It was indeed exciting to witness the products of active minds at the Sahasak Nimavum exhibition held at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre, championed and organised by the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission (SLIC).
This year’s event was for the third consecutive time. This is a service extended by the Commission to provide a platform for the creative souls in our society to display their inventions and to explain the value of their idea to the public.
Inventor of the automatic rail gate system, Aruna Samarawickrama
The number of footfalls to the precincts did not number much when compared with a consumer fair when various types of trinkets – most of the times brought down from outside in container loads – are on display. Nevertheless, for those who dared to brave the winds and the rain, I am sure the experience was interesting and informative.
The event certainly does not make headline news sadly, though for completely different reasons. The same event last year reached front pages. The papers then were quite keen to report on the fire that destroyed a series of exhibits and the hall as well during the last year’s Sahasak Nimavum held at BMICH. What makes and constitute as news being worthy of being reported in Sri Lanka – a country aspiring for knowledge hub status – is indeed food for thought.
Ray Wijewardene's unit
Many interesting displays
There were many interesting displays and all age groups were represented, indicating that what is important and relevant is the mindset. It is such views of a small child staying for three days standing behind his invention, describing over and over again to an audience, which is indeed a pretty sight.
The exhibit as you entered the hall reminded the visitors of a lost opportunity from one of our great inventors – Vidyajothi Dr. Ray Wijewardene. His hand-operated two wheel tractor – a world’s first – was on display along with his recorded interviews. Perhaps a DVD should have been issued alongside the commemorative stamp of Ray.
You really have to ask the question as to why we did not realise the potential of that invention as an agricultural society. Dr. Ray sold the rights of his ‘Land Master’ to the United Kingdom and today we wait for containers to come from overseas along with service loan facilities to enable farmers to buy the same unit now made elsewhere. An opportunity to extend ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ to the world was irrecoverably lost.
Ray’s statement that we prefer to go shopping rather than sweating to convert an idea to an opportunity too was there to read. The need for more practical minds rather than theoretical walking books was always to be heard from him. I hope the visitors received the message loud and clear when they visited the exhibition.
Invention to production
That brings to the mind the issue of how many of the inventions and ideas on display this year will see the light of day as an activity that will add value to the economy. These inventions should move into production if one is to see some benefits both to the inventor and to society. This translation process is strewn with difficulties in our country as it is precisely this step that is not taking place.
I was able to listen to an inventor who had demonstrated an automated rail gate. He had previously come up with an artificial leg which apparently had considerable success with international acclaim. What was indeed interesting to note was that this inventor had come from a commerce background and is now delving into electronics and mechanics of artificial limbs. Ray certainly would have appreciated his efforts as his theoretical knowledge on double entry book keeping was not what he is engaged with now – taking on society’s needs and addressing them head-on.
Unprotected rail crossings have caused many deaths and brought much despair to quite a few Sri Lankan homes. However, we are yet to provide protection to about 300 and more such places. Now attending to such needs should be a matter of priority and it is difficult to fathom the reasons for delays. With inventors displaying their solutions and society desperately seeking solutions, why chasms exist in between must be the mystery that we have to solve in our country.
A successful inventor is a boon
Some of the inventors who had been successful in Geneva at the International Inventors Fair – another activity that is supported by the Inventor’s Commission – speak of even receiving offers of green card facility. A successful inventor is a boon to an economy. How much the United States must owe personalities like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs? The markets grow around them and because of them.
Testimonials from inventors indicate that our financial institutions are pillars of rigidity and the stories of encounters between these two parties are rather disturbing. Collateral-centred, risk-averse approach appears to keep inventors at more than arm’s length by the financial institutions.
Sri Lanka is just seeing the emergence of venture capital and angel investors and the spread of these sources should resolve the current impasse. This however needs to happen fast. Grounded behaviour too is necessary from these parties as otherwise there still could be a separation distance between these groups.
It is especially heartening to witness the efforts of schoolchildren. They had to go through provincial competitions before reaching the final exhibition. Nurturing these minds certainly must be a priority.
Bringing down barriers
In countries like the USA when a strong invention is demonstrated and potential evaluated, scholarships are immediately available and sometimes special admission opportunities to universities. In Sri Lanka such schemes are absent. In trying to improve our economy, such practices elsewhere should act as a beacon.
Inventiveness in bringing down institutional and procedural barriers is quite important. Learning from situations such as Ray’s Land Master should identify the fault-lines in our system. Even though we cry over spilt milk, it is learned action and not emotion that is required in rectifying the situation for future benefit. Ray’s Land Master is not the only lost opportunity from the recent past. It is one of the most well known, yet do we know the whole story? I am afraid not.
Unstructured innovation in action
What we witness at events of this nature are mostly unstructured innovation processes. Most of these individuals would seek new challenges and pursue them with courage. This ‘a person’-centred innovation is really unstructured innovation in action. With this type of individual, barriers are to be overcome always and they would do just that.
When institutions pursue an innovation policy, the institutional environment has to be innovator friendly with failure tolerance ethic. While loners can succeed in there too, it is the team structures that determine the end outcome. The flexible, team-based, learning-oriented behaviour are key features to build innovative institutions.
The biggest resistance in transforming the mundane institutions to innovative is allowing the old rules to disappear. We are quite aware of what is holding us back, yet we do everything else except what we should be doing. Time-honoured traditions, complete misfits in today’s context, have been hard to get rid of.
Absence of demand can kill creativity
It is time we shake off our habit of shopping as the answer to any question and seek some answers through our own creative people. The absence of demand can kill creativity. The inventors themselves do need to eat and live to be creative. The community of practitioners needs to be engaged, their problems listened to too.
Not all of them will have compelling stories. Some stories may be downright wrong as was the case when a big story was flashed around about the boy who had travelled to Anuradhapura using only three litres of water as fuel. Inventions do not mean breaking all laws of nature and one needs to be mindful of such limitations.
The inventor has the freedom to question and reach out to seek the unknown, but he too must demonstrate the process and should be sincere in the approach. We do witness at times the inventors believing that always they were the first and the finest. A bit more understanding of the fast-paced innovative behaviour ever-present in other countries and regions is a must.
Giving more attention to background research too would help. When you walk across the exhibition hall observing and listening, you identify these needs as well. This calls for some coaching and mentoring of these minds.
Giving wings to new ideas
The entire event can be declared a success. It is a ‘young event’ again indicating that Sri Lanka has missed an important area of activity for a long time. There were still empty stalls as all the ‘Sahasak’ were not present. Structured or unstructured, the process of innovation must be a feature of our economy.
In the absence of strong policy support, one must be even more creative if one is to realise one’s creative labour. With Ray remembered, the event rewards and recognises talent with Rawana in the mind (winners receive the Dasis Award). Sri Lankans then may have taken wings with the dandu monara, the challenge for today however is how to give wings to our new ideas.
[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 the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.]