Solving problems without borders

India has a historical opportunity to assume global leadership in co-creating innovative solutions to tackle socio-economic challenges that affect the whole of humanity


In January 2016, the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal piloted its own odd-even plan to curb pollution in the Indian capital. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
In January 2016, the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal piloted its own odd-even plan to curb pollution in the Indian capital. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Brexit, terrorist attacks in Orlando and Nice, a failed coup in democratic Turkey, record-high temperatures globally, a US presidential candidate who wants to seal off America behind a 2,000-mile-long wall… The world seems to be disintegrating fast. In every region, stability and unity are being replaced by insecurity and insularity.

It might seem that these are discrete problems, singular to each affected region in an Age of Divergence.

I, however, believe that, humanity and its problems are actually converging. That humanity as a whole is grappling with what I call “problems without borders”—chronic illnesses, escalating pollution, climate change (e.g. rising sea levels, water scarcity, global warming), and terrorism now affect everyone on the planet.

This epochal shift towards an Age of Convergence provides India a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to assume global leadership in co-creating innovative solutions to tackle socio-economic challenges that will severely afflict the whole of humanity in the coming decades.

Let me use my personal experiences to illustrate how this global convergence is a phenomenon that has steadily been gathering thrust since the late 2000s.

In 2010, while doing research for my book Jugaad Innovation, my co-authors and I interviewed Dr V. Mohan, one of India’s top diabetologists based in Chennai, and Dr Devi Shetty, a world-renowned cardiologist and founder of Narayana Health (formerly Narayana Hrudayalaya) hospital in Bengaluru. We learned from them about the epidemic growth of diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in India, especially among the poor and, most worrisome, among the youth.

These chronic diseases—hitherto known as “rich man’s illnesses” in the Northern hemisphere—are now also afflicting millions of poor in the Global South. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, chronic diseases will account for nearly three-quarters of all deaths worldwide. This will have debilitating socio-economic consequences for rich countries (the US already uses 86% of its $3 trillion healthcare spending to treat chronic conditions) as well as developing nations, which will carry 60% of the burden of chronic illnesses. In India—currently the world’s diabetes capital—type-2 diabetes cases are poised to increase from 51 million in 2010 to nearly 90 million in 2030.

My second “convergence moment” came about in March 2015, when I was in Paris to launch my latest book Frugal Innovation. I felt sick and experienced heaviness in my chest. The culprit was extremely high level of pollution in the French capital, which for a day knocked Delhi and Beijing off the world’s top polluter’s spot. This situation led Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo to ban cars with even-numbered licence plates from the streets. In January 2016, the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal piloted its own odd-even plan to curb pollution in the Indian capital. The plan was re-enacted in April and may be re-implemented this winter.

I experienced yet another convergence moment on 1 April 2015, when California governor Jerry Brown issued the first-ever executive order to cut water use by 25% across the state. Indeed, while money rains in California—home to the third largest number of billionaires in the world—water doesn’t. The state is in its fifth year of severe drought.

In the 1970s, I grew up in Pondicherry, where water supply was restricted to two hours a day and I used to take a “one bucket shower” once in a while. I left India in 1989, and spent two decades in Europe and the US, before finally settling in Silicon Valley. During my 25 years living in the West, I never experienced water scarcity and enjoyed taking a long shower daily. But today, as a Californian, I do my part to conserve water by limiting my daily shower to 45 seconds! I feel “it’s like déjà vu all over again” as Yogi Berra put it.

Having worked and lived in three different cultures—Indian, French, and American—I long believed in the distinction between “third-world problems” caused by scarcity (water shortage, malaria, inequality, malnutrition, corruption, etc.) and “first-world problems” generated by abundance (lifestyle diseases, high divorce rate, extreme pollution, unbridled consumerism, etc.).

Today, however, I believe that first-world and third-world issues are converging to create “one-world problems” that we all need to solve collectively.

It’s not just problems that are converging, but the needs and aspirations of people worldwide are converging too. Women in all regions are clamouring for equal rights (it’s worth noting that the US has never had a female president and has almost no woman chief executives among its largest banks, whereas India has had a woman as prime minister, and president; and many Indian banks are led by women). As for millennials—be they in New York, London, Johannesburg, Amman, Bengaluru, Shanghai, or Tokyo—they form a global community through social networks and share common values and attitudes: they all care about social equity and climate change and believe they have the power to change the world for the better.

Co-creating solutions

If we all share the same problems, needs, and aspirations, then we must also share our ideas and solutions to solve the very issues and needs we have in common. It’s time Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans adopt a global mindset to co-create what I call “solutions without borders”.

