Don’t just adopt, Innovate!

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Technology goes global !

Our quest to solve our day to day problems and conquer new frontiers gives rise to new technologies which in turn gives birth to new and better products. Every country strives to invent or adopt technologies which could be used to address issues like security, transportation, communication, education and ensuring basic needs such as food and water to its people. Thus, a lot of effort, both directly and indirectly, goes into this activity, often capturing a major portion of a nation’s budget. In today’s globalised world, we have the advantage of having access to the technical know-how of technologies invented from all over the globe. Hence we need not ‘reinvent the wheel’ in each and every case. This saves us from investing large capital and resources by importing many components and adopting international design standards.

The cracks in the global dream..

In a way, this approach works quiet well for certain products and services but is not always the best solution. There are two basic problems with this approach. Firstly, the imported products have a very limited prospects for customization. Thus, there is a good chance that unwanted features are being paid for. Secondly, due to the lack of locally available infrastructure and spare parts for such products, the maintenance cost is much higher in the long run as compared to an indigenously developed product. In many cases, even if the product is being developed in-house, it turns out that the standards being used are adopted from completely different place. It is not uncommon to see companies using urban standards for products meant to be deployed in a rural setting. For example, for a rural setting the outer appearance of a product might not be as important as its durability. So, it would make a lot more sense to divert efforts towards increasing the durability than to achieve a highly polished surface.

Does the solution lie at home ?

A solution to this problem could be use of clever design techniques and locally available materials to churn out products for a specific market segment. This is not a new approach but has been adopted throughout history. Only recently, due to globalization, the trend has become to follow the standards of the more successful nations even if they may not be suitable for the existing local scenario.

For example, a simple outer structure for a cell phone and television set, made by using easily available and cheaper raw materials, might be sufficient for majority of rural consumers in a country like India. No need to get those special finishing conforming to international standards. This might seem to be going backward in time and on the development scale, only it is not. The use of local raw materials and local skillset would only promote the local industries and help them become independent and immune to external economic or political disturbances.

In addition to this, development of a local standard for products highlighting the features that are more apt for the particular region may help bring down the cost by eliminating unnecessary ones from the product design. No one understands the requirements better than the end users. Thus, involving them into product development cycle is absolutely vital. Also, this approach would help in figuring out the gap in demand and supply at the more grassroots levels. For example, in India, we have an ample supply of sunlight and wind energy. But we do not see many windmills and solar devices around us.

Why? The answer is that in most of the cases we wait for some multinational company to come out with a high quality product that could be deployed in these areas. Now, multinational companies will stick to international standards and thus, their products would have higher costs, making it infeasible to deploy them in large numbers. But why can’t we encourage development of cheap windmills using plywood turbines and speaker magnets that are cheaply available everywhere? At the end of the day, the goal should be to harvest whatever we could at whatever efficiency possible. If cheaper devices could be installed in larger number then they can surpass the total output of costlier, higher quality, higher efficiency windmills deployed in lower number. There are ample number of other examples that could be mentioned here.

Every coin has two sides…

But just like any other, this approach has many pitfalls which have to be carefully considered. Lets look at a few of them:

1)       Possible side effects: The approach suggested above always involves some compromises in the quality of some feature of the product. Care has to be taken to ensure that the drawbacks caused due to the compromise don’t outweigh the benefits obtained. For example, while making cheap bicycles from local materials, its necessary to ensure that it won’t break down under the weight of the rider.

2)      Innovation potential: Often an inexpensive customized product can be a good temporary solution for a problem. But if we continue making such products, then we might lose the opportunity to strive towards designing a really robust product which can solve the problem permanently. A robust product has the potential for a lot of resource and money savings in the long term.

3)      Problems in scaling up: As we advocate designing products which are minutely customized for specific market segments, it’s difficult to scale them up to a bigger market. The time and resources available to engineers and scientists is limited. So it’s essential to assess whether these resources would be better diverted to making products for individual areas or designing solutions for a larger market.

The bottom line is that, instead of importing products and solutions that are of high quality but are costly and time consuming to deploy, we should strive to innovate indigenously and see if we can achieve the same functionality in lower costs. This kind of approach can only succeed if the engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers and other people are well aware of the problems at hand and also the tradeoffs involved in the design decisions. Design is the king here. If we can strike the right balance in the design stage, then we will be helping a community to stand on its feet and move towards self-dependency and sustainability. We would like to urge the readers to takeout some time out of their daily routine and pick up a problem being faced by the community around them and then try to provide a solution using their ingenuity and using whatever is available around. Let’s innovate, not just adopt!

 – Co-authored with Sarwesh Narayan Parbat
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