Why do we fail to innovate in India?

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It is no secret that Indian startup ecosystem has been lacking innovation. The successful Indian startups Flipkart, OYO Rooms, Ola and Gaana have emulated successful ideas of Amazon, Airbnb, Uber and Spotify. Lack of innovation has been found to be one the most common reason for failure of Indian startups according to a recent study, “Entrepreneurial India,” by the IBM Institute for Business Value and Oxford Economics. However, it would be unfair to single out startups for lacking innovation, especially when the present Indian companies themselves have failed to innovate world-class products or services. Indian companies have a dismal record in filing patents. Indian entities filed only 1423 international patents in 2015-16, while Japan filed 44,235, China 29486 and South Korea 14626. In fact, there are only a handful of Indian companies that invest substantially in R&D. In the last three years, the government of India through the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has made tremendous effort to promote innovation in India. Unfortunately, none of the measures have made any significant impact on innovation from Indian entities or individuals. Definitely, it is not the intellect of the Indians because these same individuals from India have made serious contribution to innovation in other developed countries. So, what are the reasons for lack of world-class innovation in India?

Colonial past & social system

To begin with, recent Indian history and social system contributed a lot to lack of innovation. The colonial policies of the British prior to our independence in 1947 prevented development of Indian industries. The British never wanted India to be self-reliant in industrial production, but merely a supplier of raw materials. And, post independence we have been relying on technology from outside to develop our industries. Most of the developing countries post Second World War imported technology from outside to develop industries. Even countries like China, Japan and South Korea imported technologies from outside but were able to build upon the borrowed technology to innovate and invent. Add, to this the Indian feudal system that even after 70 years of independence is deeply entrenched in our institutions and relationships. The problem with the feudal mind set is that it does not allow questioning the status quo and makes us subservient to authority.

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Education system- Marks rather than critical thinking

India inherited a colonial education system that was based on a rote learning system. Unfortunately, we have made very little change in our education system. Till the age of around 17 years, our students in schools are trained to memorise information. The students in school are examined and evaluated on their capacity to retain and reproduce the information on examination papers. There is no emphasis on critical thinking in our education system. Our higher education system in professional colleges is no different. The students are expected to do the same. Memorise and reproduce. We are teaching are students that there is only one possible way of doing things throughout their education journey and then we expect them to think differently and innovate.

Cultural mind set

Are we risk-averse and scared of failure? The answer is in affirmative. To try to do something new in most cases will lead to failure. Therefore, with limited opportunities of employment in the government and the private sector, the focus is to confirm to the status quo rather than try something new.

Frugal innovation is not real innovation

In recent past there has been a sought of glorification of ‘frugal innovation’. It’s true that Indians have been able to come up with unique products using minimalist resources in adverse conditions. However, none of these ‘frugal innovation’ has translated into world-class products. More than the ability to innovate, ‘frugal innovation’ represents our strong desire to innovate even with limited resources in adverse conditions. One of the limitations of ‘frugal innovation’ is that it seeks immediate quick solution to a problem rather than a long-term effective and sustainable solution of our problems.

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