TED India Conference: “The Future Beckons”

The inspirational, energy-filled, and fun TED conference is heading to India this year.  From November 4-7, 2009, TEDIndia will take place in Mysore and bring together speakers and delegates that are reinventing India.  The huge success of TED makes its arrival in India even more exciting.  At TC-I, we covered a few TED talks here, here, and here.

A little background on the TED conference:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader to include science, business, the arts and the global issues facing our world. The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes). Attendees have called it “the ultimate brain spa” and “a four-day journey into the future.” The diverse audience — CEOs, scientists, creatives, and philanthropists — is almost as extraordinary as the speakers, who have included Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Nandan Nilekani, Jane Goodall, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Sir Richard Branson, Philippe Starck and Bono.

The India conference will answer questions like:

  • Which local innovations are destined for global impact?
  • Who are the young thinkers and doers capable of shaping the future?
  • Can there be economic advancement without environmental destruction?
  • Can a pluralistic democracy survive in the face of rising fundamentalism?
  • Can we make money and be good? Really?
  • What should we learn – or fear? — from China’s investment in Africa?
  • Do we have enough water for everyone?
  • How do we keep our youth challenged and our aged healthy?
  • How can anti-poverty solutions be brought to scale?
  • Is there wisdom to be found in traditional medicine?
  • Which other ancient traditions can illuminate modern life?

This will be an event that any social innovator in India will want to attend – register to apply here.

How do we go from here?

I read Atanu Dey’s take on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in India in response to a question put forward by Sramana Mitra on her blog Why is the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India not coming together as well as it needs to?

Atanu makes a strong pitch for leveraging existing solutions for development, reasoning that India has not yet reached a stage where we need “cutting edge research and development.” It is sufficient to implement known innovations, he conjectures. A compelling argument but I feel there are a lot of points that need to be bought out in this respect.

To start with, let us understand that we are talking about two things “Does India need (more) innovation?” and “Why does India not innovate as much as it needs to?” And, in my opinion, the answer to the latter does not lie in the former.

Coming to the first question, India does need more innovation, in fact it needs lots of that. Why? A few reasons:

1. India cannot simply follow the development process that US followed. It can take cues but trying to imitate exactly the same cycle will lead to half baked results. To be sure, innovation does not necessarily imply high technology. It also implies a technology/concept that apart from being “innovative” is implement-able too. We did not have to go through the “pager usage phase” to reach “cell phone mobility” even though we did try that. Lets take up rural innovation. We need to innovate and find out ways to increase yields on small land holdings. We need to innovate when it comes to connecting villages to the national mainstream using IT and Internet. Innovation not just in terms of technology but in terms of pricing, marketing, sales & distribution. Isn’t the Amul cooperative model innovative? Ecoflo from Bhinge Brothers[PDF] is one such innovation in rural technology.

2. India needs scale. Incidentally while attending a class at CSIM, Chennai on Saturday, I had stated the same point. India cannot blatantly import models of growth or innovation from developed countries because of its sheer size. Being a democracy makes the task even more challenging. Taking cues from countries like Brazil seems more pertinent especially when it comes to designing solutions for the masses. Dr K L Srivastava at CSIM Chennai made a point in the class, that scale is not always the case – citing disability related issues as an example. In my opinion, looking at absolute numbers the “niche” in India dwarfs similar numbers in US. Scalable solutions are really important.

3. India is a unique country. When I say this, my point is not to allude towards our rich culture and the related. I am trying to draw attention to myriad languages, populations, cultural differences, attitudes, motivations. Even solutions customized for India may not necessarily work for the entire country. Regional innovation is also important. To give you an example, an Internet based micro lending organization like Rang De faces a lot of initial skepticism from lenders because of the non-profitable NGO thinking that social development is generally associated with.

4. India needs to leverage the technology to create more technology. The “low hanging fruits” of existing innovation may have either gone bad or may not even suit my palate. But I can use the seeds of these fruits to create hybrid varieties which I may be able to consume.

Coming to Sramana’s question of why are we not as innovative as we need to, a lot of answers have already been put on her blog. However, innovation is an exponential function. And the required start has been made. Readers can read this blog to find out innovations being undertaken in the social development sector. Not to mention, the Indian solutions like Tata Ace and Nano, Bajaj’s experiment with fuel efficiency. Aravind Eye Care may be cited as an exception that proves the rule – innovation is to be expected from the youth. But, nevertheless, it does prove that innovation can come from any field/age. We have organizations like RIN (Rural Innovations Network) and SRISTI which are fostering and encouraging innovation. One field that is seeing considerable traction is financial inclusion and for the right reasons, of course. I am hoping to see more progress in this one field which in turn will be one of the catalysts for more innovation.

I have been amazed at the optimism we share at TC-I, but it should not be mistaken for foolhardiness. It may be because we have the right balance in terms of experience and intellect.

Needed: An Indian Marketplace for Ideas

Saurabh Garg muses on the need to foster innovation in India and wonders if there could be a market where people with complementary skills can come together and make ideas happen. Just as markets have buyers and sellers, Garg highlights the possibility of a market where intellectual capital can be leveraged into action. In India, there are so many different pilot projects and one-offs on the ground, but a knowledge base to allow an exchange of ideas is often absent. Garg discusses the crux of the issue:

People are scattered across geography and time. And these pieces don’t know that they are parts of something bigger and they all can play a role. Even if they realize that they can take their ideas to fruition, they don’t know where and how to find complementary skill-sets. We need something, a system probably to help these people come together.

