Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Rising’ and ‘flat’ technologies: Facets of innovation(2004)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Discussion Meeting on

‘Rising’ and ‘flat’ technologies: Facets of innovation

NISTADS, Pusa Gate, New Delhi 21 February 2004


Welcome address

Rajesh Kochhar

Director NISTADS

You would have noticed that the epithets ‘rising’ and ‘flat’ have been put in

inverted commas. Let me begin by defining them. A rising technology is one which is

currently in a rapid phase of development. A flat technology is one that has more or

less been standardized and therefore admits of only incremental improvements. Of

course, a rising technology in course of time will become flat. Reverse flow is also

possible. Television sets using cathode ray tube constitute a flat technology; but TVs

using light emitting diodes are now a rapidly developing field. (Flat TVs are a rising


USA tends to drive its economy through rising technologies of the day, parcelling

out manufacturing based on flat technologies to lesser countries. These countries in

turn tend to keep the upper end of the flat tech to themselves and pass on the lower end

down the line. From USA to Japan to Malaysia and China illustrates this sequence.

There are two problems with the term innovation. First, it is an umbrella term

covering a wide variety of phenomena. Invention of World Wide Web is an innovation;

Amul’s selling a pizza at 20 rupees, or the free gift of a plastic bucket with a kilogramme

of detergent powder, is also an innovation. We need to distinguish between innovations

of different orders (or coin more precise terms). Secondly, we tend to glamorize some

types of innovations and over-celebrate success and that too selectively ( Sabeer

Bhatia’s hotmail, but not fellow Asian Jerry Yang’s Yahoo..). History of ideas honours

those who thought of it first. History of economics tells us that they were not necessarily

the ones who made commercial success of it. Windows is not the first operating system

nor Google the first search engine. Both have chequered prehistory. Interestingly

pioneering search engines of the early 1990s carried names such as Archie, Veronica,

and Jughead; they were developed by young university students just past the comicsreading


The whole world, India included, is being overwhelmed by developments in

information technology. Personally speaking, I am rather happy with the politicized

backlash in USA against outsourcing. There are a number of reasons for this. First, my

sympathies lie with those Americans who are losing their jobs. It is noteworthy that in

the past when manufacturing jobs were exported, manufacturing companies themselves

closed down. But now outsourcing is adding to the profitability of the companies. What

use is economic prosperity if it robs the citizens of their sense of worthiness? Secondly,

the backlash should make India sit up and prepare to flight it out to protect its turf. So

far India’s success in IT has come in spite of India. Time has come for India to defend

its advantage. Finally, and more basically, US protectionism should trigger a debate on

the ethics, philosophy and ideology of globalization. Till date, enforcement of

globalization seems to have been its own legitimation. Globalization should have a

global perspective.


India is encouraged to aim at a bigger and bigger piece of the world IT cake.

India’s destiny however does not lie in doing petty jobbery on the periphery of IT. India’s

destiny lies in becoming world’s hub for manufacture of goods based on the high-skill

end of flat technologies. In the high-skill area India at present holds a distinct

advantage over China.

Catchment area for IT enabled services is restricted essentially to second generation

learners. There is a vast number of Indians who though literate and capable

are not comfortable with English. Their skills and talents need to be employed. Even if

the whole worlds’ economy were driven by knowledge, people will still need to eat food,

wear clothes and shoes, drive cars and fall sick. In a few years’ time information and

communication technologies will themselves become flat. Future belongs to those who

integrate ICT into their public life, governance and economy.

During the past half a century or more India has perfected the art of shoddiness

in industrial and agricultural production. Globalization has rendered this shoddiness

untenable. Either Indian manufacturing should upgrade and become globally

competitive. Or, it should collapse and cease. There are indications that both these

phenomena are already at work. (Of the 500 companies, top 100 have increased their

sales and profits, while the bottom 100 have gone into red.)


To become the high-skill manufacturing hub, India should encourage innovation

of lower orders which is unglamourous but profitable. Pfizer has raked in huge profits

from its invention of the Viagra molecule. But if a company were to corner world market

in the lowly aspirin, it will become a blue chip company. If Scotland could persuade the

whole world to drink Scotch whisky, it will be the richest country in the world. Its all

innovative engines will then probably be focused on bottling.


How do we learn a language? We first understand a sentence in its entirety.

Next, we break it into parts (known in grammar as parsing) and reassemble these parts

to recover the sentence. We then take these parts and combine them differently to

create new sentences. We can even coin new words and simplify rules of grammar.