The operative word here is “co-creation”. During the colonial era—which lasted from the late 15th century through early 20th century—as the West dominated the East and the South, rich and poor countries interacted with each other with mistrust and played a zero-sum game ruled by the formula “1+1=0”. During the 20th century, as countries like India in the Global South gained independence and international trade of goods and services accelerated, sovereign nations began to engage each other in a mutually beneficial economic relationship, that is “1+1=2” or at most “1+1=3”.

Now, as we advance into the 21st century governed by the Internet and social networks, nations must be willing to learn from each other and integrate their unique ideas, talent, and knowledge to co-create meaningful solutions that benefit entire humanity. Such co-creation will embody the synergistic formula of 1+1=11 (ek aur ek gyarah as we say in Hindi).

Co-creation works only if the two collaborating parties respect each other and are willing, and humble enough, to learn from each other. Given their wealth, technological superiority, and colonial heritage, Western nations have long felt they have nothing to learn from poor countries like India or Africa. In recent years, however, there has been a radical mindset shift—and openness—in the West.

Frugal innovation can lead the way

In 2012, NESTA, a leading British think-tank, published a ground-breaking report entitled Our Frugal Future: Lessons from India’s Innovation System, which analyses the unique characteristics of the Indian innovation ecosystem and lauds the many frugal solutions India has produced—such as the Aakash tablet, Narayana Health, the Solar Electric Light Co. (SELCO), Aravind Eye Hospitals. Since publishing that report, NESTA has been urging British companies and the UK government to adopt frugal innovation as a way to generate greater socio-economic value with fewer resources.

In France, my book Jugaad Innovation was published in 2013 and has become a bestseller. Many French companies—including Renault-Nissan, which launched the Kwid, a car designed and made 100% in India—are fervent supporters and adopters of jugaad, the uniquely Indian way of innovating under constraints. In a country where unemployment rarely drops below 10%, the resourceful French entrepreneurs can’t survive without jugaad, which is similar to what the French call Système D, a Do-it-Yourself (DIY) approach to solving problems with limited means.

Interestingly, more than India, it is Africa—given its geographical proximity and colonial ties—that is rapidly emerging as an innovation partner for France, which has begun to adopt frugal solutions pioneered in Africa. For instance, French telecom operator Orange will launch in 2017 a mobile-only bank in France based on its success offering mobile financial services in Africa. Orange believes its 100% mobile bank’s services will appeal to low-income people and the youth in France. And global platforms like Africa4Tech are emerging to bring together African and French entrepreneurs to co-create frugal solutions of global relevance in healthcare, education, and energy. (Disclosure: I am on Africa4Tech’s advisory board).

Donald Trump’s fiery anti-globalisation rhetoric notwithstanding, US companies, entrepreneurs, and think tanks are keen to forge innovation ties with the rest of the world as they seek to adopt proven solutions from abroad to solve vexing domestic problems. For instance, I serve as expert advisor to The Global Lab for Health set up by the New England Healthcare Institute (NEHI), one of America’s leading health policy research organisations. The Global Lab’s aim is to develop a formal “reverse innovation” methodology that will enable US healthcare institutions to systematically identify, analyse, and adopt affordable and high-value health innovations pioneered elsewhere, especially in developing nations.

A decade ago, the health units of GE, Siemens, and Philips pioneered reverse innovation by developing low-cost medical devices in India and China and then marketing them in the West. But NEHI wants to democratize reverse innovation by creating easy-to-use tools and techniques that any US health organisation can apply to import frugal solutions from abroad.

A few US institutions are going beyond reverse innovation—which, after all, involves mainly “importing” low-cost, high-value solutions that already exist elsewhere—and learning to truly co-create innovative products and services with developing nations. For instance, the Stanford-India Biodesign Program was launched in 2008 jointly by Stanford University, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to combine the frugality of Indian engineers, physicians and designers and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley to co-develop affordable medical devices. This programme has recently evolved into the School of International Biodesign, based in New Delhi and funded by the Department of Biotechnology, which aims to create a global ecosystem of frugal medical innovations.

These examples—drawn from Europe and the US—give clear evidence of an awakening in the West, which has begun to engage developing nations like India, China, and those in Africa in a genuine innovation partnership. How should India respond?