What would the shape of such a system look like? Garg mentions barCamps, MOMO, and other websites that create forums, but still may not completely fulfill the gap. What kind of mechanisms are needed to ensure that Indians can gain access to each other and new ideas, as well as obtain the resources to implement their plans?

The Tech Museum Awards – March 24 Deadline

The deadline for The Tech Museum Awards is on Monday, March 24. Do you know of any worthy candidates from India?

The Tech Museum Awards is an international Awards program that honors innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity.

For example, D.R. Mehta was a 2007 Laureate who created an NGO in India to work with low-income disabled communities. His organization created “the Jaipur Foot,” a prosthetic limb which is now “being distributed for free to millions of people below the poverty line in sixteen countries, allowing them to join the ranks of the mobile and become productive citizens,” according to the Social Innovation Conversations website.

D.R. Mehta won the Equality Award, but there are other categories as well:

Awards are presented in five categories: Health, Education, Environment, Economic Development, and Equality. Five Laureates in each category are honored and one Laureate per category receives $50,000.

The criteria for nominations can be found here.

Awesome video on human ingenuity in India

This video, brought to our attention by NGO Post, highlights a few great grassroots innovations. My personal favorite is the modified scooter as I believe it could be scaled up substantially. Check out the video below.

Sustainable, Scalable Philanthropy

As brought to our attention by NextBillion, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven J. Levitt, authors of Freakanomics, published an article in the NYTimes yesterday entitled, “Bottom Line Philanthropy,” in which they discussed the need for applying business models to philanthropic organizations for the purposes of sustainability and impact.

The article highlights two individuals – Rafe Furst of what is informally called the Cure Cancer Annuity Fund and Brian Mullaney of Smile Train. Furst’s model posits that effectiveness in the social sector lies in the incentivization of innovation through prizes and profits – in this case, for the purposes of curing cancer. As stated in the article, “inspired by the X Prize Foundation’s sponsorship of innovations in space travel and other realms”, Furst conceived of a “charitable business model” – the Cure Cancer Annuity Fund – which employs a two pronged, incentive-based approach to cancer research.  The Fund aims to not only benefit donors in the form of annual returns, but researchers as well, who stand to win a prize of $10 billion for finding a cure for cancer.

The second example mentioned in the article is that of the Smile Train, which employs local resources, social marketing strategies, innovative technology, and cash incentives for the purposes of administering cleft lip or palate operations in developing countries. As stated in the article, “Smile Train works as a charity because it is run like a business”: 

 Fixing a child’s cleft lip or palate is a relatively cheap procedure with outsize payoffs: cleft children in many countries are ostracized and have a hard time going to school, getting jobs and marrying, and the surgery reverses those disadvantages. Indeed, when pitching a reluctant government, Mullaney refers to cleft children as “nonperforming assets” who can soon be returned to the economic mainstream. He fights bad incentives with better ones: when Smile Train learned that midwives in Chennai, India, were being paid off to smother baby girls born with cleft deformities, Mullaney started offering midwives as much as $10 for each girl they instead took to a hospital for surgery.  

 Smile Train has also harnessed technology to create efficiencies in every aspect of its business, from fund-raising to charting patients’ outcomes. It developed surgery-training software that helps educate doctors around the world. There are high-tech quality-control measures: using digital imaging, a Texas cleft expert grades a random sample of operations performed by Smile Train doctors around the world, in order to know which surgeons in, say, Uganda or China need more training. These are the sort of innovations that likely make Smile Train one of most productive charities, dollar for deed, in the world. Over the last eight years, Smile Train has performed more than 280,000 cleft surgeries in 74 of the world’s poorest countries, raising some $84 million last year while employing a worldwide staff of just 30 people.    

Both examples highlight the potential for employing innovative business practices for the purposes of creating sustainable, scalable social organizations. In the end, the purpose of any philanthropic organization is to eventually become purposeless. In the case of Smile Train, which is currently at the “historic break-even point” of “performing more operations each year than the number of children born each year in developing countries with cleft deformities”, this strategy seems to be working.

Rafiq Dossani — Next Google will come from a small town in India

In an interview promoting his new book, India Arriving, Rafiq Dossani (former editor of Business India weekly) said that he sees the next Google coming from not Bangalore or even the developed world, but rather a small town in India.

Now, if you ask whether someone else might do that in India, and who that will be, well I have an answer that will probably surprise you. I think it will come not from Silicon Valley inspired startups, although several of those have been formed and are doing fairly innovative work, but catering mostly to the global markets. It will come when India’s local market reaches a certain level of maturity, and it’ll come from a small town. It won’t come from Bangalore or Bombay, Delhi, or one of those cities.

Dossani believes that the burgeoning entrepreneurial culture of India has reached much farther than the well-known urban centers, and that any city could be a hotbed for innovation.

I can give you one example. Indore is a small town by Indian standards, a very poor town, 2 million people, relies on soybean trading. You wouldn’t think Indore would be a bastion for software product development, but when I visited it, the first thing that struck me was when I spoke at a university, was how highly qualified the faculty was. And then speaking to students: how well trained they were. Even though their language was mostly Hindi and not English, they all used Google with complete fluency.

The entire interview can be found here.