Unleashing a 'Dandi march' for entrepreneurship

The chasm between jugaad and innovation lies in a deep crevice called sustainability and replicability. The Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) of the Niti Aayog has adopted an approach that cuts across the apparent impediments and tries to use their strengths without getting bogged down in their weaknesses.

There are many inspiring examples of trickles becoming mighty rivers like the Ganga and Kaveri. In science, bacteria rapidly multiply in an appropriate medium. In physics, atomic particles gather speed in a particle accelerator. In civic life, movements develop. Gandhiji set out from Sabarmati Ashram on March 12, 1930, to protest the colonial Salt Tax with just a few, but the crowds swelled uncontrollably as he reached Dandi.

India’s grassroots innovation got impetus in the year 2000 when IIM Ahmedabad Professor Anil Gupta established the National Innovation Foundation with support from the Department of Science and Technology. In 2015, a committee chaired by Harvard Professor Tarun Khanna submitted a report on national innovation, inter alia, recommending a charter for AIM. Within a brief time, AIM has executed actions on the ground; for brevity, only some are mentioned below.

  • Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) are up and running — 2,500 already exist and the target is to have 5,000 by end of 2018. Each 1,500 sqft ATL is equipped with do-it-yourself kits on latest technologies (IoT, robotics, 3D printing). An ATL-in-charge and a mentor — 2,500 mentors have volunteered through a Mentor Networking Platform — both trained by AIM and its partners, are available to each ATL. In a recent ATL Marathon, 35,000 school students from all over the country participated. Thirty projects have been selected for further development and support. A video clip showing the kids at work should warm the cockles of the heart of every Indian — our kids are smart and are beacons for the future.
  • Atal Incubation Centers (AICs) will help creative ideas from ATLs and other sources to be rigorously validated and nurtured. Nineteen AICs are already operational at existing universities and institutions with much larger numbers on the anvil.
  • Much else has been planned. Every district in the country is targeted to have at least one ATL, so that school kids get deeply involved, early in life, with tinkering and ideating. Early intervention is the AIM mantra.
  • The structure of AIM is not the usual advisory board that one is accustomed to. It bears the name MHLC, standing for Mission High Level Committee. Its members are the top leadership of the Niti Aayog along with half a dozen secretary level officials from the government. The MHLC has private sector managers and thought leaders also as its members (the author discloses that he is one of the members). 

In short, the AIM is different — name, charter, functioning and advisors’ group composition. AIM is designed to be workmanlike with the use of modern management techniques — balanced score card, annual targets and project review. The head is called the Mission Director. R. Ramanan, a former CEO/MD of CMC Limited, has been generously seconded by Tata Consultancy Services. His bustling, young team cuts an impressive sight.

A Sabarmati equivalent may well be underway through Niti Aayog’s AIM. Could AIM replicate the swelling Dandi crowds as it develops momentum over the next 20 years? If it does, it would be a landmark in the entrepreneurial journey of the nation! 

The goal of AIM is to use common people’s creativity to solve problems —to develop and deliver sustainable and replicable solutions. Indians face many obstacles in day to day life and they are superb at overcoming problems, not necessarily at designing lasting solutions: Hence the tendency to do jugaad. The difference between jugaad and innovation lies in a deep crevice called sustainability and replicability.

Nothing is assured as the momentum is far from having gathered. However, the building blocks are getting into place, there is energy and commitment to move ahead, and hence hope for optimism. Many of us argue for a reorientation of social attitudes, modernisation of school teaching and supportive government policies, but who will do what after the discussion is over? Schools, universities, state governments and central government are not adversaries in this effort, but collaborative partners in this movement.

A World Bank Chief Economist, William Maloney, in his The Innovation Paradox, argues that developing countries must focus on a sound ecosystem and capability development. AIM has the potential to do for Indian innovation what Operation Flood did for milk production and Green Revolution did for agriculture; that must be its philosophy. 

The motto of the mission must be — Thing Big, Start Small, Fail Fast and Move Quick. />

The author is a distinguished professor of IIT Kharagpur and author of “A biography of innovations from birth to maturity”. Email: rgopal@themindworks.me