Jonathon Porritt: It's innovation or catastrophe for India

Sensemaking / Jonathon Porritt: It's innovation or catastrophe for India

The sheer dynamism of the Indian economy today is already having a transformative impact on its cities, says the Founder-Director of Forum for the Future.

By Jonathon Porritt / 02 Jan 2013

The sheer dynamism of the Indian economy today is already having a transformative impact on its cities, says the Founder-Director of Forum for the Future.

HG Wells was fond of berating the politicians of his day for their failure to recognise the importance of education: "Civilisation is a race between Education and Catastrophe".

That is as true today as ever, of course. But I rather think innovation has now become an even more important thing standing between us and catastrophe. And in India, education and innovation have to march hand in hand. As I discovered talking to business leaders during a recent visit, innovation is still a relatively new rallying cry. Decades of paternalistic government, reinforced by equally paternalistic corporatism, hardly provided the best seed bed for innovators to flourish.

But, inventiveness certainly flourished, particularly of the 'frugal' kind highlighted by Ian Thornton in his feature for Green Futures. This celebrates a culture of jugaad – using imaginative, improvised solutions in the face of challenging circumstances and limited resources.

India's great cities sometimes seem to be held together by jugaad, in the face of chronic infrastructure deficits balanced by an invigorating turbulence. But the sheer dynamism of the Indian economy today is already having a transformative impact on those cities, and helping spur a rather more systematic approach to innovation, with the private sector very much part of that process.

Leading Indian companies are seizing the initiative here. Whether it's simple water filters which save lives daily, or sophisticated energy management systems which save companies millions, there is no shortage of innovations being put into practice. This Special Edition of Green Futures, 'India: Innovation Nation' [launching at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit next month] provides a snapshot of both the diversity and the massive sustainability benefits that those solutions promise.

When we hosted a CEO roundtable on sustainable innovation with The Energy and Resources Institute, one of the most exciting things we heard about was a growing readiness for companies to combine forces to drive more disruptive innovation.

There's a real buzz around this agenda – and those two key words (innovation and sustainability) are found linked together more and more frequently. This was something that the Harvard Business Review flagged up some time ago as an increasingly powerful synergy: "Our research shows that sustainability is a motherlode of organisational and technological innovations that yield both bottom line and top line returns. We find that smart companies now treat sustainability as innovation's new frontier".

But there are still many cautionary voices regarding the potential for innovation in India, calling into question the quality of the political seedbed. It is hugely encouraging that, for all sorts of timely reasons, the Government of India has declared this to be the Decade of Innovation. But it won't work just handing that over to the private sector. Much will need to be done by the politicians themselves to ensure those seeds of innovation can really flourish.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.

This feature appeared in ‘India: Innovation Nation’, a Special Edition produced in collaboration with TERIUnileverInterface and Mlinda.

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