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Learning from the minds on the margin: towards a new social contract for responsible science

Anil K. Gupta

Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

Innovations are imperative in the way agenda for inclusive and responsible science is evolved and pursued. Many of the problems that affect marginal environments, people and occupations have been ignored for a long time. Consequent alienation invariably generates anger and sometimes anomie among the bypassed communities. The struggles so caused further debilitate the will of the formal sector to engage with the knowledge, wisdom and insights of the people in the informal sector. Such a chasm needs to bridged for science to become responsible for addressing the neglected needs of the society.

My contention is that when formal system leaves certain social problems unaddressed for decades and sometimes centuries, people do not just wait passively. They try to solve some them through their own genius in a frugal, flexible and often friendly manner. By engaging with such frugal innovators, we can learn new ways of solving problems in partnership with local communities. Honey Bee Network has been engaged both with the creative communities and also the scientific institutions to build a bridge between formal and informal science, technology and other institutions. It is inevitable that traffic on a bridge need not always be equal in both the directions. It is also not necessary that both sides should equal earnestness to connect. However, the lessons from the linkages forged so far are very encouraging. In some cases, it is the individual scientists who have made a significant difference. And in other cases, it is the institutional policies that have facilitated the interface. There are also instances where institutional commitment is quite weak but individual support from the scientists is strong.

I would like to share the experiences of Honey Bee Network in forging the linkages between formal and informal sector in the first part. The lessons that can be drawn for possible wider application are discussed in the second part. And finally, the policy and institutional implications are drawn for forging the new social contract for responsible science.

Part I

Making a bridge:

One of the reasons we set up Honey Been Network 25 years ago was to forge linkages between formal and informal sectors, particularly of science and technology but also other sectors. It was realized that the approach of the formal sector in dealing with ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices was not always respectful of the knowledge rights of common people. The Convention on Biological Diversity echoed this concern in articles 8J and 15C. However, in practice, the policies and institutional structure of science has not changed much. The guidelines of various academies of science (natural and social science) still have not overcome their ambivalence in this regard. The norms of citation and acknowledgement with regard to insights learnt from people have not evolved to the extent that knowledge providers in the informal sector feel assured that their contributions will be dealt with in the most rigorous and responsible manner. A fear of being shortchanged still persists.

However, more than hundred thousand people have somehow felt assured in sharing their knowledge (not always unique) with the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), an institute of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Society for Research and Initiatives for Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and Grassroots Innovation and Augmentation Network (GIAN) and other members of Honey Bee Network. This faith is further cemented through collaborations that NIF has forged with over 200 labs and scientists in the last few years in pubic as well as private sector. The fact that almost all the scientists have contributed their time and energy in validating people’s knowledge either without cost or at very low cost demonstrates a new sense of collective responsibility emerging in Indian science and technology institutional work. The knowledge rich, economically poor people of this country can, of course, not thank the scientific community enough. This bridge of responsible science could not have been built by any one institution or individual. There is a long legacy of scientists working for the social good in India and around the world. We have to salute this legacy and hope that the younger generation will only advance the social, ecological, industrial, cultural and ethical connect between formal and informal sectors of the knowledge, institutions and values.

The first issue of Honey Bee Newsletter deliberately began with a communication from two scientists of Gujarat Agricultural University (Dr. Kalyanasundaram and Dr. B.T. Patel) to highlight the fact that despite all the asymmetry and neglect the formal sector had scientists who not only learnt from people but also acknowledged it. Infact, the pioneer in this regard was Dr. Y.P. Singh who had taught me at Haryana Agricultural University (HAU), Hisar and had been a mentor even later when he was at Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). Professor Kuldeep Mathur later honed my understanding of the socio-political context in which institutions work or refuse to work for disadvantaged sections of the society.

For the first 12 years of the Network, the linkages with formal Science and Technology institutions were more in the nature of comments and voluntary research by scientists.

Dr. Arun Kumar of the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) has researched on the effectiveness of whey and milk on diseases of pearl millet and published several papers acknowledging its effectiveness compared to the well known chemical pesticides or other treatments. There has been worldwide programme of using milk for controlling viral and other diseases in various crops. Post doctoral research on elucidating the exact mechanisms is going on in Australia. It is a different matter that Ministry of Agriculture and several universities and state government departments will still take some more time before including such low cost and high effect sustainable practices in their advisory for farmers. Incidentally, Department of Ontario in Canada has not hesitated from putting this advice on their website.