How India can lead in this space

As the world’s largest and most diverse democracy with huge needs and mind-boggling complexity, India needs to present itself to the world as a “large-scale living social lab” where innovators from all over the world can come to experiment with bold new ideas aimed at co-creating an inclusive economy and a sustainable society. In other words, India must position the country as a fertile breeding ground for “solutions without borders”. India must lead by example—by trailblazing three mega socio-economic trends that promise to fundamentally reinvent the way we consume, work, and live for the better:

The sharing economy: The sharing economy is growing fast in Europe and the US where citizens—especially youngsters—opt for ridesharing and home sharing to save money as well as to gain enriching social experiences and limit their ecological footprint. PwC projects the sharing economy to grow from $15 billion in 2013 to $335 billion in 2025. In India, the sharing economy is still in its infancy. India needs to leapfrog from a wasteful ownership-based consumer economy straight to a frugal sharing society given that, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the United Nations COP21 climate conference, “Moderating our lifestyle is necessary for a low carbon future.” BlaBlaCar, the ridesharing platform, was launched in India in early 2015 and already offers three million seats in the country. Ridesharing is a boon for India, which has the lowest car ownership among BRIC nations but already suffers from horrendous traffic jams and pollution.

Beyond enabling its consumers to share goods and services, India needs to trail-blaze what I call “B2B sharing”—by encouraging its companies to start sharing assets and resources with each other in socially critical sectors like education, healthcare, and agriculture. For instance, a B2B sharing marketplace similar to FLOOW2 in the Netherlands can be set up in India to enable hospitals to share idle medical equipment, staff, and services with each other, thus delivering better care to more patients at lower cost. Rohtash Mal, a former CEO of Escorts Ltd, founded EM3 AgriServices with the aim to become the “Uber for Indian farmers”. EM3 offers farm equipment and other value-added agricultural services to low-income farmers on a pay-per-use basis.

The circular economy: Experts agree that unbridled industrialisation in developed nations and later in China have contributed to global warming. With its Make in India strategy, India has a historical opportunity to implement manufacturing value chains that are much less polluting and way more energy-efficient than the wasteful and toxic industrial model used in the West and China. India must show to the world that it is possible to produce more—and better—with fewer resources.

Eschewing the linear “take-make-dispose” economic model, which wastes large quantities of energy, materials, and labour, Indian companies—small and large—must adopt “circular economy” principles to design and make eco-friendly and waste-free products that can be repeatedly recycled. Accenture estimates that the circular economy, which decouples growth from scarce resources, can unleash $4.5 trillion in additional economic output by 2030. By embarking straight into a circular industrialisation path, India can become a global hub where green innovators can prototype, pilot, and scale up frugal value chains that set new global benchmarks for efficiency and sustainability.

The Maker movement: Around the world, passive consumers are evolving into active “prosumers”. Rather than flock to shopping malls, digitally-empowered and eco-conscious citizens now grow organic fruits and vegetables in the city (as Seattle residents are doing at the Beacon Food Forest, a 7-acre edible urban forest garden), generate their own clean electricity (like in Vauban, a 15,000-strong neighbourhood in the German city of Freiburg which produces electricity locally using solar panels set up by citizen groups), and build custom products in their own neighbourhoods. These ingenious prosumers are catalysing the global Maker movement. Makers are tinkerers imbued with the jugaad spirit who prototype, build, and launch physical products not just for personal use but also to tackle big social challenges in education, healthcare, finance, mobility, and energy.

Anyone today can become a Maker, by taking advantage of DIY makerspaces, inexpensive 3D printers, and free open-source components like Raspberry Pi and Arduino to prototype, develop, and launch products faster, better, and cheaper than large firms can. The Bengaluru-based Embrace, which makes a portable infant warmer that is 100 times cheaper than Western incubators and consumes no power, was spun off from the Maker movement. Embrace’s frugal product has already saved the lives of 200,000 premature babies worldwide. And from his MakerBay base in Hong Kong, the French-Japanese inventor Cesar Harada is collaborating via Skype with makers worldwide to co-develop Protei, a revolutionary shape shifting marine drone based on open-source technology that is able to collect 2 tonnes of spilled oil and other waste on oceans.

The Maker movement is rapidly gaining momentum in India, with makerspaces like Maker’s Asylum (Mumbai and Delhi), Workbench Projects (Bengaluru), FabLab CEPT (Ahmedabad), MakersLoft (Kolkata), popping up nationwide. I envision these makerspaces in India becoming the low-cost R&D labs where social entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, and citizen scientists from India and abroad can join forces to rapidly prototype and try out frugal solutions that can solve the “problems without borders”.

In sum, by embedding sharing and circularity within its economy, and fostering grassroots innovation through the Maker movement, the Indian economy and society can become a fertile terroir (environmental conditions) for co-creating sustainable solutions that solve the biggest challenges facing humanity today.

Read an unabridged version on www.foundingfuel.com

Navi Radjou is an innovation and leadership thinker based in Silicon Valley. Winner of Thinkers50 Innovation Award, he co-authored Jugaad Innovation and Frugal Innovation. Born and raised in India, he holds dual French-American citizenship.

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