Can Bangalore become a hub for innovation?

BEYOND BOUNDARIES

 Yes, it is innovation that is the common factor. ‘Innovation,’ a buzz word not only in the management discourse today but also in international economic relations. Can India and specifically Bangalore be a hub for innovation?

It may be useful to start by delineating the concept a little. Innovation is not invention, nor is it pure research, or a rigorous pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is a more practical idea, of creating a product or a process or a service that is new, can be used very widely and gets accepted for reasons of greater efficiency or lower costs. The examples mentioned above are all of this kind, some global, some local, but all successful in meeting a demand. And in the process, doing so better or faster or cheaper than the hitherto prevailing practice, becoming new ‘business models’ to use a management phrase.

The best known place in the world for innovation is still the Silicon Valley despite the dot.com booms and busts. To recall some of the products or processes that have come from there: the personal computer itself, chips with expanding memories, Apple’s awesome successes — the iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad, the search processes Yahoo and Google, social networking constructs — Facebook and twitter and the transaction enablers — eBay, Skype.

The list is endless, some are products, others services or processes, but the outpouring of creativity and the creation of riches almost unparalleled. It is thus useful to look at innovation as understood in the Silicon Valley and then see how it came to spring from that one cluster before we look at the possibilities in India.

I was privileged to spend some years at the heart of the Silicon Valley, not as an engineer or a IT geek or a marketing  professional, but as an interested observer, as a diplomat watching the evolution with India in mind. The experts taught me that the creativity and the wealth generation in the Silicon Valley was not fortuitous, but that the Valley itself should be seen as a ‘habitat’ conducive for innovation, the way we regard some habitats as natural nests for birds.

What does this actually mean? According to experts, at least three factors are required in a locale to make it a hub for finding and launching new products or services. First is a knowledge centre or better still a cluster of research institutions, the Stanford University being the prime example in the Silicon Valley. Whether Steve Jobs of Apple or Sergei Brin and Larry Page of Google, many are dropouts from Stanford.

Second, is a spirit of entrepreneurship in the air, of risk taking in starting new industries or businesses with the belief that failure in one enterprise is the prelude to success in another. The third are a group of individuals, venture capitalists, ready to invest in an unseen future and thus encourage the risk taking, and mentors who are ready to guide and impart their experience or wisdom.

Commercial, economic spin-offs

A combination of such tangible institutions and intangible human attributes gradually lead to a hub, according to those who have studied this phenomenon. Silicon Valley is not alone. The city of San Diego for bio-technology, Tel Aviv in Israel and Dublin in Ireland have similarly been centres of innovation. Nations today aspire to see innovation as it marks not only excellence, but huge commercial and economic spin-offs. It is ideas producing wealth rather than depleteble natural resources or mass scale manufacturing or tricky financial jugglery.

Is the Indian mind good at innovation? We certainly have intellectual accomplishments of the highest order starting with the concept of the zero, the metaphysics in the Upanishads or techniques in yoga, but innovation is a bit different. It is mind applied to principles of matter and exploited for commercial success. Seen this way, the question is more difficult.

The examples mentioned above: the Jaipur foot, the dabbawala service rendered so efficiently at such low cost are more relevant examples of a truly indigenous product or a process that can be characterised as innovative. Further, some ground realities should be helpful. With a huge domestic market for almost any product or process, there will always be the opportunity for quickly ‘scaling up’ anything that is successful. Scarce resources and the imperative to keep the costs low is another incentive to try to do things differently.

In recent management literature one increasingly sees references to Tata Nano and the low-cost but high quality cardiac surgery at Narayana hospitals. The promising fields apart from IT are said to be in bio-technology and health care, new processes involving mobiles and in the next wave of agricultural research.

We must recognise that innovation is not the exclusive preserve of the developed world anymore. The country where I now serve, Brazil, is the world leader in flexi-fuel engines using ethanol, in efficient cash transfers for poor, and in design of novel social sector solutions. Korea seems to be the world leader in mobile applications and China is racing in Green energy technologies.

To refer to Bangalore as India’s Silicon Valley is a cliché today, but the challenge is for the city to become a centre for innovation. It has a cluster of industries, R&D centres, and academic and management institutes with credibility. Perhaps what we are yet to see is a matrix of venture capitalists and mentors with the willingness and the patience to encourage the dreamers. Despite all our distractions with scams and scandals, will we see achievements on this front in the decade to come?

(The writer is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br)

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