Unleashing a “Dandi march” for entrepreneurship

Published on 16th May, 2018, BUSINESS STANDARD

There are many inspiring examples of trickles becoming mighty rivers like the Ganga and Kaveri.

Published on 11th May 2018

R. Gopalakrishnan*

Email: rgopal@themindworks.me

(*Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur and author of “A biography of innovations from birth to maturity”)

The difference between jugaad and innovation lies in a deep crevice called sustainability and replicability. Atal Innovation Mission of Niti Ayog has adopted an approach that cuts across the ‘apparent impediments’ and tries to use their strengths without getting bogged down in their weaknesses.

There are many inspiring examples of trickles becoming mighty rivers like the Ganga and Kaveri. In science, bacteria rapidly multiply in an appropriate medium. In physics, atomic particles gather speed in a particle accelerator. In civic life, movements develop. Gandhiji set out from Sabarmati Ashram on 12th March 1930 to protest the colonial Salt Tax with just a few, but the crowds swelled uncontrollably en route to Dandi.

India began grassroots innovation in 2000 when IIMA Professor Anil Gupta established the National Innovation Foundation with support from the Department of Science and Technology. Recently in 2015, a committee chaired by Harvard Professor Tarun Khanna submitted a report on national innovation, inter alia, recommending a charter for AIM. Within a brief time, AIM has executed actions on the ground and, for brevity, only some are mentioned below.

  1. Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) are up and running—2,500 already exist and the target is to have 5,000 by end of 2018. Each 1500 sq ft ATL is equipped with Do-It-Yourself kits on latest technologies (IoT, Robotics, 3D printing). An ATL-in-charge and a mentor—2,500 mentors have volunteered through a Mentor Networking Platform–both trained by AIM and its partners, are available to each ATL. In a recent ATL Marathon, 35,000 school students from all over the country participated. Thirty projects have been selected for further development and support. A video clip showing the kids at work warms the cockles of the heart of every Indian–our kids are smart and are beacons for the future.
  2. Atal Incubation Centers (AICs) will help creative ideas from ATLs and other sources to be rigorously validated and nurtured. 19 AICs are already operational at existing universities and institutions with much larger numbers on the anvil.
  3. Much else has been planned. Every district in the country is targeted to have at least one ATL, so that school kids get deeply involved, early in life, with tinkering and ideating. Early intervention is the AIM mantra.
  4. The structure of AIM is not the usual advisory board that one is accustomed to. It bears the name MHLC, standing for Mission High Level Committee. Its members are the top leadership of Niti Ayog along with half a dozen secretary level officials from the government. The MHLC has private sector managers and thought leaders also as its members (the author discloses that he is one of the members).

In short, AIM’s name, charter, functioning and composition have been designed to be workmanlike with usage of modern management techniques–Balanced Score Card, Annual Targets and Project Review. The chief is called Mission Director. R. Ramanan, a former CEO/MD of CMC Limited, has been generously seconded by Tata Consultancy Services. His bustling, young team cuts an impressive sight.

A Sabarmati equivalent may well be underway through Niti Ayog’s Atal Innovation Mission (AIM). Could AIM replicate the swelling Dandi crowds as it develops momentum over the next twenty years? If it does, it would be a landmark in the entrepreneurial journey of the nation!

The goal of Atal Innovation Mission is to use common people’s creativity to solve problems—to develop and deliver sustainable and replicable solutions. Indians face many obstacles in day to day life and they are superb at overcoming problems, not necessarily at designing lasting solutions: hence the tendency to do jugaad. The difference between jugaad and innovation lies in a deep crevice called sustainability and replicability.

Nothing is assured as the momentum is far from having gathered. However, the building blocks are getting into place, there is energy and commitment to move ahead, and hence hope for optimism. In national public discussion on innovation, our citizens argue for a reorientation of social attitudes, modernization of school teaching and supportive government policies. Those are good talking points, but it is unclear who will do what after the discussion is over. AIM has adopted an approach that cuts across the ‘apparent impediments’ and tries to use their strengths without getting bogged down in their weaknesses. Schools, universities, state governments and central government are not adversaries in this effort, but collaborative partners in this movement.

A World Bank Chief Economist, William Maloney, has recently co-authored The Innovation Paradox, in which he has argued that developing countries must focus on a sound ecosystem and capability development. AIM has the potential to do for Indian innovation what Operation Flood did for milk production and Green Revolution did for agriculture; that must be its philosophy.

The motto of the mission must be to Thing Big, Start Small, Fail Fast and Move Quick.

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