India has a historical opportunity to assume global leadership in co-creating innovative solutions to tackle socio-economic challenges that affect the whole of humanity
By Navi Radjou
Eight months into 2020, the world seems to be disintegrating fast—as we grapple with both a global pandemic (COVID-19) and an economic recession worse than the Great Depression. In every region, stability and unity are being replaced by insecurity and insularity as globalization takes backstage. Centrifugal forces are tearing apart the human fabric.
It might seem that these are discrete problems, singular to each affected region in an Age of Divergence.
I, however, believe that humanity and its problems are actually converging. That humanity as a whole is grappling with what I call “problems without borders”—pandemics, chronic illnesses, social inequalities, climate change (e.g., rising sea levels, water scarcity, global warming, loss of biodiversity), and unemployment now affect every man and woman on the planet irrespective of his/her gender, skin colour, or income level.
My thesis is that powerful centripetal forces—shaped by digital collaboration tools and a global massive shift in values and aspirations—are gaining great momentum. These forces are about to usher in the Age of Convergence. This epochal shift provides India with a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to assume global leadership in co-creating innovative solutions to tackle socio-economic and ecological challenges that will severely afflict the whole of humanity in the coming decades. In doing so, India can bolster the unity of mankind.
Let me use my personal experiences to illustrate how this global convergence is a phenomenon that has steadily been gathering thrust gradually since the late 2000s.
In 2010, while doing research for my book Jugaad Innovation, my co-authors and I interviewed Dr V. Mohan, one of India’s top diabetologists based in Chennai, and Dr Devi Shetty, a world-renowned cardiologist and founder of Narayana Health (formerly known as Narayana Hrudayalaya) hospital in Bengaluru. We learned from these two eminent doctors about the epidemic growth of diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in India, especially among the poor and, most worrisome, among the youth.
These chronic diseases—hitherto known as “rich man’s illnesses” in the Northern hemisphere—are now also afflicting millions of poor in the Global South. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, chronic diseases will account for nearly three-quarters of all deaths worldwide. This will have debilitating socio-economic consequences for rich countries (the US already uses 86% of its $3 trillion healthcare spending to treat chronic conditions) as well as developing nations, which will carry 60% of the burden of chronic illnesses. In India—currently the world’s diabetes capital—type-2 diabetes cases are poised to increase from 51 million in 2010 to nearly 90 million in 2030.
My second “convergence moment” came about in March 2015, when I was in Paris to launch my latest book Frugal Innovation. I felt sick and experienced heaviness in my chest. The culprit was an extremely high level of pollution in the French capital, which for a day knocked Delhi and Beijing off the world’s top polluter’s spot. This situation led Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo to ban cars with even-numbered licence plates from the streets. By 2024, all diesel cars will be banned from Paris. In January 2016, the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal piloted its own odd-even plan to curb pollution in the Indian capital. The plan was re-enacted in April and May be re-implemented this winter. According to the 2020 Air Quality Life Index report of the Energy Policy Institute, University of Chicago, India’s is the world’s second most polluted country. The report notes that “84% Indians live in areas which exceed India's own air quality standard.”
I experienced yet another convergence moment on April 1, 2015, when I lived in California. Jerry Brown, California governor at that time, issued the first-ever executive order to cut water use by 25% across the state. Indeed, while money rains in California—home to the third-largest number of billionaires in the world—water doesn’t. The Golden State—the world’s fifth-largest supplier of agriculture commodities—is in its fifth year of severe drought, catalysing drastic water conservation initiatives across the region.
In the 1970s, I grew up in Pondicherry, where water supply was restricted to two hours a day and I used to take a “one bucket shower” once in a while. I left India in 1989, and spent two decades in Europe and the US, before finally settling in Silicon Valley. During my 25 years living in the West, I never experienced water scarcity and enjoyed taking a long shower daily. However, during the 8 years I spent in Silicon Valley, I did my part to conserve water by limiting my daily shower to 1 minute! I feel “it’s like déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra put it.
Having worked and lived in three different cultures—Indian, French, and American—I long believed in the distinction between “third-world problems” caused by scarcity (water shortage, malaria, inequality, illiteracy, malnutrition, corruption, etc.) and “first-world problems” generated by abundance (lifestyle diseases, high divorce rate, extreme pollution, unbridled consumerism, etc.).
Today, however, as the whole humanity grapples with COVID-19, I believe the first-world and third-world issues are converging to create “one-world problems” that we all need to solve collectively. COVID-19 is just the beginning. Be prepared to confront several more “one-world problems” in the coming years!
Frugal innovation, which Indian entrepreneurs and firms master so well, can act as a lever for the nation to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) faster, better, cheaper.