Which protein or enzyme in milk or whey interacts with which pathway of the insect, bacteria, virus or fungus to prevent these from replicating and thus affecting the crop is not a trivial question. Why aren’t we asking such questions more often? Why do our priorities in many cases (obviously not all) continue to be guided by colonial structures of thought where priorities of western journals become the valid and appropriate priorities?

Good science is also responsible science

The effectiveness of NIF in the last 12 years to forge linkages with individual scientists and institutions such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) reveal a changing mindset in the formal scientific establishment. In the agricultural sector, the ICAR may not have formally entered into any understanding but individual institutions and scientists in most universities and labs have been most cooperative. That testifies to the decentralized nature of governance and the autonomy that most institutions enjoy to forge partnership with institutions like NIF.

There are also institutions which expect the Honey Bee Network to pay some cost of validation as would be applicable to a large national or international commercial company. The fact that we don’t have national guidelines in the matter making it mandatory for public institutions to use differential norms without sacrificing scientific rigour shows the long way we still need to walk. The debate on social justice has been dominated far too much by affirmative action in terms of basic need and other entitlements of disadvantaged sections. We still have not recognized that in the knowledge economy ignoring the outstanding knowledge of the communities and individuals is even greater an injustice than ignoring their menial contributions. The bias against engagement with mental and not menial contributions of the people on the margins runs through several aspects of public policy. For instance, under MGNREGS 9 the largest public employment programme in the world) providing 100 days of employment to 250 million people, the documentation of ecological, occupational, cultural and other technological or social knowledge specific to a place is not considered a valid work. Thus, if climate scientist wanted to look at culture and space specific indicators of climate perception, change and impact from all over the country, this programme will not lend any helping hand. Similarly, if the ministry of water resources wanted to make an atlas of water quality and quantity in different seasons of the year by collecting samples from each well of the country the programme again would not cooperate.

One can find so many other examples where sanitation through locally made soap or low cost water filters or roof top water harvesting, etc will not be pursued through knowledge based employment. We will not map biodiversity and soil diversity through this programme and thus continue to make our assumptions for public policy and institutional interventions on extremely limited information. We could have built knowledge registers and updated them every year in just five days of employment around the country. Each panchayat could find so many opportunities of learning from each other through such registers available on their village websites. The scientists could engage with the specific communities to study certain patterns in the socio-ecological interactions. So many innovations will emerge from such mapping of minds that cannot be fully imagined today.

Some other lessons learnt and challenges identified are:

Institutional: In general, most institutions appreciate examples of creativity and innovation in the informal sector. However, given their own agenda and mandate, not most feel empowered to take up projects on their own or suggested by outsiders involving interface with the informal sector. In a few cases, the top leadership encourages independent linkages and does not either monitor or reinforce the same through annual planning and review mechanism. Some leaders have creaeed instituational framework of cooperation with an independent oversight mechanism (comprising outstanding scientists) so that linkages endure changes in the leadership. There are cases where individual scientists encourage their students to work on the ideas of the people as a apart of their postgraduate research and only seek supplemental resources since most of the students get their own fellowship. The budgets in which NIF could get validation done are extremely low.

There have also been some discordant notes in this cooperation. A particular faculty member took financial support for developing ideas of children into prototype but failed to acknowledge the idea providers in the research paper he co-authored with his students. Subsequently, it required considerable discussions to persuade him to at least mention the names of children in the body of the paper and not just as footnotes. Ideally, they should have been the co-authors. There are other colleagues who mentioned the source of the practice in the first publication and then in the subsequent publications based on the same led forgot to acknowledge the original contributor of the idea. These problems are not very rampant. These are also not very unique.

Knowledge rights of creative people

The very genesis of Honey Bee Network lay in correcting the existing asymmetry in norms and practice of acknowledgement and attribution in formal sector about the knowledge of people in the informal sector. We are all familiar with the literature on ethnobiology, much of which does not ever acknowledge the knowledge providers by their names, even in the cases of community knowledge. The question of prior informed consent does not even arise. I resigned from the editorial board of one of the CSIR journals precisely on this ground. I had tried to suggest three guidelines which the editorial board could not accept and practice. This first was that we should insist on acknowledging the knowledge provider/innovator traditional knowledge holder in the research papers or publications based on their knowledge, second, we should share the findings with the knowledge providers in local language and third, the unique knowledge of the communities and/or individual should not be published, lest their intellectual property rights are eroded. After protection of the IPRs, it can be published as is the practice in the academic world. An undertaking to this effect was suggested from the authors. I am sure sooner or later, such guidelines would become the only the knowledge exchange between formal and informal sector will take place.