To do creative writing, one must know the grammar and have the vocabulary. You

cannot simply teach a person the alphabet and ask him to go ahead and compose a



Innovation is possible only in an atmosphere of extant activity. We have already

remarked on the prehistories of Windows and Google. Similarly, one must have a

culture of manufacturing, even reverse engineering, to be able to move up the value

ladder. (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India’s own pharmaceutical and automobile

sectors are examples of this). There is need to appreciate that individuals are not

innovative; systems are. All human beings are instinctively creative. It is not sufficient

for a social system to have in its midst manifestly creative people. The system must

also be mentally and materially in a position to encourage, recognize and most

importantly benefit from individual inventiveness as well as floating knowledge.


So far we have dealt with what we may call healthy innovation. We must also take note

of some unhealthy trends.I was once given what was supposed to be a five-rupee coin.

It was in fact two half-rupee coins welded together. Economics of the exercise is

interesting. Inputs cost one rupee: add another 25 paise for welding. The product sells

for five rupees , giving the innovator a profit of as much as 300 %.Profit margins may

be tempting but methods employed are not acceptable. category of unhealthy

innovation. There are othe , more serious , examples from across the world. Chinese

manufacturing units are competing among themselves to bag contracts from companies

like Wal-Mart. Competitiveness is achieved by paying exploitatively low wages and

hiring child labour. Many multi-national companies have been indulging in practices in

their units in poor countries which they dare not attempt in their own.//

Inventive individuals; innovative systems

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Inventive individuals; innovative systems

Rajesh Kochhar

If continuity is to sustain itself, it must be embedded in change; it must continually evolve.Feasible change must be anchored to continuity. Development is incremental, often fulfilling a felt need. Once in place, it generates its own momentum, triggering further developments whose speed or direction could not have been foreseen.

When individual computers were linked through the Internet, it was a significant, yet natural, extension of cold-war era strategic efforts. Similarly, when storage on one computer was made accessible to another through the World-Wide Web, it was a significant, yet natural, extension of interconnectivity among scientists. The scientific community has always been interactive. The web was a small step for it, but became a giant leap for others.

Sectors such as telecommunications, entertainment, supermarket chains, travel, etc. have benefited from the Web, but not as much as the pornographic industry, which now can unabashedly reach out to its customers. It has repaid its debt by introducing innovations such as e-commerce and video streaming. Porn’s necessity has become others’ facility. Chillingly, the greatest beneficiaries of the web have been child abusers, who can now violate the sanctity of the home and target their victims directly. In general, the bigger the beneficiary of the Internet (and the Web), the less its chances of having thought of it in the first place.

We must carefully distinguish between invention and innovation. Human beings are endowed with intellect and imagination. An invention is the manifestation of an individual’s creative mind and is capable of standing on its own, even in isolation. It becomes an innovation when it is incorporated into the mainstream, combined with existing knowledge in such a manner that future

developments are influenced by this incorporation. The distinction between creativity and breakthrough comes out well in Francis Darwin’s remark: “But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

It would be instructive to distinguish between what we may call compulsions of history andthe romance of history. Henry David Thoreau observed thoughtfully that “A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance.” There are occasions when the wisdom of  the time demands an invention. If invention is the child of necessity, then it may be said to belong to the realm of compulsions of history. Such an invention is instantaneously incorporated into the mainstream, bringing its author immediate credit. History chooses the hour, and the hour produces the hero.

There are, however, times when the creative urges of an individual propel him or her beyond the wisdom of the time, producing a freak. This individual’s invention belongs to the romance of history. Incorporation into the mainstream, with the attendant personal recognition, may come later when the collective wisdom catches up with the individual’s creativity. Note that while the compulsions of history can be recognized by contemporaries, the romance of history can be seen only with hindsight.

A telling example of invention versus innovation is furnished by early 18th-century Europe and what is now the USA. In November 1730, Thomas Godfrey, a “poor glazier” from  Philadelphia, invented what evolved into a sextant, which was used in voyages to Jamaica and to Newfoundland. The next year, in May 1731, the invention was independently made in England

by John Hadley. America at the time did not need a sea-faring instrument; accordingly, Godfrey’s invention remained a dead end. In contrast, Hadley’s invention, independent or not, was immediately adopted by all European nations engaged in hugely profitable maritime activity. Efforts by Godfrey and his mentors to persuade London to concede his priority failed. Even if

Godfrey had been recognized as the inventor of the sextant, all fruits of his invention would still have gone to Europe. The moral of the story is that it is not sufficient for a social system to have in its midst creative people. It should also be in a position to encourage, recognize and, most importantly, benefit from their inventiveness.

Globalization is primarily concerned with generation of wealth and tends to focus on innovation geared towards this end. It must be kept in mind that human ingenuity spans a wide variety of areas. Historically, more effort has been expended in devising ways and means of appropriating wealth created by others than in creating it oneself. Among young educated Indians today, a major preoccupation seems to be devising stupid puns and clever word play in English, which in the last half century has moved from libraries and classroom to pubs and drawing rooms.