It’s not just problems that are converging, but the needs, aspirations, and values of billions of people worldwide are converging too. As evidenced by the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, women and minorities in all regions are clamouring for equal rights (it’s worth noting that the US has never had a female president and has almost no woman chief executives among its largest banks, whereas India has had a woman as prime minister and president and many Indian banks are led by women). As for millennials and the Gen Z—be they in New York, London, Johannesburg, Amman, Bengaluru, Shanghai, or Tokyo—they form a global community through social networks and share common values and attitudes: they all care about social equity and climate change and believe they, as consumers and citizens, have the power to change the world for the better.
If we all share the same problems, needs, and aspirations, then we must also share our ideas and solutions to solve the very issues and needs we have in common. It’s time Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans adopt a global mindset to co-create what I call “solutions without borders” that will resolve wicked problems afflicting mankind.
The operative word here is “co-creation”. During the colonial era—which lasted from the late 15th century through early 20th century—as the West dominated the East and the South, rich and poor countries interacted with each other with mistrust and played a zero-sum game ruled by the formula “1+1=0”. During the 20th century, as countries like India in the Global South gained independence and international trade of goods and services accelerated, sovereign nations began to engage each other in a mutually beneficial economic relationship, that is “1+1=2” or at most “1+1=3”.
Now, as we advance into the 21st century governed by the internet and social networks, nations must be willing to learn from each other and integrate their unique ideas, talent, and knowledge to co-create meaningful solutions that benefit entire humanity. Such co-creation will embody the synergistic formula of 1+1=11 (Ek Aur Ek Gyarah as we say in Hindi).
Co-creation works only if the two collaborating parties respect each other and are willing, and humble enough, to learn from each other. Given their wealth, technological superiority, and colonial heritage, Western nations have long felt they have nothing to learn from poor countries like India or Africa. In recent years, however, there has been a radical mindset shift—and openness—in the West.
Frugal innovation can lead the way
In 2012, NESTA, a leading British think-tank, published a ground-breaking report entitled Our Frugal Future: Lessons from India’s Innovation System, which analyses the unique characteristics of the Indian innovation ecosystem and lauds the many frugal solutions India has produced—such as the Aakash tablet, Narayana Health, the Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO), Aravind Eye Hospitals. Since publishing that report, NESTA has been urging British companies and the UK government to adopt frugal innovation as a way to generate greater socio-economic value with fewer resources.
In France, my book Jugaad Innovation was published in 2013 and has become a bestseller. Many French companies—including Renault-Nissan, which launched the Kwid, a car designed and made 100% in India—are fervent supporters and adopters of jugaad, the uniquely Indian way of innovating under constraints. In a country where unemployment rarely drops below 10%, the resourceful French entrepreneurs can’t survive without jugaad, which is similar to what the French call Système D, a Do-it-Yourself (DIY) approach to solving problems with limited means.
Interestingly, more than India, it is Africa—given its geographical proximity and colonial ties—that is rapidly emerging as an innovation partner for France, which has begun to adopt frugal solutions pioneered in Africa. For instance, in 2017, French telecom operator Orange launched a mobile-only bank in France based on its success offering mobile financial services in Africa and inspired by M-PESA, a hugely successful mobile payment service in Africa. Orange’s 100% mobile bank’s services greatly appeal to low-income people and the youth in France.
Donald Trump’s fiery anti-globalisation rhetoric notwithstanding, US companies, entrepreneurs, and think-tanks are keen to forge innovation ties with the rest of the world as they seek to adopt proven solutions from abroad to solve vexing domestic problems. In 2017, the Commonwealth Fund, a leading US foundation focused on advancing healthcare, published a landmark report entitled Global Lessons in Frugal Innovation to Improve Healthcare Delivery in the United States. The report argued that frugal healthcare innovations from developing countries like India can help the US reduce its spiralling healthcare costs—projected to reach nearly $6 trillion by 2027—while improving quality.
A decade ago, the health units of GE, Siemens, and Philips pioneered reverse innovation by developing low-cost medical devices in India and China and then marketing them in the West. But US institutions like the Commonwealth Fund want to democratise reverse innovation, by creating easy-to-use tools and techniques that any US health organisation can apply to import frugal solutions from abroad. As the US enters into a prolonged recession in 2020, there is a sense of urgency among policy-makers and hospitals to rapidly adopt the principles of frugal innovation to overhaul the dysfunctional and wasteful US healthcare and provide better care to all Americans at a lower cost.
A few US institutions are going beyond reverse innovation—which, after all, involves mainly “importing” low-cost, high-value solutions that already exist elsewhere—and learning to truly co-create innovative products and services with developing nations. For instance, the Stanford-India Biodesign Program was launched in 2008 jointly by Stanford University, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to combine the frugality of Indian engineers, physicians and designers and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley to co-develop affordable medical devices. This programme has recently evolved into the School of International Biodesign, based in New Delhi and funded by the Department of Biotechnology, which aims to create a global ecosystem of frugal medical innovations.