Technological:

One of te persistent challenges face by the Network is the design of the experiments which should mimic the conditions of orginals use as closely as possible. Be it the water extract, or processing herbal lead exactly as the knowledge provider does or dispensing it the way he does. It is not proper to invalidate a particular local practice because of inappropriate protocol. Slowly and slowly, we are achieving convergence on this account. There are some scientists who are in fact, taking the trouble of visiting the knowledge provider/s to observe how exactly he/she makes the preparation and dispenses it to the patient. Some scientists have invited the local innovators to their labs to understand how the formal sector pursues research on their ideas.

When Regulations fall behind the innovations

In the case of mechanical technologies, we face many regulatory challenges. A large number of farm machineries are made by using old parts of automobile or other devices. This is done to keep cost low and also to harness the usused potential ofa second hand components. We all know that not all components of a machinery fatigue at the same rate. It makes no sense to junk all components at the same time when many of them have life left for many more decades. The local grassroots innovators know this and accordingly harness the potential of such second-hand components. The problem arises when regulatory and testing agencies do not approve machineries having seonc hand components. A large part of rural machineries will remain illegal even if these are highly legitimate for meeting local needs. The Regional Transport Officer is bound by the law which requires all traction vehicles to be certified for their road worthiness. The motorcycle based ploughing machines and various subsequent improved versions numbering more than 10000 are crucial for farming operations in Saurashtra. But none of these will be tested or certified. So far as safety is concerned, slow moving vehicles invariably may be safer than the fast moving ones. In any case, proper safety features must be incorporated and that is an issue on which formal and informal sectors can cooperate. The search for frugal solutions will require less entropic ways of innovation. Naturally, using a material to its fullest potential life without compromising safety and energy efficiency must be the prime goal of a policy for sustainable inclusive development. In the absence of engagement between those who set the standards and the ones who innovate, the standards become an inhibitor instead of promoter of innovation. For many innovative machines, there are no standards yet. Hopefully, the situation will change, the dialogue will begin and the inclusive innovation policies will draw upon the genius of creative communities and individuals.

Socio-cultural:

Most of the innovators may not know that they have done an innovation. It requires an appreciative peer group or an eye for detail of the outsider or greater awareness to get this realization. It is for this reason that almost 90 per cent of the knowledge that NIF has received comes through the voluntary contribution of the Honey Bee Network collaborators and members. Hardly ten per cent reaches us directly. If we do not go out and scout, we wouldn’t be able to find so much hidden talent in our country. Even among the children, same proportion of ideas is collected through idea workshops. Keeping this in view, Honourable President during his address to the Vice Chancellors of the central universities suggested three steps to promote innovations in society:

  1. Organisation of innovation exhibition during his visits to central universities and facilitation of his interactions with the innovators in the hinterland in different fields of social development.
  2. Setting up National Innovation Clubs which will aim at searching, spreading, sensing and celebrating the innovations all around. Unless young students get involved with innovation movement and faculty bring the experience of creative communities and people in the classroom, the courage to overcome inertia and attempt new heuristics for solving problems may not emanate.
  3. Interaction with inspired teachers who succeed in triggering extraordinary curiosity in the minds of students and thus motivate them to ask the unconventional questions.

Leveraging of grassroots innovations through exhibitions at the President’s House for last four years has given a very important message nationally and internationally. When the Head of the State honours common creative people, a new idiom of engagement gets evolved. Likewise, when former President recognizes the young children during IGNITE award function held every year at IIMA organized by NIF, once again an important message is conveyed about the significance of sourcing creative ideas from younger generation. One of the most remarkable things we have learnt through the ideas submitted by children is that they are far less patient with the problems of society than has been the case with our generation. This is the most redeeming thing that we can say about our country. Once this culture becomes pervasive, we would be able to overcome the widespread inertia and the tendency to live with the problems unsolved indefinitely.

