Why do we fail to innovate in India?

It is no secret that Indian startup ecosystem has been lacking innovation. The successful Indian startups Flipkart, OYO Rooms, Ola and Gaana have emulated successful ideas of Amazon, Airbnb, Uber and Spotify, respectively. Lack of innovation has been found to be one the most common reason for failure of Indian startups according to a recent study, “Entrepreneurial India,” by the IBM Institute for Business Value and Oxford Economics. However, it would be unfair to single out startups for lacking innovation, especially when the present Indian companies themselves have failed to innovate world-class products or services. Indian companies have a dismal record in filing patents. Let the numbers for the International Patents filed in 2017 speak for themselves:

Country-wise International Patents Filed, 2017 (Source- WIPO) Numbers of International Patent Filed
US 56,319
China 48,875
Japan 48,206
Republic of Korea 15,745
India 1,583

In fact, there are only a handful of Indian companies that invest substantially in R&D. In the last three years, the Government of India through the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has made tremendous effort to promote innovation in India. Unfortunately, none of the measures have made any significant impact on innovation from Indian entities or individuals. Definitely, it is not the intellect of the Indians because these same individuals have made serious contribution to innovation in other developed countries. So, what are the reasons for lack of world-class innovation in India?

Colonial past & social system

To begin with, Indian history and social system contribute a lot to lack of innovation. The colonial policies of the British prior to our independence in 1947 prevented development of Indian industries. The British colonial powers never wanted India to be self-reliant in industrial production, but merely a supplier of raw materials. Post-independence, we have been relying on technology from outside to develop our industries. Not that we are an exception in this case. After World War II, most of the developing countries imported technology. Even countries like China, Japan and South Korea imported technologies, but eventually they build upon the borrowed technology to innovate and invent. Add, to this the Indian feudal system that even after 70 years of independence is deeply entrenched in our institutions and relationships. The problem with the feudal mindset is that it does not allow us to question and change the status quo.

Education system- Marks rather than critical thinking

India inherited a colonial education system that was based on a rote learning system. Unfortunately, we have made very little change in our education system. Till the age of around 17 years, our students in schools are trained to memorise information. The students in school are examined and evaluated on their capacity to retain and reproduce the information on examination papers. There is no emphasis on critical thinking or hands-on learning in our education system. Our higher education in professional colleges is no different. Students are expected to do the same. Memorise and reproduce. We teach our students that there is only one possible way of doing things throughout their education journey and formative years, and then we expect them to think differently and innovate, when they become start-off their careers.

Cultural mind-set

Are we risk-averse and scared of failure? The answer is in affirmative. Ask our students, who are always under tremendous pressure to excel. However, when we try to do something new, initially, chances of failure are higher. Therefore, with limited opportunities of employment in the government and the private sector, the focus is to confirm to the status quo rather than try something new.

Frugal innovation is not real innovation

In recent past there has been a glorification of ‘frugal innovation’. It’s true that Indians have been able to come up with unique products using minimalist resources in adverse conditions. However, none of these ‘frugal innovation’ have translated into world-class products. More than the ability to innovate, ‘frugal innovation’ represents our strong desire to innovate even with limited resources. One of the limitations of ‘frugal innovation’ is that it seeks immediate quick solution to a problem rather than a long-term effective and sustainable solution.