Atlas has invented an AGV robot to support Sri Lanka’s medical personnel
Vega Innovations has jumped in to battle COVID-19 by developing low-cost medical ventilators
Bandara Herath, a Senior Assistant Engineer of SLT, has invented
a portable ventilator
If one is to listen to news on TV or read newspapers these days, one could almost certainly listen to more than one item on someone coming forward with a solution to multiple emerging issues from COVID-19, from the disease itself to education and even entertainment.
The mindset demonstrated in these acts is one of engaging in doing something of help to the situation facing the nation. One quick measure is that there are inventors springing up from all walks of life moved on by a purpose. Something to make a note of however is concerning Sri Lanka before, during and after an event.
Meethotamulla, COVID-19 and inventions
My mind goes back to the collapsing garbage mountain at Meethotamulla and the subsequent highlight of solid waste as a national issue. Yes it was one mountain and we were shown more than 250 such mountains scattered across.
If we remember, immediately after that event too inventors were all over newspapers and TV. Making bricks out of waste, tiles of superior characteristics with waste, a machine that goes around the town collecting and processing the solid waste, and how to make use of waste as a resource are some that come to my mind. Many of them really had value but where are those inventors and their inventions today? The media never revisit and ask the question why not?
With COVID-19 and with the problem being an unprecedented experience the outpouring of inventiveness too is perhaps unprecedented. The experience of seeing this behaviour was not only in Sri Lanka, the experience is across all countries. However, the nature of inventions definitely varies. In all events the dust eventually had to settle and society moves on. Some may make the lessons count while some others slip back and history may repeat itself. Therein lies the lesson for us at this stage.
This COVID-19 too will at some point in time be an event that happened. Yes this event does have the potential of creating change of lasting impact. When disaster strikes there is always the potential of human ingenuity to spark. Necessity is the mother of invention and such situations are full of necessities of varying kinds. Thus it is only natural some creative souls would rise up to the occasion. Recession-inspired inventions and crisis-inspired inventions are aplenty and interestingly all those changed the subsequent trajectory of the economy. A lasting impression is made if and only if the system embraces and appreciates the ideas for their worth.
There is however a must-mention remark on inventions. There is a serious need in the country for people to understand what inventing is and that too coupled to a creative mind – the innovation mindset! We do have literacy, creativity and an inventive streak and there is no need to doubt that. There is this distinct difference between the mind and the mindset.
A person is present with skills and capabilities. However, the mindset is not quite appropriate. The moment there is a problem one comes up with an idea and to some extent executes and then begins to believe completely about the solution being unique and right. Thereafter thinking is that the system must then bow and give everything to him or her. When the situation reacts differently, then it is always a story of extreme grievance. Hardly any time is given for background research and to explore for those who may have been there before.
Newton acknowledged the shoulders of others enabling him to see further, while most of our inventors immediately want to bask in the glory! Appearing on prime time news is everything and then time is spent more in uploading the clips and counting likes.
There is no journey of search, improvements and commitment to that impact. The moment an idea pops out to some they believe that have cracked the issue and the patent is waiting for them. There is a serious need for some understanding provided on the way of thinking and creative process of many an individual. I do see the potential and the importance of harnessing this talent, as this is very rare. Simply this group is not begging nor seeking support while the majority sees getting help as the answer to the crisis.
Those with this inventive incline see problems and move in to give solutions. What comes out of the process is at times a big question and is the reason for the need of some definite mentoring. The media then completely take the solution offered without any question nor analysis and then the publicity received clouds the judgment further.
Sometimes it appears that organisations are always against the inventor as the inventor sees how the media portrayed the invention and there is no way the person can then comprehend the organisational reaction.
Importance of innovation
We should understand invention is 10% of the journey; 80-90% of the journey is innovation and is actually much more difficult. This however does not take away the ideation part and its value. Thinking and coming out with ideas is definitely very significant and important. Good ideas are the result of having a lot of ideas and what matters actually is that rare good idea! We simply confuse having ideas with having good ideas. Elon Musk with a fresh victory under his belt says you must read to be a leader. Sometimes our young inventors are totally YouTube based.
While on one side ideas are moved into prototypes, you need the eco-system to understand the value and move in forging partnerships and paving the way for success. The United States is an economy where it has earned the reputation as the land of opportunity and this has come with plenty of examples. When the chips are down there had been many an individual who has risen to the occasion and then the system with the individual.
The Great Depression era from 1929 saw car radios, tampons, scotch tape, and frozen food process to the first supermarket in the USA.
The list is endless. Even with COVID-19 the inventions – product, process, service and experiential types – are quite interesting in the USA. Of course one could get only few glimpses of such as news channels appear to be in permanent breaking news mode!
It is indeed interesting to compare the inventions, tech ideas coming, say, from New York, Paris and Berlin with Colombo. Now this is important from a learning perspective, as we must understand the reasons for the difference. I think SLIC and COSTI can give a count of 500+ invention submissions for considerations. There had been many HackaDevs, Ideathongs too. I am sure the robot population – an interesting count some countries have already started after the Industry 4.0 concept became embedded in the new economy journey – in the country increased dramatically.
Individuals and organisations
Moving into analysis one may see one or two platform types dominating. There are two aspects in innovation – individuals and organisations. Creative individuals along will not succeed.
The environment offered in organisations matters immensely. If there is the healthy dialogue and discourse I am sure the level of submissions would be at a higher and a better level.
There is a serious deficiency in the eco-system in managing new and different ideas. At organisational level the stereotype behaviour is painfully high. One may see one document being applied across all situations. The end result is service innovations; positive experiences are rare encounters.
The feedback to the inventor is a standard answer. Creative DNA, whatever present, is very forcefully mutated. There is no communication to support while showing deficiencies, so there is encouragement rather than shooting down. Our way of engagement never increases the level of resilience of an inventor.
Think differently; plan for sustainability
The COVID-19 experience demonstrated to all and sundry the much-stated concept of distance is dead. It also showcased at least in Sri Lanka when considering the food and agriculture delivery the need for the intermediary to be doomed. The need to view ‘destruction is cool’ as the way to rebuild the economy is evident. If we are to grow by again selling tons of tea and coconut, expecting remittances to manage the balance of trade, tourism to be the main axis on which to pivot our growth, I think we should think differently.
This is an opportunity to plan for sustainability. Ideas and inventors are critically important. However, the process of innovation in all its facets should be understood. The national asset register should take on board the intangible asset class. That is thinking way beyond the brand, which definitely is a by-product if we handle the potential asset classes well.
More inventors have come forward this time. There are many lessons to be had also in comparison to past instances. The group is so important to be nurtured. Their rank should be increased. From ideas to entrepreneurship and with better ideas and improvements to leadership at different levels of growth is the yield to the nation.
My one big hope with the virus is that it would enable creating an eco-system for the inventor and researcher to take on the mantle of leadership for innovation. An economic system that is based on creativity and innovation just cannot fail!