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Indian innovation: How to accelerate in reverse
Harvey Mackay

February, 2014

Indian innovation: How to
accelerate in reverse


Recently, my fifth trip to India brought me face-to-face with non-stop contradictions.  How could a land, primitive in large areas, elbow its way ahead to being the world's fourth largest economy? 

At the Camel Fair in Pushkar, 50,000 camels – with their owners and traders – congregate for a colorful 17-day festival.  That's down considerably from what I saw on my first Pushkar pilgrimage 30 years ago.  Motorized options – India now ranks second in two-wheelers and third in small cars – are nudging the beasts aside.  Still, the aroma just 50,000 camels can muster is unforgettable.

Check this juxtaposition:  My wife and I were in a cart being pulled by a camel and led by a native driver.  He had a very long rope guiding the camel in one hand, while he was talking on his cell phone with the other.  That’s India today!

The average camel stands 7'1" at the hump.  That's exactly as tall as Shaquille O'Neal.  Sound pretty big?  Depends on your vantage point.  Indians shrewdly adjust expectations versus results.  An old Hindu adage holds:  “When a camel is at the foot of a mountain then judge his height.”

The Indian economy has advanced at 9-10% in recent years.  Now it's slowed to 5-6%.  Indians think they're in trouble . . . measuring that growth "camel" against the recent past.  Hey, wouldn't we in the United States love to be in that sort of trouble? 

The Young Presidents Organization/World President’s Organization – 390 strong – journeyed to New Delhi for a recent university event.  Indian executives, professionals and academics dazzled my colleagues and me with mind-blowing insights.  Take Amity University – which I also visited.  Its huge 20,000-student campus has another large campus snuggled close to it.  The most stunning number is the one million avid learners Amity has enrolled in 240 programs on 40 campuses and six countries, plus online. 

When I revisited the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai, I was even more taken by this tribute to modern India's founding father than I was decades earlier.  Emblazoned on the wall are Mahatma Gandhi's immortal words:  “Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever.” 

Priceless wisdom for a continuous-learning freak as I am.  India will need each one of those lessons as its population surpasses China's in the near future.

Awesome challenges foster incredible creativity.  One of the smartest lessons in the Indian playbook is known as trickle-up or reverse innovation, described by Dartmouth professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble.  

Under CEO Jeff Immelt, GE has explored reverse innovation too.  Here's how it works:  Places like India develop inexpensive versions of high-cost technology and processes.  These brainstorms are then remarketed back to “advanced” economies as low-cost options.

Does evidence support this ultimate switcheroo?

  • According to a Harvard Business Review piece, a new wave of Indian hospitals emphasizes “world-class health care at ultralow cost” often through selective specialization done at high volumes.
 
  • Throughout India, the electric grid is not efficient, hamstringing high-power electro-technology.  Battery-powered medical instruments often do the job.
 
  • In 2001, a massive earthquake struck India's state of Gujarat killing 2,000 and leaving 400,000 homeless.  In response, CNN reported, “one young entrepreneur, Mansukhbhai Prajapati . . . designed a low-cost clay refrigerator which required no electricity and continued to function in the event of major catastrophes.”
 
  • Would the challenges of poverty eject India from the continuing global space race?  In November, India launched MOM – the Mars Orbiter Mission.  Forbes reports the venture will “make India the first Asian country, and the fourth in the world, to get to the planet.”  While richer nations book billions lost in space, India rigged up its Mars mission on a $75-million shoestring.  Getting to “Mars on a budget” included carefully limited testing, low-cost rocket fuel technologies and acquiring older engine options.
 
  • With 70 percent of its population rural, India has been at the forefront of solar-cooking solutions.  These practical technologies are now drawing international attention.

Having once served as a Miss America pageant judge, I was fascinated to watch Nina Davuluri crowned as the first Miss America of Indian descent in September.  Nina, who aspires to be a cardiologist, is a pragmatist.  Winning an earlier pageant competition landed a scholarship enabling her “debt-free” college graduation.

Much is made of India being the largest democracy.  While wonderful and true, another powerful bond binds America and India.  It's one we Americans would all do well to relearn:  India's passion for practical resourcefulness.

 

Mackay's Moral:  Trickle down-economics? India's trickling-UP . . . all the way to the bank!



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