These examples—drawn from Europe and the US—give clear evidence of an awakening in the West, which has begun to engage developing nations like India, China, and those in Africa in a genuine innovation partnership. How should India respond? Mahatma Gandhi, the great man who brought independence to India, said: “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.”
As it celebrates its 74th anniversary as an independent nation in 2020, India must come out of its shell of autarky and insularity and confidently lead the world in co-creating breakthrough solutions for “problems without borders”.
How India can lead in this space
What would this entail in practice? As the world’s largest and most diverse democracy with huge needs and mind-boggling complexity, India needs to present itself to the world as a “large-scale living social lab” where innovators from all over the world can come to experiment with bold new ideas aimed at co-creating an inclusive economy and sustainable society. In other words, India must position the country as a fertile breeding ground for “solutions without borders”.
India must lead by example—by trailblazing three mega socio-economic trends that promise to fundamentally reinvent the way we consume, work, and live for the better:
The sharing economy. The sharing economy is growing fast in Europe and the US where citizens—especially youngsters—opt for ridesharing and home-sharing to save money as well as to gain enriching social experiences and limit their ecological footprint. PwC projects the sharing economy to grow from $15 billion in 2013 to $335 billion in 2025. In India, the sharing economy is still in its infancy. India needs to leapfrog from a wasteful ownership-based consumer economy straight to a frugal sharing society given that, as Prime Minister Modi said at the United Nations COP21 climate conference, “Moderating our lifestyle is necessary for a low carbon future.” According to Frost & Sullivan, shared mobility will grow nearly 10% between 2019 and 2025 and become a major transportation mode across India. Ridesharing is a boon for India, which has the lowest car ownership among BRIC nations but already suffers from horrendous traffic jams and pollution.
Beyond enabling its consumers to share goods and services, India needs to trail-blaze what I call “B2B sharing”—by encouraging its companies to start sharing assets and resources with each other in socially critical sectors like education, healthcare, and agriculture. For instance, a B2B sharing marketplace similar to FLOOW2 in the Netherlands can be set up in India to enable hospitals—overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis—to share idle medical equipment, staff, and services with each other, thus delivering better care to more patients at a lower cost. Rohtash Mal, the former CEO of Escorts Ltd, founded EM3 AgriServices with the aim to become the “Uber for Indian farmers”. EM3 offers farm equipment and other value-added agricultural services to low-income farmers on an affordable pay-per-use basis.
The circular and regenerative economy. Experts agree that unbridled industrialisation in developed nations and later in China have contributed to global warming. With its Make in India strategy, India has a historical opportunity to implement manufacturing value chains that are much less polluting and way more energy-efficient than the wasteful and toxic industrial model used in the West and China. India must show to the world that it is possible to produce more—and better—with fewer resources.
Eschewing the linear “take-make-dispose” economic model, which wastes large quantities of energy, materials, and labour, Indian companies—small and large—must adopt “circular economy” principles to design and make eco-friendly and waste-free products that can be repeatedly recycled. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by adopting an approach that reuses and recycles waste and resources, India could reap $624 billion in annual benefits in 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 44 per cent. By going straight to circular industrialization, India can become a global hub for green innovators to prototype, pilot, and scale frugal value chains that set global standards for efficiency and sustainability.
The Tata Group, reputed for its Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability, has successfully applied the circular design, production and recycling principles not only to reduce its environmental impact but also to boost its business performance and develop local communities. For instance, Tata Powers is upcycling 38% of the 3.6 tonnes of fly ash it generates annually in its thermal power stations into value-added products such as cement, bricks, and highway embankments. This initiative reduces the use of scarce resources such as lime and topsoil, minimizes pollution, and improves the health of people working in brick-making factories. It also creates jobs in rural areas where Tata Powers operates.
Indian manufacturers can take the circular economy to the next level by adopting the principles of regeneration. Rather than merely reduce their carbon footprint and minimize waste, they can strive to enlarge their ‘ecological handprint’ by creating a positive impact on the environment. They can, for instance, emulate Interface, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer, which is already building a ‘Factory as a Forest’ in Australia that offers to its surroundings many ecosystem services— clean air and water, carbon sequestration, and nutrient cycling—that the local ecosystem it replaces used to offer. According to a study by ReGenFriends, nearly 80% of consumers prefer “regenerative” brands to “sustainable” brands, as they consider the term “sustainable” too passive.
The Maker movement. Around the world, passive consumers are evolving into active “prosumers”. Rather than flock to shopping malls, digitally-empowered and eco-conscious citizens now grow organic fruits and vegetables in the city (as Seattle residents are doing at the Beacon Food Forest, a 7-acre edible urban forest garden), generate their own clean electricity (like in Vauban, a 15,000-strong neighbourhood in the German city of Freiburg which produces electricity locally using solar panels set up by citizen groups), and build custom products in their own neighbourhoods. These ingenious prosumers are catalysing the global Maker Movement. Makers are tinkerers imbued with the jugaad spirit who prototype, build, and launch physical products not just for personal use but also to tackle big social challenges in education, healthcare, finance, mobility, and energy.
