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    Creative Commons, Meena Kadri (2010) ©

India: poised for an innovation revolution?

Whatever the scale of your enterprise, the innovation culture and practice in India is changing to make it a dynamic environment for partnerships.

Location India

I was recently in India, this time as part of a 14-strong university mission from Canada. The context of the trip provided an opportunity for extensive conversation with Indian political, institutional and corporate leaders, rich in insights. Three elements were continually present; 1) the dramatic attempts to fuel a sustainable culture of innovation, 2) an understanding of the fundamental role of design in realising the Indian Science and Technology agenda and 3) all of this against a backdrop of massive anticipated growth in post-secondary opportunities.

Whatever the scale of your enterprise, the innovation culture and practice in India is changing to make it a dynamic environment for partnerships, whether in growing initiatives to form international and domestic collaboration to expand education, or as part of public-private innovation initiatives, leveraged by investment from India and international governments.
Public-private partnerships and centres of excellence that engage large-scale industry, SMEs and universities are rare in a country where research had previously occurred in government labs. This is changing fast. Targeted government investment funds, often matched by international partners (Canada and India are in the midst of just such a competition for shared research projects that are close to commercialisation) means that private sector partners can access the vast Indian market and use university labs to develop, design, prototype and test new products.

After announcing three new collaboration agreement my team travelled to Bangalore to hold a series of meetings with our partners from the prestigious National Institute of Design, meeting with industry partners to plan a shared research facility, with its focus on mobile (health, education, commerce, entertainment), universal design solutions that help to integrate marginal populations and sustainable technology products.

BRIC beacons
The NID was listed as one of the top 25 European and Asian programs in the world by Business Week. The capacities of faculty researchers and alumni are impressive, in fields such as information visualisation, industrial design for medical devices, mobile devices, robotics, serious game design, cognitive science and user-centered design and ethnography, and automotive design. While the NID is the most significant design institution that can engage with industrial partnerships, the Pune MIT Institute of Design is also home to a cadre of bright faculty, many of whom are graduates of the NID. The Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, also in Bangalore was founded in 1996 by the Ujwal Trust and is a world recognised art and design school that has recently founded the Srishti Labs to provide professional strategic design services for the booming tech sector.

India plans to achieve 100% broadband coverage in the next three years, in rural as well as urban India. This will revolutionise the capacity to innovate and educate.

The thirst for innovation exists in traditional areas of the Indian economy as well as the knowledge economy.The Institute for Apparel Management is a new institution, established in 2007 to train designers and managers in a broad base of applied management skills and understanding of the dynamics of textile, lifestyle and apparel business in a global context. The IAM is promoted by the Apparel Export Promotion Council (India’s largest Export Council) and sponsored by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. One of our institution’s research partners, the IAM is committed to modernizing the textile industry through the introduction of “technical textiles”, whether smart fabrics, nanotechnology and tensile materials, applications in security, medical, fashion, interior design, “soft circuitry” into product lines and through the use of massive digitisation to create efficiencies in design and the supply chain. This institute works in close collaboration with Indian industrial partners and is eager to collaborate with industry from around the world.

Stirred by the growing warmth towards university industry partnerships I was part of a roundtable that explored “Industry engagement in the changing higher education landscape”. Discussions about private sector engagement in post-secondary education are relatively new in India, where structured collaborations between universities and industry have not been a part of the culture, on either the education side (providing co-op opportunities, or acting in an advisory capacity) or through research relationships. Analysts suggest that this gap has meant that institutions have not modernised curriculum and that university research has developed slowly, and been under-resourced. Industry has been reluctant to engage with the sector, yet is dissatisfied with the quality of graduates. Private companies are opening institutes and universities in order to train a future work force. Important dialogues about the value of academic freedom even within the private sphere have begun. In Canada universities are often the bridging agents between private sector and industry, through all kinds of mechanisms; India hopes to naturalize models that have worked in other parts of the world.

