains at a very preliminary stage. Two important contributors to this discourse, however, have been the late C. K. Prahalad along with R. A. Mashelkar, both theorists of management and industrial engineering, who have advised large corporations in India and around the world. They have offered a conception of 'frugal' innovation, which does ‘more with less for more people,’ and is therefore also known as the M-L-M approach. While this conception of innovation is helpfully open ended in terms of how more value is actually to be created with fewer resources, this approach has largely been understood in terms of value engineering and cost management. The TATA group, for instance, has claimed several instances of this approach to innovation, most famously its TATA Nano car, which retails for a bit over one hundred thousand rupees, or around US $2,500. It has also opened the TATA Ginger chain of business hotels, where you can get a safe, clean room for under US $100, and more recently announced the TATA Swach, a water filter for two hundred and fifty rupees (US $5) which will run for six months on a cheap and replaceable cartridge of activated charcoal (US $1).

Each of these propositions appears meaningful and relevant in an economy that is still largely impoverished and price sensitive. But do they really represent innovation? In Schumpeter’s terms, of course, they do, for they necessarily involve somewhat new methods and processes, while also opening up large new markets on account of their new price point. And yet, there is nothing fundamentally new about the experience cars, hotel rooms or water filters per se, though they might be new to those first-time consumers of these goods. Nevertheless, this cost-optimization approach to innovation may be considered as a first, necessary, and preliminary phase of innovation from India, which will eventually move on to more sophisticated higher order challenges, which truly bring new things into the world.

Two additional and complementary abilities are required for higher-order forms of innovation. The first is a rich understanding of human behavior, social interaction, and every practices, including the use of existing technologies, all of which can be gained through ethnographic techniques, particularly visual-intensive and design-oriented approaches. The second is the discrete identification and listing of the challenges and needs of human subjects in given contexts, so that component solutions and responses can be systematically proposed. This process is called design analysis. Once these needs are synthesized through a design process, prototyped and tested, something new can be birthed into the world, which is not an imitation or adaptation or re-engineering of something someone else has already thought up. It is true product or service innovation, the creation of new consumer goods, in Schumpeter’s formulation.

Again, the systematicity and high-level intentionality of this process cannot be further from the adaptive response of country-mechanics dealing with an over-heating engine on the side of the road. So why does jugaad keep coming up, not only for others struggling with India’s innovation path, but also in my own mind, whenever I think of innovation in India? I think this may have to do with the kinds of skills and capacities that are required, both for jugaad, as well as for design research, design analysis and the other steps and stages of systematic innovation. It has to do with the part of one’s mind that becomes activated when confronted with a three-dimensional riddle, rising to the challenge of solving a puzzle, addressing a multivariate problem for which there can be no linear solution. That leap will have to be made, for it is clear that there are neither roadsigns nor roads, and you will have to leap into someone else’s mind or into the common thread of ingenuity that binds all of us in this social-technological chain of human existence to make this contraption hum with life.