Jugaad is a misnomer for majority of the grassroots innovations

Tremendous experimental ethic is evident among people while attempting local solutions. Some of the lazy intellectuals have tried to turn all frugal solutions as ‘jugaad’. A US$ 250 ECG machine by GE, low cost health care by Narayan Hrudalaya, clay refrigerator by Mansukhbhai, etc. are all supposed to be ‘jugaad’! Surely, a term used so loosely becomes meaningless to characterize any systematic aspect of frugal innovation. The tinkering, that is, makeshift arrangements for solving problems are tried everywhere in the world. When water leaked from the radiators of the car, people would use soap to plug the leak. If the wire has to be put in a socket and plug is not fitting properly, suing matchstick to create a tighter grip has been done by almost every electricity, regardless of safety. Using diesel engine for transporting people and goods has worked as a makeshift arrangement and may indeed be a ‘jugaad’. But, Mansukhbhai Prajapati has developed seven diffetn machines to make clay refrigerator and non stick pans. He has circular kilns and large sized vertical kilns. None of these can be called ‘jugaad’. We should be discreet in using terms which make sense and do not denigrate the experimental and innovative ethic of common people. It is true that many times people may do right things for wrong reasons. But then, identifying the right reason and feeding it back to the people is the responsibility of the scientists. Sometimes, people know the right thing but do not abstract the principle underlying it. Local communities have preserved milk by periodic heating and coling for long periods without using refrigerator. They may not have isolated the scientific principle underlying that. They have known how to prevent spolage of prickles for many years without any artificial chemical preservative. The science of the same may not have been isolated systematically. The social-cultural context of grassroots innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge needs to be understood more empathetically.

Part II

Learning from the bridge between formal and informal sector

There are several strategies Honey Bee Network has used to build bridges between formal and informal science. Inviting scientists to serve on the review committees and then hoping that some of them will get motivated to take up validation and value addition research is one way. Writing to the research institutions directly with a request to help in validation has helped in many cases. Sometimes, the informal interaction in various meetings and lectures like this also opens opportunities for cooperation. Formal agreements with scientific bodies have been tried in a few cases and generally there has been a positive outcome. At the end of the day, it is the interest of the concerned scientists that makes the maximum difference. Institutional agreements can only facilitate the linkage but actual bond gets formed when a scientist finds ideas of creative communities exciting enough to pursue. Preliminary research is done in several cases at Sadbhav SRISTI Sanshodhan Natural Product Lab at SRISTI. These results create conditions for congruence with scientists who would like to receive scientific leads rather than information about claims of common people. SRISTI Lab works on herbal technologies for agricultural, veterinary and human applications besides microbial diversity. In very Shodhyatra, we collect soil samples from which microbial diversity is isolated and further used for screening against different pathogens.

Frugality in Science

I would not argue that frugal innovations would invariably require frugal research. Sometimes, one needs to spend considerable amount of financial resources to get a solution which may be extremely affordable. But when an organization has limited funds, frugal budgets can take those resources very far. The average cost of validating engineering technologies by NIF in the last three years is Rs 2.21 lakh, as can be seen in Table 1.

Most agricultural universities and some of the research institutions have helped in validating agricultural, veterinary and farm machinery technologies. The human health practices have been taken up for validation in ICMR labs or other public and private labs. The average cost of validation ranges from Rs 18,666 in SRISTI Lab to Rs 2,44,125 in agriculture. In addition, 32 community fabrication workshops have been set up at the site of mechanical innovators in different parts of the country at an average cost of Rs 2.87 lakh. Such an economical outcome could not have been achieved if scientists had not been extremely responsive to the cause of promoting grassroots innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge. The journey from proof of concept to prototype, prototype to product development, product to utility and eventually to widespread diffusion is a long one. Most of the validation activities have only meant crossing the first hurdle. For the subsequent stages, one would need far more resources. Generally speaking, one should begin with 2000 leads so as to produce 200 products, out of which 20 may diffuse widely. Anothehr 20 or 50 may diffuse locally. It is apparent that with the available resources, NIF could only handle muc smaller nuber of tecnoliges. At this rate, it would perhaps take a few more centuries to do justice to the expectation of tens of thousands of knowledge hholders who hhhave already shared tyheir knowledge with the NIF. The proposed so call Inclusive India Innovation Fund by National Innovation council will not address thhe needs or early stage risky funding. It will only be invested in the companies providing ggoods and services for the common people. The fact that it is the early stage where private sector investments is almost absent, has been ignored and thus the innovation ecosystem continues to exclude the ideas of informal sector, children and young technology students. All the students awarded with gandhian Young Tecnological Innovation Award (GYTI, see techpedia.in/award) would not be eligible for any support at all. It is for society to judge whether such a conception of so called inclusive fund does justice to the aspirations of creative youth and other communities of our country.

