This is the full text of an article I have written in The Nation Sunday newspaper today, 18 Dec 2011, with more images, embedded weblinks and in a better searchable format. It is based on the inaugural Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture delivered by Prof Anil K Gupta on 13 Dec 2011 and my conversations with him in Colombo.
What does an inventor look like?
A nerdy kid in glasses and a white coat, tinkering perilously in a lab? Or a tightly-focused technician toiling away in a greasy workshop?
Perhaps. But most innovators are ordinary people moving among us. For the most part, they are unnoticed and unsung as they try to crack problems that have engaged their attention — or frustrated them for too long.
At one level, many of us improvise everyday for personal gain — to save money, lighten our workload or boost yields. Only a few take it to a higher level. They are unhappy with the status quo. They probe how things work and speculate how it can improve. They tackle problems that daunt most.
Spotting them isn’t easy. Such innovators may come from any social, educational or cultural background but they all march to the beat of a different drum. While education and training help, some of the most successful inventors in history were entirely self-taught.
The late Ray Wijewardene was one quintessential ‘tinkerer’ who led a life-long quest to solve practical problems and improve the quality of life – for himself, those around him, and society at large. He left his mark in agriculture, engineering design, renewable energy, transport and aviation. Just as importantly, he nurtured other innovators to go after nagging problems. A firm believer in trial and error, he encouraged constant experimentation.
Ray’s spirit of enquiry and enterprise was rekindled this week when one of the world’s leading innovation-spotters delivered the inaugural Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture in Colombo.
Dr Anil Kumar Gupta, a Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, India, and Founder of the Honey Bee Network, spoke on “Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development: From Rhetoric to Reality” at the Institution of Engineers on 13 December 2011.
With inspiring examples and illustrations, Gupta emphasized that grassroots innovations can provide a new ray of hope – if we let them grow.
Speaking of his own country’s experience, he said: “Outside of India’s major cities, unsung heroes of the country are solving, or trying to solve, local problems in spite of the structures that have bypassed them so far. Creativity, compassion and collaboration are the key characteristics of these voices from grassroots. Let’s listen to them and resonate with them!”
And it isn’t just an Indian phenomenon. At the outset, Gupta listed a dozen recent innovations made by Lankans. Some, like the safe kerosene bottle lamp, are widely known but most remain obscure. Yet, all have been authenticated, and many granted patents.
Few among the packed Colombo audience of over 200 seemed to recognise these home-grown innovations — just the point the professor was making.
“You get innovators all over Sri Lanka, but most are not known or recognised even in their own communities,” he said.
To make matters more challenging, most innovators tend to be loners: they are day-dreamers who don’t follow the pack.
“They don’t come to meetings or speak up much. We have to reach out to them, make them feel comfortable and valued,” Gupta added.
His suggestion: Sri Lanka should launch a national effort to discover its own innovators — both technological and social. The media can play a big role in spotting and promoting innovators, as can schools, universities and state agencies with relevant mandates.
But Gupta also had a strong word of caution: “Whatever we do, we must never try to convert these precious ‘odd-balls’ into conformists.”
Ray would surely have applauded. He was an accomplished non-conformist, or maverick, who didn’t fit into the stereotyped academic or engineering circles. Now the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust (RWCT), set up to promote his legacy, wants to nurture innovation in Sri Lanka.
The Trust made an auspicious start by inviting Anil Gupta to deliver the first lecture in Ray’s memory. Gupta and Wijewardene were kindred spirits who stayed in touch over the years across the Palk Strait.
Gupta himself defies the standard notion of an academic. He is an unusual professor who walks his talk — and walks through the villages and slums of India in search of innovation. His mission for the past two decades has been to ensure that grassroots innovators receive due recognition, respect and reward for their bright ideas. He also seeks to embed an innovative ethic in educational policy and institutions.
He founded the Honey Bee Network in 1986-87 “to promote a fair and responsible knowledge ecosystem”, where innovators can benefit by sharing their ideas. In the 1990s, he set up the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) both of which support the Honey Bee Network to scale up and convert grassroots innovations into viable products.
The man doesn’t sit in his campus; he goes innovator-scouting all over India. “In our walks, we move from village to village spotting grassroots innovations and honouring them. We have come across very simple modifications make life easier for people, and also help save natural resources,” Gupta said.
A simple example: at a rural location, he found someone had fitted six tapes on to the outlet of a single water pump. It allowed that many to draw water at the same time, and also reduced pumped up water going waste.
The bicycle is another invention that has been adapted for multiple purposes across India. Genius improvisers are using it for moving on land (and water), generating electricity, helping with the cooking, and even in washing clothes.
The popular Hindi film 3 Idiots featured a pedal-powered washing machine, which was inspired by the invention of a 20-year-old woman from Kerala, Remya Jose. It has since been showcased on Discovery Channel as part of the ‘Indian Innovators’ series of short films.
One defining characteristic of such grassroots innovation is that those tinkering are also immediate benefits of any improvements. As Gupta puts it: “From agricultural innovations to the gas-powered iron or pressure-cooker-driven coffee maker, we find that solutions developed by producers who are also users reflect the concerns of both the production and consumption environments.”
Not all inventions need to be earth-shattering. In fact, many aren’t – and that is perfectly fine, says Gupta.
“Even basic improvements in a water pump, for example, can make life easier for millions of people. When we look for design improvements, we should consider not only the benefits to humans, but even to domesticated animals.”
How can society ensure that grassroots innovators not just receive accolades but also get paid for their creative ideas?
Much of innovation related knowledge is ‘open source’ – meaning it has been developed by a number of people collaboratively and non-secretively. But that doesn’t mean their knowledge rights should be trampled with.
Taking out patents is one way to ensure such rights. The Honey Bee network has successfully obtained over 550 patents for grassroots innovations – more than some well-funded laboratories in India! This was made possible by mobilising pro bono lawyers and other volunteers.
The spirit of volunteerism common in Asian cultures can do much to nurture innovation and safeguard intellectual property rights at the same time, Gupta said.
His hope: “The Ray Wijewardene Trust should be able to find public-spirited lawyers in Sri Lanka to emulate the Indian experience.”
And what about glaring gaps that often exist between inventive minds and the ruthless market?
Don’t try to turn every innovator into businessman, Gupta said. “Most innovators are not good entrepreneurs because they are incorrigible improvisers. In many cases, we try to persuade and counsel innovators to work on their products. There are some who do very well, while others take time.”
Instead of trying to turn every inventor into an entrepreneur, we have to create institutions, schemes and networks that bring these two types together – the one who tinker and those who market.
We have to find ways to link innovation with investment and enterprise. Together, these three elements form what Gupta calls the ‘golden triangle’ for grassroots creativity.
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is a trustee of the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust, and has been profiling Lankan innovators for 25 years.