Paradoxical as it may seem, globalization taken globally is weighted against across–the–board innovation. Much of the world economy is still based on traditional technology (trad-tech). Also, high-tech production is not uniformly distributed across the world, but confined to pockets.

Of the various facets of globalization, the one that has appealed the most the world over is the globalization of consumption levels. These levels are so high now that they cannot be sustained by trad-tech economies. Consequently most young well-trained professionals are willingly doing menial work for international companies, positions much below their skills and expertise and at ridiculously low dollar wages, which still translate into pretty packets in local currency.

One would have thought that globalization would mean more or less similar types of work for similarly qualified people. But this has not happened. S&T is ceasing to mean science and technology and increasingly coming to denote services and trade. R&D inputs required for making trad-tech slim and trim through new tools are hard to come by. The Godfreys of today would be able to win personal recognition and make personal fortunes. To some extent the situation has changed over 250 years, but these inventors would still not be able to contribute to their countries’ economies.

The French Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel remarked: “Intelligence is almost useless to someone who has no other quality.” In an analogous manner: invention would be almost useless in an economy possessing no other strength.


1. Dreyer, J.L.E. (1886). ‘On the Invention of the Sextant’. Astronomische Nachrichten, No.2739.

Reprinted in Nistads News, Vol.4 (1), Y13 – Y14, April 2002.

2. Kochhar, R. (1999). ‘The Rise of Techno-Baboo: IT is a Brain Sink’. Current Science, 76: 1531-1533.


Challenges for creative minds (2008)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 29th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Chandigarh ( Education) 10 June 2008

Challenges for creative minds
Rajesh Kochhar

Human beings are endowed with intellect and imagination. Our social and intellectual leadership is also constantly exhorting young people to become innovative. However, we should make a clear distinction between invention and innovation. An invention is the manifestation of a creative mind and is capable of standing on its own even in isolation. It becomes an innovation when it is incorporated into the mainstream and combined with existing knowledge in such a manner that future developments are influenced by this incorporation.

About three years ago, I met a girl student who was doing M. Sc. in life sciences. For her dissertation, she had identified an extract from a plant that had birth control properties. Was she planning to obtain a patent? No. The reason: her guide was very keen to publish a joint paper in an international journal for her own career advancement.

Recently, a doctoral student from Lucknow identified ingredients from a common weed which could be used to store post-harvest grains. Did he realise the significance of his discovery? Yes. Did he plan to file for a patent? No. His guide as well as well-wishers felt that his chances of getting employment would increase, if he published a research paper instead.

Thus, it is meaningless to ask youngsters to be innovative; instead we should be asking ourselves whether we are creating an innovative system or not. If a student or a young scientist comes up with a new idea, do we have a mechanism in place that will beneficially exploit the new idea and reward him? Regrettably, the answer must be an emphatic “no”.

As a society, culture and nation we have attributes that are anti-innovation. We are afraid to take risks and are scared of failures. We are mortified at the thought of being disowned by our peers if we outshine them. We do not want to be thrown out of the group, rather we want to be recognised as marginally superior in the same group. We can’t bring ourselves to say publicly in a loud and clear voice that the horse should rank higher than the ass. We are happy to leave the task of judging to those people who we consider are more powerful than us or culturally and racially superior to us.

It is creditable for the British that they conferred a knighthood on C. V. Raman even before he got the Nobel Prize. On the contrary, India decided to bestow the Bharat Ratna award on Satyajit Ray when he had already received all conceivable honours from across the world. The national honour in fact was dispatched in an indecent haste, so that it reached him before his last breadth.

Today, we are busy patting ourselves on the back that many famous foreign companies have opened their R & D centres in the country. The unadvertised fact remains that these centres are more for partial development than original research. The fact is that the patents are owned by the parent companies, even if Indian names are listed as authors. We are happy to see ourselves as employees rather than as entrepreneurs. We seem to be so content with wages that we do not covet royalties.

The CSIR has instituted invention awards for schoolchildren. My own suspicion is that many of the submitted projects are prepared not by the students themselves but by their elders. What would the award-winning students like to do next? Their answer was revealing—they wanted seats reserved for them in government engineering colleges.

Admittedly, things are changing, even if slowly. India is probably globally far more ambitious now than ever before. Yes, but what are the state institutions doing to advance this culture?

I remember a cartoon showing a mountaineering institute atop a high peak. The institute declared: “We do not offer any courses. Any one who can reach here gets the degree.” We are one better. We create all sorts of obstacles to demoralise and debilitate. Any one who achieves in spite of us is then honoured and felicitated.

Asking fellow human beings to be creative is an insult to human intellect. Our task should be asking ourselves whether we have created a system which can encourage, recognise, and most importantly, benefit from their inventiveness.

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