Business Times

Wanted: More ‘Idiots’ to tackle grassroots innovation challenges

By Nalaka Gunawardene

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
These words have long been attributed to the Nineteenth Century American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet that didn’t sound like his usual eloquent self.

Picture by Anisha Gooneratne shows Prof Anil Gupta seated in the Colombo study of late Dr Ray Wijewardene.

It turns out that his actual words were different: “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

But the simplified version has become a popular metaphor about innovation -- and many have taken it quite literally! The mousetrap is the most frequently invented device in American history: the US Patent and Trademark Office has granted over 4,400 patents for new designs of mousetraps; it has rejected thousands more.

What if all that creative energy could be directed at solving some other everyday problems?
There is no shortage of challenges. Ironically in our age of technology, hundreds of millions of people -- most of them poor, and a majority of women -- are still toiling away in tasks where simple machines or devices could reduce their daily drudgery.

Few inventors have bothered with these -- probably because the beneficiaries are on the margins of society. Their needs are not a priority for most research institutes or high tech laboratories.

This was highlighted by Dr Anil Kumar Gupta, India’s top innovation-spotter, when he delivered the inaugural Ray Wijewardene memorial lecture in Colombo on 13 December 2011. A Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, and Founder of the Honey Bee Network for nurturing innovation, he spoke on “Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development: From Rhetoric to Reality”.
“India can today launch multiple satellites into orbit, has some of the top ranked scientific laboratories in the world, and proven capabilities in computer software and hardware. Yet, we have failed to solve the long-standing fundamental problems faced by a large number of our own people -- many of them poor women,” he said.

For a quarter century, thousands of grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge practices in India have been documented through the Honey Bee Network. And yet, many everyday life problems remain unresolved.

Consider these striking examples:

  • Across rice-growing Asia, paddy is still transplanted manually by women using a painful back-bending posture. Many labourers develop fungal infections on their feet from prolonged exposure to water. While some mechanical transplanters have been developed, more design optimisation is needed to improve their usability and efficiency.
  • The wood-burning cooking stove -- made of three bricks, stones or mud structures -- used in most Asian households has not changed much for centuries. That configuration wastes a lot of heat energy, but improving the design isn’t easy as stoves have to accommodate a variety of cooking styles, fuel types and utensils.
  • While billions of cups of tea are consumed everyday around the world, few tea drinkers realise the pain of manual tea plucking experienced by women workers. This practice has not changed for 150 years. A semi-automatic device for tea-plucking could reduce the drudgery, and also improve the tea industry’s efficiency.

Some grassroots innovators have taken on these formidable problems, so far with limited progress.
For example, rural women must carry water pots on their heads and walk long distances everyday – a painful yet unavoidable chore. To distribute the weight of water pots to the two shoulders, Khimjibhai Kanadia of India developed a simple head load reducing device called the Pani Hari. Another innovator came up with the idea of a water-carrying jacket.

Both hold promise, says Gupta, but they need more ergonomic inputs to make them widely acceptable.
Similarly, various improved cooking stoves have been designed for at least three decades, but their uptake has been slow among housewives. User acceptance needs the three factors of technology, design and culture to come together.

There are other unresolved daily challenges affecting significant numbers of people in the developing world.

Two more examples:

  • People in hilly areas with no roads are forced to carry firewood, fodder, food grains and other items over steep slopes on their head or back. A low cost trolley that can negotiate stony paths would provide immediate relief to both humans and beasts of burden.
  • Despite much investment from development donors for half a century, two billion people still lack access to clean water and toilet facilities. Low cost, water-efficient toilets and simple methods of disinfecting water of pathogens can save many lives – especially of young children -- currently lost to preventable water-borne diseases.

“We need to prioritise such mass-scale, long-unresolved problems, benchmark the improvement levels we want to reach, and then go after them with enough resources and resolve,” says Gupta.
Knowledge isn’t the limiting factor here. Gupta cautioned his Colombo audience: “Don’t repeat the mistakes made by my generation in India and elsewhere. We analysed problems in great depth, debated solutions endlessly -- and did little or nothing to actually solve them!”

Success needs greater degrees of three Cs: curiosity, compassion and collaboration.
His vision of grassroots innovation goes beyond simple nerdy tinkering. Sheer necessity is indeed the mother of invention. “Innovations are not necessarily developed in sterile labs. Best ones are experimented and perfected in the hands and minds of users -- most of them ordinary people who simply try to reduce their own drudgery, save on costs, or improve the productivity in whatever they do.”

Not all inventions need to be earth-shattering, says Gupta. “Even small improvements in, say, water pumps can make life easier for millions of users. When we look for design improvements, we should consider not only the benefits to humans, but also to domesticated animals.”

He reiterated his call for everyone with an inventive turn of mind -- young and old, in private and public sectors -- to take up these Big Challenges. Those daily problems faced mostly by women receive the least amount of attention, even among the grassroots innovators, he said.

Gupta and his team at the Honey Bee Network are tackling this apathy from different angles -- using the media, entertainment industry, scientific forums and business networks to get the word out.
In 2009, they collaborated with the Bollywood producers of 3 Idiots -- the highest grossing Hindi film of all time -- to showcase three actual grassroots inventions: a scooter-powered flour mill, a cycle-powered horse shaver, and an exercycle-cum-washingmachine. All made by innovators from the backwoods of India.

These illustrated what Gupta has been saying all along: minds on the margins are not marginal minds.
At one point in 3 Idiots, its protagonist “Rancho”, played by Aamir Khan, tells his professor that “a machine is anything that reduces human effort”. The teacher demands a more convoluted, textbook definition – but Rancho stands his ground (and is punished for that defiance).

We really need an army of Ranchos to go after the unresolved challenges in everyday innovation. Success, even on modest scales, can bring immediate relief millions of men and women from their daily drudgery.

That, surely, is worth a bit more than a better mousetrap?
(Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is a trustee of the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust, and has been profiling Lankan innovators for 25 years.

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