Intolerance Impeding Innovation

Intolerance Impeding Innovation

“Why is the sky blue?” This “stupid” question could only be answered through Nobel Prize winning research by C.V. Raman, just as why an apple falls led Newton to gravitational theory. Asking, and then seeking answers to questions that seem inane is what spurs science, as does questioning past answers. Questioning the given, seeking and inventing new solutions, is also at the core of innovation, now the buzzword around the world – in corporates, governments, universities and research laboratories. In India, 2010-20 has been declared as the decade of innovation, and a National Innovation Council established to guide and drive this. A new policy for Science, Technology and Innovation was unveiled last month, and there are plans – yet fuzzy – to set up Innovation Universities.

Such recognition of the role and importance of innovation is most welcome. It is now acknowledged as a catalyst for economic growth through new products, processes, services or productivity gains. While research converts money into knowledge, innovation transforms knowledge into wealth or value. R&D is a major driver of innovation, and it is for this reason that enlightened companies and progressive governments, irrespective of their political complexion, are making large investments in R&D. In this, India has been a laggard, with hardly 1% of its GDP being invested in R&D, less than half of the long-announced goal of 2%. The track record of the corporate world is as dismal: barring a few exceptions, there is little commitment to R&D, even in the technology sector.

The portents, though, are positive. Apart from the importance given to R&D in the 12th Plan document, there are indications of renewed understanding of its role in economic development. Companies, too, thanks mainly to competitive pressure, have realised the critical importance of R&D. Corporates and research institutions are actively seeking to build links with each other to translate research into consumable products or services. Start-up companies are sprouting, many of which are social enterprises, serving social needs while being financially viable. As a result of innovations in India – ranging from the “miti-cool refrigerator” to low-cost heart-surgery to the Nano car – the country has garnered considerable publicity as a major source for innovation. 

In a highly-competitive and globalized world, companies and countries have to find ways of leveraging their special position. India is fortunate that its biggest comparative advantages, talent and innovation, are the most sought-after elements – whether for economic advancement or social good. In the last few years, initiatives at all levels – right to education at the primary level, skill development, new IITs, IIMs and IISERs – have rapidly expanded the education system. Quality is yet a serious issue, but focus will – hopefully – now shift to this, as it must. This would, in years to come, ensure India’s place as the global hub and source of talent.

The growing talent pool, though, does not guarantee innovation. In fact, much of the conventional education system is an innovation-killer. Rote learning, the examination system, the lack of classroom discussion, the discouragement of questions: all these stifle creativity. Caste and power hierarchies continue to sustain a feudal mind-set, which is the every antithesis of science or innovation. If there is yet a great deal of innovation, especially at the grass-roots, it is despite these factors. Much of this is improvisation (“jugaad”), driven mainly by adversity. Leveraging this to more substantive innovation, and channelizing open-ended creativity to national or organisational goals, will require a conducive eco-system.

As noted earlier, research and innovation is triggered by questioning – often by challenging existing ideas and paradigms. A society that fosters this tends to be a creative, innovative one. Innovation – whether in physical sciences, social sciences or the arts – depends upon freedom of thought and of being able to freely articulate and exchange such thought. New, out-of-the-box ideas come out of thinking differently, and a society that encourages such diversity of thought and its expression is the best incubator of innovation.

Unfortunately, in India we have a regression in the “permissibility” of free expression. Organised groups, claiming to represent a religion, caste, region or even some so-called moral standard have pressured meek governments to ban – often informally – books, cartoons, movies, plays and art exhibitions. Worse, some have destroyed property, paintings and libraries, and beaten up people. In many cases, the State has been a silent spectator; in other cases, it has used the excuse of possible breaches of law and order to ban artistic activity and even individual visits. Sometimes, the judicial system has intervened positively, but at least a few judgments have been regressive.

Societal intolerance has been growing, fuelled by all kinds of fringe groups. “Hurt sentiments” is the new opium of the masses. As an earlier piece noted (“Porcupines and Jaguars”; ET, 7 August 2012), we have become porcupines, bristling at the slightest touch. Sadly, spineless leaders and governments have chosen to side with any disgruntled group, in the hope of garnering electoral support. The resulting atmosphere is stifling any questioning, censoring free expression and threatens to atrophy all diversity of thought: a climate in which innovation, research and creativity will suffer.

Constitutional curbs on freedom of expression are being interpreted in an extremely constraining way. Is it time to amend Article 19(2)? Civil society needs to mobilize wider opinion and speak up on this issue. Also, intolerance impedes innovation; therefore, corporates – knowing the comparative advantage afforded by innovation – could, for a change, partner civil society on this. The diversity of India, amongst our most precious legacies, is threatened.

Credit: Kiran Karnik

The author is an independent policy and strategy analyst.

The article is reprinted from The Economic Times dated February 5, 2013


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