Innovation is alive and well in India
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Timing and this writer’s desire to be contrary have worked together to ensure this column isn’t about the results of the Uttar Pradesh election.
Timing because this column is being written before the actual results — the editors insist this piece be filed every Friday, at the latest — and I do not want to say anything based on the exit polls because they have been wrong, horribly wrong, in the past.
Anyway, since everyone and his pet cat will be weighing in on the elections (and I am sure that I too shall eventually succumb and do so on some platform), I do not want to write about them, at least not yet.
Time was when columnists would write about their areas of expertise; now, everyone wants to comment on the hot-button issue of the day. It would be alright if each had something new or different or insightful to say. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. I put this down to a case of columnist arrogance, deadline pressure, and the increasingly visible tendency, among writers and editors, to offer readers intellectual click bait. The first because most columnists believe readers want to know their opinions on a subject, even if they are no different from other people’s, or shed no new light on it. The last because if Gurmehar Kaur is trending, it makes sense (or so some believe) to write something on it because it will mean more website traffic. The second is self-explanatory and entirely forgivable.
I am writing this article (actually rushing to complete it) in an extremely positive frame of mind, not because of what the exit polls show, but because, I soon have to head out for Day 2 of Mint and MIT Technology Review’s EmTech India Innovators Under 35 event. This is the second year Mint is hosting the event.
It is always good, especially for someone who usually moderates events on macroeconomics or Indian banks’ bad loans problem, to sit through an event where speakers reference 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix, and generally prove why science fiction is different from fantasy. For the benefit of the uninitiated, fiction is always in the realm of the possible (although it may not always be probable). Fantasy is about the impossible.
The highlight of this event is the recognition of Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35. This is the Indian leg of MIT Technology Review’s global awards platform for young innovators. Along with a few other judges from India and around the world, I have gone though several entries, and that, and the profile of the winners this year is the reason for my sunny mood.
I think it was a Mint columnist — I can’t remember who, and Google has decided not to help me — who once wrote that while Indians love technology, they are not comfortable with science. Worse still, the technology icons most Indians admire — in recent years, this has usually been any young Indian Institute of Technology graduate with the surname Bansal (and I mean no offence to any Bansal) — are usually people who have built businesses (or are trying to build businesses) that aren’t particularly high on the innovation quotient. Many run companies that are local copies of global ones (and some even run these clones badly).
Yet, innovation is alive and well in India.
There is a bunch of start-ups — two of them that work in the area of Artificial Intelligence (Mad Street Den Systems and Mixup Communications) recently featured on a global listing of 50 hot start-ups no one had really heard of — that are working at the bleeding edge of technology.
And, as platforms such as the TR Under 35 show, there is a bunch of young innovators working on non e-commerce and non dot-com innovations. For instance, this year’s innovators include a young man whose company has created a local language mobile phone operating system, a young woman who has combined data science and chemical engineering to make the oil producing process more efficient, and another young man who has come up with a way to make play more social.
A few months ago, when I opened the judge’s portal and looked at the entries I had to evaluate, I actually gave out a mini-whoop of delight: the first entry had to do with pure chemistry.
Science is well in India; there’s hope for innovation in the country; and all is well with the world.