R. Gopalakrishnan: Innovation, India-Style by Columbia University

Quick: how do you define innovation?

The flippant answer is “anything made by Apple,” says R. Gopalakrishnan (Gopal to his friends), non-executive director of Tata Sons.

To him, “innovation is simply a new way of solving a problem,” he said at the recent Khemka Distinguished Speaker Forum, presented by the India Business Initiative of the Chazen Institute. “But how do you measure innovation?” he continued. “By number of patents? By profits from an invention? By number of people affected?”

The answer may be “all of the above,” but Gopalakrishnan cautioned it’s important to view innovation in the context of the market it serves and the impact it makes. Innovation isn’t always a startling new concept as much as a new approach adapted to a specific context, he said. And management and marketing tools may be just as important to innovation as technology.

That’s especially true in India, whose set of problems differs pointedly from those faced by the developed world. Rather than the elegant high-tech answers offered by Silicon Valley, India’s solutions may come through frugal innovation that keeps affordability in mind, as well as reverse innovation that pares solutions down to basics.

5 Life-Changers

In a presentation chock full of anecdotes, Gopalakrishnan ticked off some problems solved through Indian innovation:

  • Milk: India has the most babies in the world, and also the largest bovine population, but for years poor babies went without, and India imported milk. Following a cooperative approach that instilled best practices among dairy farmers, India became the world’s leading milk exporter.
  • Eye care: Thanks to the pioneering methods of one surgeon whose techniques have been replicated throughout India’s cities, a cataract operation can now be had for $50, he said. “I see us becoming the cataract surgery capital of the world.”
  • Curbing corruption: Acknowledging that “India is still enveloped in corruption spaghetti,” Gopalakrishnan said technology has erased the need for bribes in many cases. For example, rather than slip rupees under the table to local bureaucrats, Indians can apply online for a passport and get it a week later. Voter fraud is also down since each of India’s 3 million (!) elected officials is chosen through electronic balloting. “That’s something that doesn’t happen even in the

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R. Gopalakrishnan