Harnessing diffused creative knowledge

D. Murali | Updated on November 07, 2011


India's growing technological connectivity is helping improve rural development.

The interplay between society and technology has intensified, each influencing the other, and its full force is being felt in India, declares L. K. Sharma in ‘The India Idea: Heralding the era of path-breaking innovations' . Reminding us that satellites and mobile phones are providing education, expert advice, weather information and other critical information to farmers and fishermen, patients, and students, Sharma paints a reassuring picture of the Indian villager who once had to trudge miles to sell her farm produce at whatever price she got: “Today, she gets the mandi price on the cell phone before setting out for the market, averting exploitation.” Likewise, “On a Village Resource Centre (VRC) computer, the farmer sees an image of his small plot taken by a remote-sensing satellite, gets to know its soil characteristics and a list of recommended crops.”

Adding that much more is yet to come, Sharma observes that growing technological connectivity, IT's open source movement and crowd-sourcing-based research and development can harness diffused creative knowledge. Foreseeing that with its core competence in the field of IT, India is going to be a major contributor and beneficiary of the open source software movement, he mentions, as example, the initiative of CSIR (the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) to develop a TB drug through crowd-sourcing.

A healthy trend highlighted by Sharma is the involvement of young entrepreneurs in applying science and technology inputs for rural development, some of them moving to villages when they get tired of making millions and being called techies. “They return from Silicon Valley or exit the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) hostels to apply their skills to the problems faced by the ‘real' India. Unlike their fathers and uncles, these young men and women are not stricken by economic insecurity…”

Life-saving SMS

A chapter titled ‘Indian needs, Indian solutions,' lists more than a dozen snippets, ranging from the streaming of moving images to villages for the first time not by the film industry but by the pioneering Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) of the seventies, to the triggering of irrigation pump remotely through a mobile phone by Santosh Ostwal . In the context of the recent cap on SMS, it should be interesting to learn that mobile telephone messages – generally derided for the signals of love sent by the young, advertising texts by businesses, and the effective use by activists – can also save lives, thus: “Veerampattinam, a fishing village near Puducherry, used to lose seven to eight people every year to the tidal waves. But since 1998 not a single life has been lost at sea. Now the fishermen know in advance when it is dangerous to go fishing.”

Or, read this snatch about Gautam Kumar, aged twenty-six, who developed a fire alarm system, Suraksha, that sends mobile telephone messages to five registered users: “The device consists of a sensor that smells gas (in the case of cooking gas leakage) and then sends the SMS. Kumar won the 2011 Technology Review Social Innovator award for this groundbreaking innovation.”

More for less for more

Posing the question – what is common between Delhi Police, the Indonesian President's security force, a Japanese auto parts manufacturer, and an American wine company – the book offers the answer – the use of ‘nonClonableID' technology developed by a Pune-based company. This nanotechnology-based system provides foolproof anti-counterfeiting solutions with applications in the pharma, agrochemical and currency sectors, most vulnerable to counterfeiting, one learns. For instance, such ID cards “for the Delhi Police are highly protected, compact and cannot be duplicated by anybody, including the manufacturers. A portable electronic reader can authenticate a card at any place.”

R. A. Mashelkar's piece on ‘Inclusive innovation' is all about MLM, more performance by using less resources for more people (rather than for more profit). Tata Nano you know, but ‘nano' refrigerator may come as a surprise to many. Developed by Godrej and Boyce, the ChotuKool is ‘world's cheapest refrigerator with a $69 price tag.' The portable, top-opening unit weighs only 7.8 kg, uses high-end insulation to stay cool for hours without power and consumes half the energy used by regular refrigerators, describes Mashelkar. “To achieve its efficiency, the ChotuKool does not use a compressor; instead it runs on a cooling chip and a fan similar to that used in computers. Like computers, it can run on batteries. In a true MLM spirit, it has only twenty parts as opposed to more than 200 parts in a normal refrigerator.”

Wash cycle

Another example of innovation showcased in the chapter is the pedal-driven rural washing machine that can work without electricity. Remya, a Kerala school girl, developed it because she had this incredible combination of constraints coupled with her aspirations, informs Mashelkar. “Her father was down with cancer. Her mother was perennially ill. She had to change three buses to go to school. She had to come home, wash her clothes and do her studies. She created this washing machine, so that she could read, while the clothes were being washed, while she pedalled away.”

The essay by M. S. Swaminathan – ‘From Green to an Ever-green Revolution' – emphasises how Gyan Choupal or Village Knowledge Centre can help bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and its field application, and also facilitate the removal of many intermediaries from the marketing chain. Visualising that India can become a global outsourcing hub in the areas of plant and animal genomics and ICT for rural poor, Swaminathan urges the farm, veterinary, fisheries, and home science graduates to be trained to become genome and digital entrepreneurs. For, “The ‘Ever-green Revolution' concept is based on a paradigm shift from a commodity-centred to a farming system-centred approach in technology development and dissemination.”

A celebration of innovation, which can leave you asking for more.


“To promote innovation within the company…”

“You decided to reward creative talent?”

“No, we began by setting up an ‘innovation department' and the whole works, right from peon to clerk to section officer to seven levels of directors with clear reporting lines.”


Published on November 07, 2011

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