What a year we have just been through! From the oil collapse to Delhi’s and Beijing’s deadly pollution—extreme uncertainty is the order of the day.
The other uncertainty is the rate at which technology is impacting our lives. From Google Glass to gene editing, from commercial space flights to driverless cars, radical change is impacting millions of people in a very short span of time. Within India, too, technology is changing the way we live—the e-commerce revolution, for instance, has changed the way we buy groceries. Working in a start-up is a more popular career choice than a regular job. Data analytics now shapes political campaigns and can win elections. While we are all to familiar with adage ‘change is the only constant’, the pace of change today is quite disruptive. For India, the question is: Are we prepared to accept this new normal of constant disruption?
India, over the next few years, will remain the world’ fastest-growing economy. But we could stumble if we don’t embrace the new normal. It makes speed more important than perfection, results more important than vision, adapting to the surroundings more important than shaping them, skills more important than qualification and so on.
Amid such uncertainty, the only way to survive is to constantly innovate. But even innovation has to be more relevant to solving real problems than being experiments that serve no end. It needs to show faster results, rather than dragging on for years. Large corporates now measure their R&D quality based on outcomes rather than absolute spend.
If one accepts that emerging markets (EMs) will drive global economic growth, then innovation has to be relevant to EMs. The one theme that dominates EMs is affordability, and that too of basic amenities like electricity, healthcare, etc. Even the developed world and China realise that public money can’t be just spent on expensive infrastructure. Innovation, therefore, has to be focused on improving affordability. Another dimension of affordability is to improve outcomes by eliminating inefficiencies. India’s e-commerce revolution is all about this, and look how it has taken off.
GE’s efforts addresses both these aspects of innovation. For instance, GE’s Lullaby Warmer, a reverse innovation, makes neonatal healthcare in India highly affordable and accessible. Discovery IQ, a molecular imaging system, provides early disease detection capabilities to understand patient’s response to cancer treatment. GE’s affordability-focussed innovation motive has led to its Sustainable Healthcare Solutions Business being headquartered in Bengaluru. The other focus of GE’s innnovation efforts is to be the global leader of industrial internet, wherein data from various machines is analysed to improve efficiencies and outcomes. The potential of this initiative, on a global basis, is massive. In India, GE’s predictive wind power solution makes renewable power more predictable and, therefore, usable. Faster power distribution and outage management through intelligent analytics; better grid management by balancing load with generation and loading of the transmission lines; lessening fuel consumption by aircraft through optimisation of approach path for landing based on traffic data; traffic lighting fixtures being used as data gathering points to better manage traffic and security, etc,—these initiatives have tremendous capability to improve efficiency and cut costs.
For innovation to flourish, an entrepreneur has to get direct and open access to the market. The best role the government can play would be to help aggregate markets to provide scale. The government would, naturally, play a role in some of the capital-intensive innovation, like in defence or space. But, it is crucial that government let free entrepreneurial spirits prevail in the other areas. India has demonstrated tremendous capability in frugal engineering as seen in the auto sector and the space programme; energy efficiency as seen in the cement sector; benefit of scale as seen in the sharp decline in prices in LED lighting, renewable power, telecom, etc. But, given the market and the abundance of skills available, much more is achievable.
The one sobering fact to be cognizant of is the impact on our environment. Environmental challenges are no longer an issue for just future generations. There is adequate technology to tackle almost every challenge we face. The only daunting challenge, however, is affordability of these technologies. Environment is one area where affordability conflicts with sustainability. This fine balance is indeed difficult to find, and more so when the whole world shares the same environment but not similar wealth. The one area where both affordability and the environment find common ground is when we improve efficiencies and outcomes. There is ample room for us in India to just stay focused on improving efficiency and make greater progress.
We, in India, do not need disruptive innovation or miracles to improve the quality of life. We just need a sense of urgency in getting things done and getting basic issues addressed on priority.
Banmali Agrawala is President & CEO, GE South ASIA