Engaging technology students: www.Techpedia.in

SRISTI realized that one of the most potent force in our country for addressing the unmet technological needs of informal sector as well as MSME is the technological youth. A platform designed by SRISTI by drawing upon youthful energy of Hiranmay (then a third year student at SVNIT, Surat and now part of SRISTI team coordinating this platform) which now has titles of abstracts of about 150000 engineering projects by about 400,000 students from 500 institutions. Idea was that nobody should repeat what has been done before. Originality quotient should go up. The third year students in the summer should visit MSME clusters and villages and slums to identify technological problems in search of solutions. They should be given credit for the same. They should try to attempt a solution of one of these problems in their final year and get academic credit for the same as well. Gujarat Technological University joined hands with SRISTI. Quite extraordinary results have been achieved through this very fruitful cooperation supported by DST and led by Dr. Akshay Agarwal, VC of GTU. Should not this experience be replicated in other parts of the country and other disciplines and universities?

How do we learn from innovation?

There are four levels at which we can learn from innovations whether in formal or informal sector: (a) artefactual, (b) analogic, (c) heuristic and (d) gestalt or configurational.

  1. Artefactual: One learns from the material characteristics of the innovation, be it in terms of form, feature, or function of a mechanical or electronic technology. Or it could be method, material and applications in the case of biochemical or physico chemical or herbal innovation. If at least any one of the three dimensions out of material, method or application/use is new, one can learn from the novelty and develop further modifications for incremental or substantial innovation. In this case, the domain of the technology generally remains same though functionality may significantly vary because of improvements.
  1. Analogic: the innovation in this case is not drawn upon in its functional property but we try to learn from its metaphorical property. One can apply the technology even in a different domain using the original technology as an analogy. For instance, a farmer looked at the hook in a balance used by a vegetable vendor by which he coulse use of one the pans for delivering the  vegetables to the customer. Using this detachable pan hung on the hook, he developed a similar mechanism for a tilting bullock cart in which without removing the harness from the shoulders of the bullock, he could tilt the cart to unload its content. Similarly, a larger number of innovations have been developed by applying a technology in a different domain by mimicking the properties of the original innovation.
  1. Heuristic: here one does not learn necessariy from the physical form or from its analogic implications. Instead, the focus is on the principles or the thumb rules underlying the innovations. As I will illustrate later taking the example of bamboo windmill, the principles underlying the original innovation were drawn upon which replicating the idea in another context. When a farmer listened to a long discussion that I had with him during Shodhyatra on the advantages of herbal pesticides instead of chemical ones, he summarized it in a sentence. He said, whatever I had said implied that any plant which was not eaten by cattle or other animals, could be a source of potential pesticide. He had captured the heuristic underling various examples I gave of herbal pesticide. He could see a pattern in them. The reason why animals don’t eat a plant could be because of its toxicity. Since one needed toxicity for killing pests, there was no need to buy it from outside. Of course, safety and other issues will have to be taken care of but the heuristic is very powerful and can be generalized almost universally.
  1. Gestalt or configurational: This is an institutional aspect of innovation. One does not learn only from the about three dimensions of innovations but also looks at the context in which innovations emerged and were nurtured. One cannot separate the institutional and cultural aspect from the technological dimension of innovation. That is why I have argued that ‘if technology is like words, then institutions are like grammar and culture is like thesaurus’. One cannot make a meaningful sentence without combining all three. Same way, an innovation cannot generally be understood without looking at its institutional and cultural context. The constellation of the factors or what is often called as ecosystem of innovation has to be learnt from rather than looking at an innovation in isolation.

As one can observe, higher the level of abstraction, greater is the degree of generalizability and more diverse are the domains in which lessons can be learnt.

Should scale be the enemy of sustainability?

