Wanted: More ‘Idiots’ to tackle grassroots innovation challenges!

Aspirations are common; solutions are not...Cartoon by R K Laxman

The late Ray Wijewardene was very fond of this cartoon, drawn decades ago by the outstanding Indian cartoonist, R K Laxman.

It epitomised, in Ray’s view, poor people’s aspirations for useful technology: machines or processes that provided relief from drudgery and put money in their pockets.

The bicycle used to be a common aspiration among many people. Among today’s generation, the mobile phone is another. (But most people who want a phone have already got one – for a variety of personal and utilitarian reasons).

Ironically in our age of technology, hundreds of millions of people — most of them poor, and a majority of women — are still toiling away in tasks where simple machines or devices could reduce their daily drudgery.

Few inventors have bothered with these — probably because the beneficiaries are on the margins of society. Their needs are not a priority for most research institutes or high tech laboratories.

This is the focus of my latest op-ed essay, published in The Sunday Times on 25 Dec 2011: Wanted: More ‘Idiots’ to tackle grassroots innovation challenges

It was inspired by, and mostly based on the inaugural Ray Wijewardene memorial lecture delivered by Dr Anil Kumar Gupta, India’s top innovation-spotter, in Colombo on 13 December 2011. He spoke on “Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development: From Rhetoric to Reality”

India’s Honey Bee Network, which Gupta founded in the mid 1980s, has documented
thousands of grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge practices for a quarter century. And yet, many everyday life problems remain unresolved. Ones, when tackled, can bring immediate relief to hundreds of millions of men and women from their daily drudgery.

Find out more – read the full article:
Wanted: More ‘Idiots’ to tackle grassroots innovation challenges

Prof Anil K Gupta rekindles the innovative spirit of Ray Wijewardene

Prof Anil K Gupta lights oil lamp in front of Ray Wijewardene photo before delivering Inaugural Ray Lecture in Colombo, 13 Dec 2011 - photo by Ruveen Mandawala

Ray Wijewardene was a man well ahead of his time, which might explain why he was not better understood and appreciated. He was also a systemic thinker who went to the root of problems and looked for elegant and efficient ways of solving them. He was not mesmerised by technology alone.”

With these words, an eminent Indian scholar paid tribute to the late Ray Wijewardene (1924 – 2010), whose website I helped design and launch a few weeks ago.

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 Sri Lanka (IESL) on 13 December 2011.

The IESL auditorium was packed to capacity, with more people standing and spilling over to the corridor. Anil Gupta gave an engaging talk that makes him the subcontinent’s foremost innovation-spotter. With inspiring examples and illustrations, he emphasized that grassroots innovations can provide a new ray of hope — provided we let them grow.

The lecture was organised by IESL and the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust (RWCT), set up to promote Ray’s legacy, and committed to nurturing 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.

“It is a privilege for me and the Honey Bee Network to be invited for a lecture in honour of such an illustrious innovator, social change activist and thought leader of our sub-continent, and indeed the entire developing world,” Professor Gupta said when I first reached out to him a few months ago to invite for the lecture.

More coverage of the talk itself will follow, both on this blog and on Ray website.

17 Dec 2011: 3 Idiots and Honey Bee Network launch India’s Grassroots Innovators into New Orbit

The Nation, 18 Dec 2011: Anil Gupta’s Advice: Unleash Sri Lanka’s Grassroots Innovators!

Prof Anil Gupta delivers inaugural Ray Wijewardene memorial lecture in Colombo, 13 Dec 2011 - Photo by Ruveen Mandawala

Anil K Gupta is an unusual professor who walks the talk — and walks through the villages and slums of India in search of innovation. His mission is 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.

All three entities are partners of the National Innovation Foundation (NIF India), an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology in India. Since 2000, NIF has mobilized more than 160,000 innovations and traditional knowledge practices from all over India, and now holds the largest database of its kind in the world. Professor Gupta is Executive Vice Chair of the NIF, and is also a member of the National Innovation Council of India.

More images at http://www.facebook.com/RayWijewardene