From ‘informal’ to ‘in demand’: Commercialising grassroots innovation?

deviceIndia is teaming with innovation and new advancements many that typically fall within the realm of the lesser explored and lesser acknowledged – the ‘informal’. Recently, Swapnanil Talukdar, a 19 year old boy from Assam was selected for the Innovation Scholars In-Residence programme of the Rashtrapati Bhavan for his invention – a foot-operated page-turning machine.

Swapnanil built a foot-operated manual page-turning machine that assists those with upper-limb impairment or injury to flip pages of books easily. As he says, the ‘driving force’ that lead him to come up with this device, was ironically his own laziness! One day after this tuition, he felt tired and lazy to turn the pages of his books, and that was when the idea of a foot-operated page turning machine. Though the initial motivation was laziness, Swapnanil’s device has larger ramifications. As is almost undisputed, education is essential for human capability development and the most fundamental activity of book based education is the ability to turn pages. This device, therefore directly ensures capability building as it allows people suffering from upper body and hand ailments to read and learn without being dependent on anyone else.swapnanil-

Swapnanil’s invention has been recognised by the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and he is one of the seven grassroots innovators who was selected for the ‘In-residence’ programme. As part of this programme, he spent two-weeks at the presidential residence and had the opportunity to seek institutional support in order to carry his idea forward.The ‘In-Residence’ programme was started in 2013 to incentivise creativity and innovation and to welcome writers, artists and innovation scholars to stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan as well as network with technical institutions.

The objectives of the programme are threefold –

(i) To provide an environment to grassroots innovators in Rashtrapati Bhavan to work on a project in hand and take their innovative ideas forward; 

(ii) To provide linkages with technical institutions to the selected innovators to strengthen their capacity to innovate; and

(iii) To provide mentoring and support so that the innovations can be used for the progress and welfare of the society.

A committee of members from various institutions such as IITs and the IIMS has also been constituted.

As it appears, this programme has had three batches of innovation scholars for innovations ranging from a rapid compost aerator and tree pruners to a chaff cutter with clutch and brake system. A total of around 18 innovations have been recognised by this program. While this program grants recognition to innovators, it remains to be seen how far these innovations have been taken forward.

As research shows, there are various drivers to innovation – some intrinsic and some extrinsic. Intrinsic factors maybe various such as need, adversity, love, passion etc. The most talked about extrinsic incentive is exclusivity granted by a patent. Prizes and recognition are other extrinsic driving factors to innovation. Unlike ‘formal innovation’ that is apparently driven by the incentive of exclusivity, most ‘informal’ innovation is driven by intrinsic incentives. If this is assumed as true i.e. informal innovation is intrinsically driven, what we should then concentrate on monitoring is how these innovations, most of which are useful in everyday life, can be commercialised so that these innovations can achieve the purpose of their creation. In such a situation, analysing and debating models of extrinsic incentives become less important as most of these innovations are self driven.

Taking the ultimate aim to be commercialisation of informal innovations, the grant of a patent will not in itself help these innovations reach their desired audience. Most informal innovations are only ‘new technical advances’ and may not meet the thresholds of an ‘invention’ for patent law and since prosecuting and enforcing a patent is expensive, most informal innovations are de facto excluded from this form of incentive. Moreover, unlike ‘formal innovation’ which tends to be focused in the high profits and wide-visibility areas, the variety of informal innovation is diverse, various and need based. While a utility model, as discussed in detail by Shamnad here and Mathews here, with easier procedure, less expensive and shorter exclusivity terms may still be considered for informal innovation, even such a system cannot answer the ultimate requirements of commercialising the innovation.

Since most ‘informal innovators’ are individuals, many from small towns, who though technically sound, may not be capable of visualising and executing projects on a commercial scale, a scheme which recognises innovations as well as provides some amount of funds, management and technical skill for production and implementation of the innovation needs to be thought out. the National Innovation Foundation as well as the In-residence programmes appear to be moving in the right direction, however, mere recognition without a plan for commercialising the innovation is like leaving a book half read. In this regard, it appear that the NIF is attempting to partner with organisations to enable them to convert certain identified informal innovations into marketable products. Click here to read Shamnad’s various posts on the theme of informal innovation.


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