Innovation in India: The Value of Constraints

If you are even remotely interested in innovation (and how would you end up here if you aren’t?), then this talk by R.A. Mashelkar is worth 19 minutes of your time:

Mashelkar talks about the importance of innovating for everyone – of getting more for more for less. To do this, he talks about the importance of combining innovation, compassion and passion. He illustrates this by telling the stories of the development of the Tata Nano automobile, the Jaipur Foot, and new methods for drug development (he also mentions the incredibly inexpensive incubator for premature infants that Steven Johnson discusses in his TED talk for Where Good Ideas Come From).

The main theme in all three stories is constraint. In all cases, to successfully execute these innovations, innovators in India had to meet pricing constraints that would be unimaginable for most other firms. The Nano sells for about $2000. The Jaipur Foot costs $28, relative to about $20,000 if you’re getting a similar prosthetic in, say, California.

Faced with such constraints, many people would say that the goal is impossible and give up. That is where the compassion and passion come in – these characteristics drove the innovators to find ways around the constraints.

Mashelkar quotes Francis Bacon concerning what these constraints necessitate:

When you wish to achieve results that have not been achieved before, it is an unwise fancy to think that they can be achieved by using methods that have been used before.

Also, most innovations also require innovative business models. In developing the Nano, Tata came up with new distribution and assembly channels. The value network around the car is radically different, as are the value proposition and the target market. The new drug development process reconceptualises the source of ideas – which reconfigures the innovation process and business model.

Finally, all of these innovations adapt ideas from other contexts. The Nano uses seat and window technology originally designed for helicopters. The drug development process models natural systems (a point raised by Anil Gupta in his TED talk as well).

People always complain about constraints, but constraints make us more creative. This approach to innovation – working within severe price constraints – is one of the drivers of innovation in India, China, Africa and Brazil. We sit in the Aravind Eye Clinic too, which has done similar things with cataract surgery – so it can be done not just with products but with services as well.

There is a critical point here – it is easy to miss innovation developments in other parts of the world. But if in India Tata can make a $2000 car, and if the Aravind Eye Clinic can deliver $10,000 surgery for $200, what happens when these innovations hit the west?

What is the equivalent of the Tata Nano in your industry? Who is working on making it? Why not you?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Innovation in India: The Value of Constraints

  1. Tim,

    Thats a lovely post on Dr. Mashelkar’s TED talk highlighting the value of constraints. I agree with most of what you have said. Reading your post, I was interested in addressing the question “what happens when these innovations hit the west”.

    I believe that it would be a long time before the west gains an experiential and critical appreciation of social contexts here in India, China, Brazil etc to be able to internalize these innovations. There hasn’t been any institutional research or even a formal approach to improve the jaipur foot anywhere outside India. The pollination of ideas from Asia or Africa to the west has been rather slow and many a times hasn’t moved beyond the stage of much celebration and accolades. I am not sure if the US would ever want to explore the engineering thought that has gone into delivering a Nano car.

    Ashraf Ghani speaking at TED talks of how design in the west has been disconnected to the contexts of the developing world.

    So, I’d like to argue that unless there are conscious and concerted efforts made to adopt these innovations arising in developing world, they may not hit the western shores on their own! Delving into such possibilities without actually talking about design disconnect between the two regions, would not be so productive.

    And lets face it, the west hasn’t really known “constraints” for it to start innovating in ways that the Asians and Africans are.

  2. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment Praveena. I agree with most of the points that you raise. I haven’t seen Ghani’s talk yet, but I will watch it.

    You’re right that the west hasn’t known constraints in the same way as Asia & Africa yet (at least recently). But one of the points that I thought of with this but couldn’t fit in is that there may well be constraints imposed whether we like it or not via climate change, oil shortage, or other ecological actions.

    The other thing is that a lot of the technologies have moved west – Mashelkar has the example of all of the automobile companies that are working on their own car for the Nano segment. Health care is a bit different I think. The systems are just so diverse that it is harder for things like the Jaipur Foot or the Aravind Eye Clinic to spread to the west.

    In any case, it will be interesting to watch how things develop!

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