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

FIFA World Cup 2010: Media Conquering Planet Football!

Most Earthlings have just spent a month on this!

“If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose July 11. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance.

“Today, most members of the Earth’s dominant species – the nearly 7 billion humans – will be preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. It’s only a game, really, but what a game: the whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the FIFA World Cup Final.

“Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this was much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.”

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, which appears in several print and online outlets this weekend. It’s timed for the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2010 – the most widely followed sporting event in the world, which will be played in Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa today, 11 July 2010. The Netherlands will meet Spain in this culmination of international football that has been distracting a good part of humanity for a month.

This sporting event is tipped to be the most-watched television event in history. Hundreds of broadcasters are transmitting the World Cup to a cumulative TV audience that FIFA estimates to reach more than 26 billion people. Some TV channels offer high definition (HD) or 3-D quality images to enhance the mass viewing experience.

The essay was written a few days ago, after the FIFA World Cup 2010 had reached the semi-finals stage. To be honest, I’m not an ardent football fan. But as an observer of popular culture, I’ve gladly allowed myself to be caught up in the current football frenzy. I just love to watch people who watch the game…

It’s a light piece written to suit the current global mood, but I acknowledge that the World Cup is really more than just a ball game. The basic thrust of my essay is to comment on the powerful mix of fooball and live coverage: “For the past month, the winning formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.”

The Times of India, 11 July 2010: Planet Football: Sports unites a fragmented humanity

The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, 11 July 2010: Conquering Planet Football

Groundviews.org: Beam Me Up to Planet Football

United Colours of Football, courtesy FIFA

The essay builds on themes that I’ve already explored on this blog – for example, how President Nelson Mandela used the 1995 World Cup Rugby championship to unite his racially divided nation, as told in the movie Invictus.

I also touch on FIFA being a wielder of formidable soft power in the world today, arguably more influential than the United Nations.

Here’s my parting thought, on which I invite reader comment: “On second thoughts, those invading aliens don’t need to worry too much about the Earth’s political leaders or their armies. Without firing a single shot, the globalised media have quietly taken over our Global Village — and now it’s too late to resist! We can argue on its merits and demerits, but the facts are indisputable.”

Sri Lanka’s Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams: Asking difficult questions

Holy cow! How does she do it?

Cows have been a part of South Asian cultures, economics and societies for millennia. Many among us are connected to cows in one way or another – some worship them while others feast on them. Even a secular vegetarian in South Asia – like myself – can’t avoid bumping into the occasional cow on our delightfully messy streets…

We probably gave the term ‘sacred cow’ to the English language. It means an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so. As the Wikipedia explains, “The term is based on the popular understanding of the place of cows in Indian religions as objects that have to be treated with respect, no matter how inconvenient.”

Well, some of us beg to differ on modern-day sacred cows. My latest op ed essay, just published on Groundviews.org, is all about sacred cows in rapidly modernising South Asia. It starts with my experience as a young science journalist covering the impending launch of Pakistan’s first digital communications satellite, Badr 1, in early 1990.

At the time, Pakistan had recently returned to civilian rule after many years of dictatorship, and Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister (in her first term). The political mood was generally upbeat. But I soon found out — from Pakistani journalists and independent scientists — that they weren’t allowed to ask critical questions about the country’s nuclear or space programmes.

In Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka, I write: “The message was clear: democracy or not, some sacred cows always enjoy their privileged status! This has certainly been the case with both the space and nuclear programmes in India and Pakistan: they have been shielded from public and media scrutiny for decades.

What price for having our own?

“For the past few months, it seemed as if we too were following this South Asian tradition. Plans to build Sri Lanka’s own satellites were announced and pursued with little information disclosure and no public debate. The government wanted to launch our very own ‘sacred cows’ into orbit. We the public were to just applaud on cue, and then cough up the money for it…”

The essay is a critique of Sri Lanka’s much hyped plans to build its own satellites. The project was announced in February 2009 and appeared to gain momentum during the year. Going by official statements and media reports, the plan was to launch not one but two satellites.

Suddenly, there seems to be a change of heart. In a interview on 6 June 2010 covering a range of issues, head of the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) disclosed that the government was not going ahead with the much-hyped project. At least not in its originally announced form. The reason: the very high cost, and the need to ‘explore other options such as hiring satellites’ instead of building our own.

Hmmm. Better to be wise later than never. This is the first time in over 15 months that the high costs of this high cost project have been acknowledged.

The satellite is not the only mega-science project being pursued in post-war Sri Lanka. In June 2009, the Ministry of Science and Technology directed the Atomic Energy Authority to set up a national committee to study technical and financial aspects of setting up a nuclear power plant.

Again, this mega project has not been opened up for public discussion and debate, in spite of a few citizens and activists expressing concern, highlighting safety and public health risks, high cost of construction and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal.

I end the essay arguing that as long as public safety and public funds are involved, sacred cows – whether orbital or radioactive – can’t be allowed free range.

Read the full essay on Groundviews: Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka

A compact version appeared in The Sunday Times, 13 June 2010: Sri Lanka’s Satellite: Lost in Space?