During the COVID-19 crisis this year, we saw thousands of ingenious Makers self-organizing themselves into fluid networks to co-create frugal solutions to fight the pandemic faster, better, cheaper than large companies were able to do. For instance, the M19 Collective—a network of 300 in 42 Indian cities and villages across India—worked tirelessly over seven weeks to produce 1 million face shields. They made these shields using just a laser cutter and locally available materials and then distributed them to health professionals and essential workers in their towns—thus saving the lives of many.
Likewise, Dr Renato Favero, a physician in the Lombardy region of Italy, which was hardest hit by COVID-19, asked himself: “Why not adapt a snorkelling mask so it can be used as a non-invasive ventilator?” Dr Favero teamed up with Isinnova, an Italian design consultancy, to create the Charlotte valve, a 3D-printed component that helps easily adapt the Decathlon Easybreath scuba-diving mask into a ventilator. Isinnova has made the design files of the Charlotte valve freely available for download on its website. Thanks to the agile thinking of Dr Favero and Isinnova, thousands of COVID-19 patients’ lives were saved in Italy and worldwide.
Anyone today can become a Maker, by taking advantage of DIY maker spaces, inexpensive 3D printers, and free open-source components like Raspberry Pi and Arduino to prototype, develop, and launch products faster, better, and cheaper than large firms can.
I have long advocated that India shouldn’t follow China’s centralized large-scale manufacturing model but rather build out a distributed network of agile micro-factories that can rapidly make small batches of customized products that cater to local demand in various Indian cities. The success of the M19 Collective in dealing with COVID-19 shows that rather than solely promote “Make in India”, Indian policymakers must also bolster a “Makers in India” strategy.
This “Makers in India” strategy will leverage the young Indian makers’ digital skills and create self-sustainable regional ecosystems to rapidly-produce critical products locally in Indian cities during future crises. This strategy can also transform the 12 million young people entering the Indian labour market annually from “job seekers” to entrepreneurial “job creators”.
Like the M19 makers, talented young Indians can set up makerspaces in their towns and villages that would employ local people to produce and sell custom goods tailored to local markets and make a good living of it.
I envision these makerspaces in India becoming the low-cost R&D labs where social entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, and citizen scientists from India and abroad can join forces to rapidly prototype and try out frugal solutions that can solve the “problems without borders”.
For instance, since 2006, Maker’s Asylum has been running STEAM School, a project-based experiential learning programme launched in collaboration with Paris-based the Centre of Research and the French embassy in India. Each year, the STEAM School brings together 150 participants—designers, students, entrepreneurs, engineers—from around the world to co-create frugal solutions for the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals aim to co-build inclusive, fair, healthy, and sustainable societies worldwide.
India can co-create a better world with fewer resources
By helping the globe, India can help itself, and by helping itself, India can help the rest of the world. Frugal innovation, which Indian entrepreneurs and firms master so well, can act as a lever for the nation to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) faster, better, cheaper.
According to the UN Global Compact, over 50 per cent of the progress towards the SDGs will need to come from India. Achieving the SDGs by 2030 will require $3.9 trillion to be invested in developing countries each year. But with an average annual investment of only $1.4 trillion, the investment gap is currently $2.5 trillion a year. As we enter a deep recession in 2020 and 2021, there is no way that developing countries can drum up that kind of investment. Frugal innovation may, therefore, be the only—and best— option for countries like India to achieve the SDGs cost-effectively and on time. By scaling up frugal development initiatives across the country, India can show the rest of the world how to co-build an inclusive and sustainable society with fewer resources.
In sum, by embedding sharing, circularity, and regeneration within its economy, and fostering grassroots innovation through the Maker movement, the Indian economy and society can become a fertile terroir (environmental context) for co-creating sustainable solutions that solve the biggest challenges facing humanity today.
In his book The Ideal of Human Unity, the yogi and philosopher Sri Aurobindo wrote: “Today the ideal of human unity is more or less vaguely making its way to the front of our consciousness. The emergence of an ideal in human thought is always the sign of an intention in Nature, but not always of an intention to accomplish; sometimes it indicates only an attempt which is predestined to temporary failure.”
India shouldn’t squander this historic opportunity that Nature is bestowing upon us: the 74-year-old nation should tap into its millennia-old wisdom to enable the human race to transcend its differences and converge toward unity.
This article is adapted from its original version published on www.foundingfuel.com and contains excerpts from the author’s book Doing Better With Less: Frugal Innovation for Sustainable Growth, published by Penguin India in 2019.