A Larger R&D Budget Won't Secure a Quantum Leap For Innovation in India

The first step should encouraging an innovation culture that encourages people to solve mundane and everyday problems in a decentralised way.

India needs to transform into an innovation economy. Credit: Reuters

India needs to transform into an innovation economy. Credit: Reuters

India’s improvement in the ‘Global Innovation Index’ from rank 81 (2015) to 66 (2016) showcases the country’s slow transition to an innovation economy. However, an innovative society is a far cry from an innovation economy. A more inclusive innovation culture is critical for India’s future, considering the massive shifts in industry models and potential job losses along the way.

India’s impact on the global research and knowledge economy is comparatively low. Based on World Bank data for 2013, India’s R&D spending oscillates between 0.8-0.9 % of its GDP, much lower than countries like China (2%), Japan (3.5%), South Korea (4.15%), and Israel (4.1%). While these nations have massively ramped up their R&D investments from where they stood in 1996, India has witnessed minimal increase in the same window of almost two decades. While the industry and private sector in these countries contribute 60-70% of this research expenditure, India’s share fluctuates around 30%. This data indicates that both government and private actors are lagging behind in India.

Comparisons aside, India must realise that economies can often be a function of global business cycles. The current technological transformation in every single domain has resulted in companies becoming more innovative and spawned an innovation economy. But an innovation culture goes beyond this to the percolation of “outside the box” thinking to students, teaching faculty, and lay people in all kinds of varied settings. To get there, India has to focus on redesign of current educational practices and meaningful cross-stakeholder interaction.

Redesigning teaching and learning

For an innovation culture to flourish, new and offbeat ideas have to emerge bottom up rather than only top down. The students from India’s many schools and colleges should receive high-priority attention as a potential talent pool for innovative ideas. Our educational policies must be re-designed to place science and technology at the core of knowledge-creation in schools. The curriculum needs to focus on “metacognition”, defined as the ability to self-reflect and understand one’s own thought processes. Only a reflective society can succeed in encouraging its children to iterate and innovate rather than be obsessed with results from day zero.

To create an innovation ecosystem, the Government of India recently set up the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), along with the Self Employment and Talent Utilisation (SETU) scheme administered by Niti Aayog. These programs are meant to facilitate school-level financial grants that help in nurturing the first layer of innovation. In pursuance of its stated mission to ‘Cultivate One Million Children in India as Neoteric Innovators’, AIM is promoting Atal Tinkering Laboratories (ATLs) in schools across India. The skills sought to be inculcated through ATLs – design mindset, computational thinking, adaptive learning, physical computing etc – are vital to an innovation culture. Similarly, the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan attempts to revamp science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning in schools by recommending systemic improvements in the school system, particularly by enhancing teacher preparedness and competence.

But such initiatives cannot succeed unless the regulatory cholesterol surrounding education at all levels in India is first rectified. The Right to Education Act has arguably presented more problems than solutions, restricting the flexibility of institutions to design creative teaching methods, and over-emphasising deliverables over learning outcomes. The dominant literature and teachings on pedagogy at our disposal today strongly rebut the efficacy of rote learning approaches. Yet, the RTE Act and other elaborate regulations governing the education sector enshrine convention without serious deliberation.

Data science is poised to create several good jobs in the next few years, similar to the IT boom from the mid-90s to about 2010. But India’s preparedness to take advantage of this opportunity is middling at best. Firstly, the training in data science made available in engineering colleges other than a select few “islands of excellence” is rather rudimentary, and curriculum setting is far from agile. Thus, students become ill-equipped to handle professional challenges upon entering the industry.

More importantly, to create an innovative culture using data, there must first be enough data to tinker around with. Vital data pertaining to train delays and accidents, water shortage, and other problems faced by public utilities, is not freely made available to educational institutions. The structure of the Right to Information Act – waiting patiently for data repositories to respond to data requests rather than publishing data on real-time basis – is part of the reason, and it is high time we address this hurdle. If data is the new oil, we certainly need more of it to fuel the innovation engine.

Suitable reward mechanisms

India needs a vibrant national innovation system (NIS), to foster an inclusive innovation culture. This concept, developed by Bengt-Åke Lundvall and other economists, focuses on the presence or absence of a coordinated effort across academic and scientific institutions, industry and government to channelise innovative activity. A good NIS helps policy makers identify leverage points for enhancing the innovative potential of a country, in addition to furthering the creative potential of its citizens.

A mere increase in R&D funding cannot again secure a quantum leap for innovation in India unless efforts are coordinated particularly between government, industry and academia, and outcomes tracked. The Uchatar Avishkar Yojana is a recent initiative in this direction. It was conceptualised to equip college graduates with industry-focused skills, with 50% funding from the Human Resource Development Ministry, 25% from the relevant industry and 25% from the Department of Higher Education. But at the moment, it is confined to the Indian Institutes of Technology, while the need for such initiatives are more deeply felt in other colleges with lesser resources and industry interaction avenues.

Private initiatives such as the Honey Bee Network reveal the extent of innovation in rural areas and the unfortunate information gaps that hinder them from getting widely disseminated. For these innovations to bring about the desired multiplier effect and lead to a broader innovation culture, a seamless system of information sharing and coordination among various stakeholders is an absolute must. Particularly so when projections are rife, of a tech-enabled Second Green Revolution! This will not materialsze unless we unlock the innovative potential of farmers and crowd-source solutions to the multifarious problems faced by them.

Active policy measures that incentivise stakeholders to share information and collaborate for the sake of innovation are also imperative. Industry willingness to work with the Government and not-for-profit scientific and research institutions must be suitably rewarded. While much has been made of intellectual property rights in recent times, open innovation models could actually be India’s best way forward to an inclusive innovation culture. Open innovation requires a completely different perspective on regulating the relationship between innovator and end user. A potential regulatory and reward framework could focus on generating trust so that innovators and knowledge creators can freely collaborate and share benefits of the innovation, granting preference in government procurement for products of such innovation, tax breaks and exemptions for open innovator collaborations, and open sharing of data regarding the working of the innovation and its outcomes.

Technology and innovation have become buzzwords of late. While many of the ideas floating around – driverless cars, artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and many more – sound “cool”, it is for each country to decide the kind of innovation it wants to propel on priority basis. With India’s set of challenges, the first step should be towards an innovation culture that encourages people to solve mundane and everyday problems in a decentralised way. Without this, the country will constantly remain a net consumer rather than producer of ideas and innovation.

Ananth Padmanabhan is a research fellow at Carnegie India, and Shruti Sharma is presently interning with the same organization. Views expressed are personal.