One of the challenges Honey Bee network often faces is the criterion of scale by which the so called success should be judged. No doubt, to some extent, any innovator would wish more and more people to benefit from his or her innovation. However, there are problems which are limited in scope, space or social segments. During the Shodhyatra in Dhemaji district, Assam, we came across a serious problem of high iron content in the water. The local communities did have water filters made from local sand and clay. Even the filtered water, clean as it seemed, when filled in bottles turned brown after we walked for some distance. Obviously, not entire iron had been filtered. If special filters have to be designed, then their market may be restricted to a district or a few more districts, where such problems exist. Given the poverty and limited size of market large private companies manufacturing filters may not see this as a viable opportunity for either solving the problem or commercially launching the solution, that is specifically designed water filter. The state will have to play an active role. If the incentives in the scientific and technology institutions were to be determined only by the scale of diffusion of their solutions, then they may also not address the problems limited to certain niches. In the long tail of innovations, while some innovations diffused widely, large number of innovations remain localized. Should such niche specific needs be served or not? If the dominant ideology disincentivises the generation of solutions for small niches, then people in these regions or sectors will feel alienated. If local solutions are not optimal and if formal institutions are not willing to engage, social alienation and unrest are inevitable.

Alienating marginal people, fueling unrest:

Take the case of forest based products. Almost entire material form the forests where some of poorest tribals live is drawn out as raw material. Not even one per cent of local produce is valorized in situe. In the absence of value additona, there is a limit to which even the most compassionate contractor or employer can pay more than a limited amount of wages, keeping aside the corruption and exploitation. My argument is that even with the best intentions, we cannot remove poverty and generate sustainable livelihoods, maintain ecological balance unless we ensure that no material goes out of the forest region without some value addition. If one looks at the nature of technologies, some of them may be a few thousand years old. How does one join hands with local knowledge rich economically poor people and create conditions for experiements to take place innovations to emerge? Naturally, the engagement between formal and informal sector cannot just be left to the random chance events. It is not that the tribal communities don’t have lessons to teach us. In certain regards, they may have extremely rich knowledge system. While in other cases, because of lack of tools and other facilities they may not have been able to develop more efficient ways of processing forest products.

Learning from tribals: In Naryanpur, Bastar we came across an interesting sight. While there were no Christians or Muslims there but there were some graves outside the village. We were intrigued. When we asked the reason, we learnt something extraordinary. When a healthy person died they buried the body. When a sick person died they burnt it. It is difficult to surpass the elegance and wisdom of such a practice. Does it matter how widespread this practice is? Will we value it less if it is prevalent in one one village? Similarly, we found another village in the same region, where people had built some sculptures on the top of the graves. On closer scrutiny and discussion with the community, we realized that whenever an outstanding person died the community made his clay sculpture on the top of his grave/Samadhi.

During Shodhyatra in Purulia and Bankura, West Bengal, we came across a very interesting practice. In a potters’ village, some of the most beautiful terracotta horses were kept under a tree. When we enquired why had they kept such beautiful horses under a tree, the local potters replied, they had not kept just the beautiful ones, they had kept the best ones. We were still intrigued. Looking at our inability to understand the logic, they explained that when children walked by this tree, they could see what the current standard of designing best terracotta horses was. They had to do better. We had never come across such an outstanding example of open source standards of excellence. Even if we found only one village, where such a practice existed, it was still worth learning from. Niches-specific innovations can change our entire perspective of life. No point in ignoring them.

From Incubation to Sanctuary Model

The scaling up of innovation depends upon how well we mentor an idea, help in forging the appropriate linkages and try to convert an idea into a viable product. India has many incubators, some of which have done very well in terms of converting ideas into practices. However, in a society where a large number of middle class or lower middle class innovators have to take care of multiple responsibilities, it may not always be possible for such innovators to leave their filial responsibilities and shift to an incubator. That is why, a large number of incubators don’t have any incubatees. When GIAN was set up in 1997 to link innovation, investment and enterprise - the golden triangle for rewarding creativity, the principle was to provide incubation support at the doorstep of innovators. While redesigning mechanisms of incubation, it may be useful to look at emerging challenges in nurturing incremental innovations versus breakthrough innovations. There are known and unknown products and known and unknown markets. Four combinations are a) known product, known market; b) known product, unknown market; c) unknown product, known market; and d) unknown product, unknown market.

