Innovation in India

April 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm 1 comment

At Innovation Unit we really are passionate about what we do. I wouldn’t say we eat, breathe, live it – I mean we’d much rather one of Claire’s brownies and an earl grey tea but innovation definitely leaks from the ‘work’ part of our brain into the ‘play’ part of our brain on a regular basis. If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with the collected bric-a-brac that inspires our innovation musings and we write them at all hours of the day and night. This is less random than it might first appear because what we know about innovation is that insights can be encouraged by the unfamiliar. People. Places. Points of view. These inputs, more remote, can trigger light bulb moments. A trip to a bingo hall has led to improvements in services for the elderly. Sending children’s centre workers to Starbuck’s inspired their redesign of services for families.

So in a completely different continent, my travels around India last month led to me drawing parallels with some of our work. I was quietly appreciating all the things I love about India. Like the spirit of entrepreneurship. It’s more alive than I’ve ever seen. On a busy train platform heading for a long journey? Here comes a random guy with a large bag of books, buy one. Stuck in traffic and thirsty but have no water with you? Don’t worry a man has emerged from a roadside street shack  and he’s offering water for a small fee. There is so much need in India that people come up with enterprising solutions.  Often it’s desperation that drives creativity, necessity is the mother of invention after all. Maybe this helps explain why two of our radical efficiency examples show ‘solutions’ based here (D.Light and Narayana Hrudayalaya), the only country that boasts more than one. And there is such incredible poverty in India, such necessity for different, better, lower cost solutions. This makes me hope that the desperation felt in the UK at the moment, felt by those delivering public services in the face of cuts as much as by the public themselves, will drive us in the same way to fight to find the right solutions. That hard times and harsh realisations can inspire people to think outside of the box, stop doing the same things they’ve been doing for years and really be radically innovative. I don’t think we have many other options if we are to meet both the short term crisis and the long term challenges we face.

I was thinking about how much I love the trains. Yes I was on a train, really enjoying my journey. It’s an alien concept for the British. Now I know that Indian railways don’t have the best reputation either. Admittedly, the wellworn carriages have seen better days and they’re a light year away from the super-speed, high-tech trains of the future offered by Japan. You don’t get plush seating or socket access or even the safety guarantee of UK services but what you do get is worth exchanging some luxuries for. I’ve travelled on all class levels, from cattle to 1st class and they all have way more leg room than your average Virgin. The exceptional value standard non-AC class affords a rarely offered proximity to the rushing scenery – there is no glass between you and the lush landscape. The cool, motioned breeze is deliciously superior to the boxed AC freeze and it offers great value even for the indigenous population. Industrious Indians offer a constant stream of sweet, spiced chai, amazing, freshly cooked food, and anything and everything you had no idea you needed. And above all the attitudes are relaxed and friendly. Compare this with UK rail. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a positive comment about UK trains. Limp snacks and overpriced tea is all you get in the way of sustenance and you’ve spent your rent on the ticket price anyway so you can’t afford them even if you wanted them, which you don’t because they look about as appealing as being trapped with Branson on one of his long, record breaking trips across the Atlantic. The Indian vendors would go out of business if they operated in this way. They’re quick footed and responsive, close to customer need and if they are offering something customers don’t want their families don’t eat it’s that simple. I started to think that they were similar to the comunity organisations involved in public service delivery, providing great services that have been built around their understanding of the customer and what they want. Flexible. Rapidly responsive to changing demands. We need more of these in the marketplace and commissioning practices need to change to allow them greater access. UK services are stagnant and self assured, confident of their monopoly. They demonstrate to all of us needing to get from A to B just how this can damage frontline services. Imagine if these chai sellers were introduced onto the trains in the UK – how long would the Virgin vendors last?

One last thing I’d like to share – I love Indian’s unadulterated use of the car horn. I feel surprisingly calm hurtling along highways in India, despite the flagrant lack of any discernable traffic system in most places. There seems to be only one tangible rule that applies and that is to toot your horn when you’re indicating an action. OF ANY KIND. Turning left? Toot your horn. Braking sharply? Toot your horn. Overtaking? Toot your horn. I have an intense dislike of those that use their horn in the UK. But there is something oddly affable about tooting on the sub-continent. It lacks the aggression of its British counterpart, in fact I’d go one step further. It has a fun, childlike quality about it. It could be the higher pitched nasal tone of the toot but for me its the traffic equivalent of a  toddler pulling at a trouser leg. Simply a need to be noticed.  Nothing whatsoever to do with innovation but I can’t be thinking about it ALL the time, jeez, give me a break 😉


Entry filed under: Innovation Worldwide, Uncategorized.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Raj  |  April 12, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Great comparison on public transport Kathryn. One of my goals in life is to find an indian train and sit on the roof! EPIC!

    Your comment about transport providers and service providers being out of touch with people is sooo true. Last year, Virgin asked me to complete a survey – it took me 30 minutes – on their service. When, ideally, what I’d like to do is sit down with our friend Mr Branson and ask him why Virgin put 6 first class carriages during peak times – most of which are empty – when there are people in standard class carriages who end up sitting on the floors next to the toilets having paid an arm and leg for it! Not good business sense if you ask me. (I’m secretly hoping someone out there will pick up on this comment!)


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