Multidisciplinary investment
The growth in opportunities for public-private partnerships exist in part because the Indian government is undertaking a major investment in shifting business, government and university culture towards “an organizational structure of innovation”. Only 0.8% of India’s total GDP is invested in research (compared to 3-4% in the USA). Climate change is led by the National Innovation Council, mandated by the Prime Minister to launch a Decade of Innovation, under the leadership of Sam Pirota. Pirota holds over 100 patents, has won awards in India and abroad and is credited with having laid the foundation of India’s technology and telecommunications revolution in the 1980s. The Council is an eclectic brain trust whose ambitious goal is to roll out creating a Road Map for Innovation for 2010-2020 that focuses on ‘inclusive growth’. Members include government bureaucrats; biomedical industries; telecom and entertainment industries; Indian academics and venture capitalists.
Their mandate is aggressive. They are developing strategies to eliminate disparity, looking for scalable, quality-driven sustainable solutions, pervasive growth, the use of inclusive design to develop affordable innovations for and by the people, and supporting “innovations for the bottom of the pyramid” through the development of an “Inclusive Innovation Fund” that will begin at $1 billion. There are a set of values or drivers that the Innovation Council is promoting: multidisciplinary approaches to sectors; collaboration; transformative rather than incremental action; generational change vs. incremental change; need vs. demand; nature as nurture (using sustainable resources); local relevance; global connectivity and competitiveness and a focus on the edge to find innovation. Their platform for development brings together Science and Technology with Social and Cultural investment, something that is unfortunately too rare in the developed world.

In a meeting with Pirota and several council members we learn that India plans to roll out broadband in the next three years in order to achieve 100% coverage in rural as well as urban India. This will revolutionise the capacity to innovate and to educate.
Educational reform
The innovation story plays against dramatic shifts in accessibility to education, which will lay the foundations for it to take hold in the first place. The Indian government (as does Brazil and China) links education, and access to education, with the ability to build a robust and competitive economy with a vast internal market. This requires raising the standard of living of more than the Indian middle class, which in turn requires access to education.

456 million young people should be entering India’s schools in the next ten years. To meet their needs a network of educational resources needs to roll out across the country, making use of the latest technologies and defying caste and gender. The government hopes to shift from testing to learning and to begin to introduce subjects that build the emerging economy. Their goal is that every year 30%of these students would be eligible to move on to Post-Secondary Education (higher education) in the next decade – the current GER is 12%. With a challenge this vast, the government is in the process of designing a system that can meet the diverse needs of economic and intellectual development as well as adapt to regional diversity. Distance learning, already in place in some contexts, will be a fundamental part of both existing and new institutions. Investments in infrastructure as well as skills to deliver online learning are part of the current strategy.

Inclusive education
CC, Meena Kadri (2008) ©

The higher education system is a patchwork of public universities, colleges and institutes, the elite Indian Institute of Technology, elite private institutions and unregulated for-profit schools. India is moving to make the accreditation of institutions mandatory, forcing accountability yet still allowing for institutional autonomy. Currently 225,000 Indian students a year study abroad and only 18,000 come to India - one of India’s goals is to ensure more students receive international accreditation but remain in the country. There is encouragement for the expansion of private sector universities that are aligned with corporations or sectors, and India will soon open the door to international institutions wishing to establish campuses in the country. Retaining graduates of the best schools in India has been difficult until recently, as many IIT graduates left to undertake graduate studies abroad and did not return –a reverse brain drain.

Insights and opportunities

International strategic companies such as Nokia, Hewlett Packard or IBM have a strong presence in India. There are many other opportunities for foreign companies large and small. The value of engagement cuts both ways. For internationals, learning about the dynamic and growing opportunities in India is invaluable – this will be a market of more than a billion people. Companies can help to nurture tomorrow’s talent and in doing so build bridges. For Indian companies and institutions, the engagement with outsiders brings fresh perspectives, new business methods and educational models and the opportunity to address markets outside of India.

India certainly faces challenges of building a viable and inclusive economy, battling waves of corruption and a current of political instability. However the will is there, and changes in the systems of innovation, funding and education make it an exciting and plausible time for partnership in these endeavours from around the world.

Related on Canvas8

Arvind Singhal, ‘CSR from an Indian perspective’, 24 March 2010. Available here
Meena Kadri, ‘Looking beyond the Indian middle class’, 12 February 2010. Available here


President of the Ontario College of Art and Design and Chair of the Mobile Experience Innovation Centre. Sara was also the Founder and Artistic Director of Media and Visual Art at the Banff New Media Institute until 2008.