In case (a) incubation model may work well. While both are known, the greater fit between customer needs and technology features has to be achieved. One can mentor and manoeuvre the journey from product to utility through better market linkages and design support. In the second case (b), one needs to do business development, market research and reconfigure the product to suit market needs. In the case (c), market needs are known and one has to R&D to develop a solution. In the fourth case (d), when both are unknown, one needs a very flexible, playful environment for innovation, which I call the 'sanctuary model'. In the case of incubation, there is chaos outside and order inside. In the case of sanctuary (like a wildlife sanctuary), there is chaos inside and order outside. Breakthrough innovations will seldom take place in a context where institutional conditions are overbearing and may stifle highly risky and diversified approaches.

When we look at grassroots innovations which have transformed local conditions, extreme degree of stubbornness and unwillingness to take too much feedback into account has helped the fortitudinous spirit of innovators to thrive. It may look counter-intuitive but we found another instance where many centenarians, particularly grandmothers showed similar attributes. Just as headstrong and autonomous women with minds of their own often live very long, perhaps the innovators with similar characteristics can also come out with irreverent ideas leading to sustainable solutions.

There are many more lessons that we have learnt over the years from our engagement with grassroots innovators and the bridges that we have tried to build with formal science, technology and innovation systems.

Before I conclude, let me recall an incident about why large corporations feel hesitant in joining hands with grassroots innovators at an early stage. I was invited by Ludhiana Management Association chaired by Mr. Munjal (son of senior Munjal, famous for a worldwide brand of bicycles) to talk about innovations. Having so many bicycle manufacturers in the meeting, I made a special effort to show from our database many examples of bicycle based innovations. As usual, there was appreciateion and applause but I was not very happy. At dinner time, I asked Mr. Munjal, whose wife was also present, as to why did he not select any specific innovation related to his own industry (manufacturing largest number of cycles in the world), for further value addition. He replied: "Professor Gupta, we are doing very fine.”

I then realized that if large corporations continued to do very fine, where was the need for them to innovate or learn from common creative people? While I don’t wish a bad time for such corporations, so that they pay attention to grassroots innovators, the fact is that they had begun to take note only when economy has begun to squeeze. Never before so many large corporations had shown interest in open innovation platform as they do now. Honey Bee Network was one of the first open innovation platforms started 25-years ago. And yet, it has taken such a long time for corporations to begin to understand that not all good ideas can come from within. R&D is not equal to innovation. Innovations may require more freedom and flexibility and even frugality than the systems of large corporations often permit. Hence, the need to look out.

Summing Up

The tide is slowly turning. Many more public and private actors are taking interest in finding out how they can learn from common people. 'Deviant Research' is getting legitimized slowly and slowly. At the same time, the norms of acknowledgement, attribution and reciprocity have not yet been adequately internalized in the formal sector. The informal sector, unorganized as it is, does not feel sufficiently reassured of the intentions of the formal sector. It is not surprising that if we leave aside the Honey Bee Network, despite billons of dollars having been spent by international and national agencies, there are not many databases on the web demonstrating even a few thousand or a few hundred unaided innovations by common people. There must be something fundamentally odd in our approach! Why else would we share so much? Perhaps the demand for open access extremely frugal and affordable solutions to improve one’s life is going to increase. The Gandhian principle of self reliance and self help may not entirely be obsolete. Decentralized and diversified solutions provide diversity of thought for which cultural, institutional and even biological diversity are concomitants.

Let me conclude this paper with four recommendations: 

a) every public institution into R&D must allocate at least 10 per cent resources for validating and value adding people’s knowledge,

b) when validation is pursued the conditions followed by the people must be carefully simulated and abstracted lest a good idea is invalidated because of bad protocol,

c) the criteria of evaluation should also be carefully developed keeping in mind that people make trade offs between accuracy, affordability and urgency all the time, and

d) enriching people’s own capabilities to solve problems using modern scientific tools and techniques is necessary to democratic science, technology and innovations.

The new social contract would require significant investments not just in creating scientific temper but in making scientific tools accessible to village and slum communities to understand the significance of science and technology based social transformation.

*** 

Anil K. Gupta teaches at Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. This piece is excerpted from a the Prof. P.N. Srivastava Endowment lecture he delivered at Jawaharlal Nehru University on 11 April 2013.

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