Mar 3, 2008

Rowan Gibson on Social Innovation in India

Rowan Gibson, author of Rethinking The Future was in India recently and he writes this about his impressions about the country:

Of course, India doesn’t have to go out looking for problems to solve. It has enough of those on its own doorstep. With 40% of the world’s poor, one-third of the world’s malnourished children, 800 million people in need of education and proper employment, the world’s single largest population of people infected with HIV/AIDS (not to mention other widespread diseases), 17% of the world’s population but only 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater, a looming energy crisis, relentless terrorism, and a dreadfully damaged environment, India faces some of the most daunting challenges on the planet today.

That’s where there’s a need for innovation at an unprecedented scale. Not just innovation in the traditional business sense, but “social innovation” that addresses the needs of India’s society, schools, healthcare systems, cities, and environment. Thirty years ago, the late great Peter Drucker pointed out that this, too, is an important definition of innovation. In his seminal book Management he writes that modern social needs “are not too different in kind from those which the nineteenth-century entrepreneur converted into growth industries – the urban newspaper and the streetcar; the steel-frame skyscraper and the school textbook; the telephone and pharmaceuticals”. India, perhaps more than any other country on earth, has recognized the need to turn its social problems into opportunities for innovation, and is rising to the challenge in a grand way.

Look anywhere in India today and we see exciting examples of social innovation combined with profitable business innovation. And behind each of these examples we usually find some wonderfully heroic entrepreneur who has battled with heart and soul to give ordinary people a better life. I think of Dr. Reddy, founder of Apollo Hospitals Group, who is using state-of-the-art technologies, breakthrough business models, and revenues from medical outsourcing and medical tourism, to put world-class healthcare within almost everyone’s reach. I think of economist Muhammed Junnus, founder of Grameen Bank, who pioneered the concept of micro-credit, and in the process became the world’s first “banker to the poor”. I think of Ratan Tata, India’s answer to Henry Ford, whose tiny $2,500 Nano automobile (the same price as a Louis Vuitton handbag!) is set to do for mass mobility in this century what Ford’s Model-T did in the last. I think of amazingly unpretentious Narayana Murthy, now retired cofounder of Infosys, who has repeatedly demonstrated his belief in “compassionate capitalism” – an altogether different paradigm that focuses not just on wealth creation but on making a significant contribution to society.

Three cheers for India’s irrepressible optimism and can-do spirit in the face of almost impossible odds. What many in the country have clearly figured out is that every great challenge presents enormous opportunities, and that success at innovation is about much more than revenues and profits; it’s about doing well by doing good. There’s a lesson in this for all of us.