B.S. Raghavan

The US President, Mr Barack Obama, devoted his entire State of the Union Address to the US Congress on January 25 to the tasks and challenges involved in “winning the future”. Actually, even this phrase, arresting as it is in its connotation, falls slightly behind the much more forceful and evocative one which asks for ‘inventing' or ‘sculpting' the future, instead of looking upon it as being made up of events beyond the control of the individual or the nation.

Mr Obama places the spirit of innovation at the heart of the concerted effort necessary to win the future. He actually peppers his speech eight times with references to innovation, citing various examples of achievements it has made possible.

Sparked by creativity

This, again, is not something that is strikingly original. Mr Obama has only highlighted in his own eloquent style what is the staple of every seminar and publication dealing with factors that impart dynamism and momentum to human endeavours, in general, and organisations and enterprises, in particular, helping them to stand out as futuristic models.

For all the attention it has been commanding in the abstract, innovation eludes any attempt at delineation in concrete terms with a view to evolving modalities of building it into management or business practices. In Mr Obama's understanding, it is sparked by creativity and imagination, but what are their specific ingredients and how precisely are they to be invoked?

For some management gurus, innovation essentially comes out of idea generation. For some others, it is a process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay. For still others, to be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need.

The closest that innovation gets as an implementable proposition is when it comes out of a deliberate application of information, imagination, and initiative in deriving greater or different value from resources, and encompasses all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products.

This also, by implication, corroborates the distinction that Joseph Scumpeter makes between innovation and invention: While the former is purely theoretical in nature (serving only as a prototype), an invention is capable of being put into practice and commercially viable and marketable.

Upside down

An innovative mindset need not necessarily be in quest of big ideas. When you come to think of it, Hotmail, Google, Facebook and Twitter are not earth-shaking, but gave an outlet to a latent yearning. In fact, seeming trifles can lead to disproportionately beneficial results.

As Chairman of some major enterprises, I could depend upon completion of tasks in time, when targets were specified, not as dates in the calendar which are liable to be forgotten, but linked to festivals, birth/death anniversaries of venerated figures or memorable historical events.

Innovation need not also mean a revolutionary departure from an existing process or technology. For instance, Apple worked with what was already ongoing, but turned it upside down by innovative strategies, programmes and techniques.

There is no doubt, though, that human progress in all its directions and dimensions has been the result of the human mind being in a state of constant fermentation for the next big game changer of an idea, on the lines of an Edison or a Ford.

Is it possible to have a special, dedicated set-up that will not leave the development of an innovative mindset to chance and the inspiration of individuals, or to organisations which have so many other responsibilities to take care of?

Russia has gone ahead with giving effect to the innovative idea of Innograd (Innovation City) at Skolkovo, 20 km from Moscow.

A cluster of numerous technological companies focussing on five priority spheres (energy, information technology, communication, biomedical research and nuclear technology), it is expected to catapult the Russian economy to undreamt of heights. Why not think of a similar set-up for India?

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 28, 2011)
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