Innovation is tricky business

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What big buck corporation calls innovation can be the common man's undoing

caterpillars are bad news for agriculture, we knew that. Germany's Jrgen Tautz now gives us some good news; the hairy sensors of a caterpillar are not as evolved to tell a wasp from a bee. Bees, as pollinators are undoubtedly good news. But the fact that bees could be proxy wasps makes the news even better, they can be brilliant caterpillar repellants. That is exactly what Jrgen Tautz is trying out now. If successful, it will be called a great innovation in non-chemical farming. It is another matter that some big buck corporation's chemical option that promises to repel a host of insects, not just caterpillars, will be touted as a greater innovation.

Innovation is the buzzword in the institutional economy. There is concern over India going down on the global innovation index to the 41st rank from the 23rd last year. The global survey undertaken by a French business school simply suggests that Indians are becoming less innovative. There can be a debate on the definition of innovation. It seems the variables used in this study to rank countries are heavily tilted towards options that help an economy grow. The idea is not bad. But the story is not that simple.

In our last cover story (see 'Made it', Down To Earth , January 1-15, 2009), we brought you some innovations. Farmers in Andhra Pradesh came up with innovations to manage pests, based on observed phenomena. These are as simple as using light to attract insects, or female hormone to attract male insects and divert them from the crop. By doing these apparently simple things, they increased their earnings as they did not have to spend on expensive chemicals. This is not recognized as institutional innovation as it does not help a third party make money. Chemical insecticides were celebrated as one even if they have almost annihilated the world's bees that could have controlled pests.

Innovation happens when we have the urge and are clued in to ground realities. The drop in the innovation index should not be taken seriously as it probably only recognizes innovative business opportunities. The plan to inject millions of World Bank dollars will not accelerate innovation unless we are clear what we are innovating for--people's prosperity. Innovation happens everyday in India. Those who lament the low ranking despite India being a 'knowledge economy', should realize faking foreign accents is not innovation and has little to do with knowledge.

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