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. 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? Picture by Anisha Gooneratne shows Prof Anil Gupta seated in the Colombo study of There is no shortage of challenges. Ironically in late Dr Ray Wijewardene. 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 semiautomatic 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.

or improve the productivity in whatever they do.the highest grossing Hindi film of all time -. its protagonist “Rancho”. Knowledge isn’t the limiting factor here. they collaborated with the Bollywood producers of 3 Idiots -. At one point in 3 Idiots. There are other unresolved daily challenges affecting significant numbers of people in the developing world. says Gupta. two billion people still lack access to clean water and toilet facilities. Success. “Innovations are not necessarily developed in sterile labs. compassion and collaboration. but their uptake has been slow among housewives. Similarly. says Gupta. even among the grassroots innovators. a cycle-powered horse shaver. All made by innovators from the backwoods of India. When we look for design improvements. design and culture to come together. Sheer necessity is indeed the mother of invention. and an exercycle-cum-washingmachine. textbook definition – but Rancho stands his ground (and is punished for that defiance). scientific forums and business networks to get the word out. We analysed problems in great depth. played by Aamir Khan. surely. he said. Gupta cautioned his Colombo audience: “Don’t repeat the mistakes made by my generation in India and elsewhere. Those daily problems faced mostly by women receive the least amount of attention. say. Both hold promise. but they need more ergonomic inputs to make them widely acceptable. and then go after them with enough resources and resolve.” Not all inventions need to be earth-shattering. Best ones are experimented and perfected in the hands and minds of users -. Gupta and his team at the Honey Bee Network are tackling this apathy from different angles -. long-unresolved problems.currently lost to preventable water-borne diseases. Two more examples:   People in hilly areas with no roads are forced to carry firewood.using the media. User acceptance needs the three factors of technology. Low cost. benchmark the improvement levels we want to reach. entertainment industry.” says Gupta.to showcase three actual grassroots inventions: a scooter-powered flour mill. tells his professor that “a machine is anything that reduces human effort”. His vision of grassroots innovation goes beyond simple nerdy tinkering.For example. can bring immediate relief millions of men and women from their daily drudgery. To distribute the weight of water pots to the two shoulders. water pumps can make life easier for millions of users.and did little or nothing to actually solve them!” Success needs greater degrees of three Cs: curiosity. Khimjibhai Kanadia of India developed a simple head load reducing device called the Pani Hari.most of them ordinary people who simply try to reduce their own drudgery. In 2009. “Even small improvements in.young and old. water-efficient toilets and simple methods of disinfecting water of pathogens can save many lives – especially of young children -. The teacher demands a more convoluted. in private and public sectors -. food grains and other items over steep slopes on their head or back. fodder. rural women must carry water pots on their heads and walk long distances everyday – a painful yet unavoidable chore. We really need an army of Ranchos to go after the unresolved challenges in everyday innovation. various improved cooking stoves have been designed for at least three decades. but also to domesticated animals. Another innovator came up with the idea of a water-carrying jacket. debated solutions endlessly -.” He reiterated his call for everyone with an inventive turn of mind -. is worth a bit more than a better mousetrap? . A low cost trolley that can negotiate stony paths would provide immediate relief to both humans and beasts of burden. “We need to prioritise such mass-scale.to take up these Big Challenges. These illustrated what Gupta has been saying all along: minds on the margins are not marginal minds. That. Despite much investment from development donors for half a century. save on costs. even on modest scales. we should consider not only the benefits to humans.

and has been profiling Lankan innovators for 25 years.(Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is a trustee of the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust. .

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