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Igniting innovation

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  • Ideation to action by our human capital
It was a warm and dry yet pleasant evening at Anuradhapura. A tour guide sounds pretty excited and full of pride when he explained about the marvels of what our forefathers have done to a group of tourists. Tallest man-made brick structures in the world, waterways with slopes that are so precise, techniques of irrigation which were another world’s firsts, the tour guide had plenty to tell and brag about the past. It was clear from the magnificent dagabas and hydraulic structures that what he was extolling with pride indeed happened and pride on the past is not misplaced. The question that sprung up, maybe from a little-too-irritated tourist: “Okay, tell me what you all have done recently so that your forefathers can be proud of you too?” The flood of words died as the question stumped the tour guide.   Lack of innovation The first part of the story happens every day. The latter question is an imaginary question of mine and I dare say that this must be crossing the minds of some weary travellers, though left unspoken through courtesy to a very hospitable nation. Try answering that question in a meaningful manner with examples and advances made, taking a cold hard look at ourselves in recent years. There is no equivalence to state as compared to the past. An innovation streak has not really manifested in the present generation. This badly needs to be reversed and while one can point to the past for creative demonstrations, the same cannot be said of the present. The answer is simple – ignite innovation in the mindset of the present generation. Ensure that the environment is conducive for innovation as ignition of any type is a combination of elements. Acknowledge failures as lessons for the final success and allow your personnel to move on and make mistakes without a fear of reprisals. The resultant economy will never be the same and one may not have to wait for many years to double our per capita.   Call for change It has been stated that an economic development model which leaves billions of people in hunger, trapped in poverty and socially excluded is not sustainable and should not be emulated. Certainly the model that is in existence should not be further propagated was the big idea in this thinking. This call for a change of thinking was made before the Rio+20 conference. The emergence of a green economy as the alternative depends on decision makers thinking differently. The populace too should be thinking differently. A completely different set of administrative circulars may be called for. We do have the concept of a circular which can affect a public workforce of 1.5 million in carrying out their day-to-day tasks. If the circular concept is right yet the implementation is costly in terms of time and energy, it can be a weapon of mass destruction in the system. No need to state about circulars with wrong concepts or those which contradict each other! As ‘follow the circular’ is the dictum, ways of realising the right objective will not be observed and action with that mindset is not approved nor supported. The Oslo Manuel from OECD which deals with innovation consider four categories of innovations: products or service: creation of a new product or a new commercial offering or service, processes: implementation of new techniques for the production of goods or of services; organisation: quality circles are an example of this; marketing: for example, franchising or promotion on the internet. As is evident, the concept of innovation has been so broad-based allowing anyone to participate and not only ones with scientific or technical knowledge. This has been done with the aim of allowing your entire human capital to participate in the process of innovation and add value to the economy.   Think freely Holding on to an archaic set of procedures and implementing them with zeal is not one wants. You need people to think freely and to apply ideas with freedom too. Some innovations may be easy to accomplish as the problems may be simple to tackle. However, these matter too. This is sometimes named as renovations!  The game changing developments are termed breakthrough innovations. Both extremes and all in between are through people. How do you bring about this change of thinking – from reflexive thinking to reflective thinking – is the line of thinking we should have at a leadership level. Leadership should understand – walk into an organisation with your eyes and ears open – that we spend a best part of our time in reflexive thinking, which is essentially routine thinking.   South Africa South Africa was a country which celebrated end of apartheid in 1990 officially and in 1994 democratically. Their interest in science technology and innovation in transforming the economy after years of neglect is quite interesting and a parallel perhaps can be drawn with Sri Lanka as we too emerged out of a 30-year conflict and looking towards in becoming a breakout nation!  South Africans were also worried that the speed gained with the euphoria of a new era need to be translated to solid action to sustain growth. The apartheid era too had spawned innovation as the country had to move on with an international isolation in force. Companies such as SASOL developed technologies and had these developments to share post 1990. The Sri Lankan 30-year period did not spawn such companies or organisations in the same way as we moved ahead with a buy and sell mentality most of the time. End of apartheid brought in the majority community to the processes. South Africa had set up a National System of Innovation and has a National Council of Innovation. They have moved on with provincial innovation hubs too. There is a strong movement to develop their human capital in this direction. A comment from Prof. Michael Ogembo-Kachieng’a of University of Pretoria is quite important – Human capital is where the ladders of modern, knowledge-intensive businesses start: the wellspring of innovation, the homepage of insight and creativity. Money talks, but it does not think; machines perform, often better and faster than human beings do, but they do not invent. A strong message and real food for thought from Prof. Michael.   Sri Lanka We in Sri Lanka had allowed money to do the thinking as well! With human beings thinking much less and thinking along routine men have become machines, thus distancing oneself from innovative behaviour. Innovators by nature should be agile not bound by rules. Symptoms are easy to understand as they are clearly visible. The past had shown Sri Lankans can innovate. There are many examples of negative innovation from the present – implementations of ideas that are not useful. We must rejoin the innovation community through active pursuance of this as an objective. Even imitation may come into play. Imitation implies copying or reverse engineering of a known process or product. The Japanese economy in its growth phase demonstrated the applicability of this process. It is sometimes stated by the West that the East has an excellent ability in this direction! However, stopping at imitation should not be the end goal. One may imitate at the start but should aspire to excel at the end. South Africa had shown that in recent times and of course one need not state the obvious with Japan today. Allowing the freedom and igniting innovation can resolve a burning issue within the establishment today. We often hear that we cannot exercise our ideas and the feeling of being stifled. Born free but working not so freely is something to get rid of. Steve Jobs had the ability to sit in a different class at the university and his calligraphy lessons even has changed us today. The shrinking product cycles that we witness today means minds active in design and innovation. Just consider the smartphone revolution. Samsung came out with more than 45 new launches last year and challenged Nokia. In India now they have developed a way to carry out blood analysis with an App using your smart phone. Medical diagnostics is surely going to change. As ideas pour in, action is becoming important. Execution is thus becoming crucial and that is why procedural innovations do matter. Marketers do not have the luxury of time too. When they claim ‘this is the best in class,’ they need to be prepared to retract their glossy comments and apply the same to another and fast. There should be the ability to take decisions in nano seconds.  We know that what happens in New York in a minute may take hours if not days in Sri Lanka. It is time that we become innovative in equating a Colombo minute to a New York minute. Then the tour guide will not be at a loss for words. (The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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