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No, innovation requires basic numeracy

When we think of innovation, we visualize a “Eureka” moment when a sudden insight hits a person like a thunderbolt, and he leaps out of his bath naked, and runs through the streets shouting … well, you get the picture. Alas, the reality is more prosaic. Thomas Alva Edison was right: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” There is lots of nose-to-the-grindstone hard work that precedes any innovation.

The Tata Nano is a case in point. It took hard work to come up with all the tiny creative ideas that make the car a reality. And engineers had to know plenty of engineering, learned the hard way, one mistake at a time, to have the judgment to know exactly which corner to cut, which SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) could be trimmed back.

You have to know engineering well to be any good at it. I am reminded of the story of the old retired engineer who was asked to come back to look at the big piece of machinery he had managed, and which had stopped working. He walked around it, and put a chalk-marked “X” somewhere, then said, “That’s where your problem is.” He then gave them an itemized bill: “One chalk mark, $10; knowing where to put the chalk mark, $9,990.”

An example of “lean engineering” from India is the humble cell-phone. Mobile majors like Nokia and Motorola are in India making devices for the runaway-success cellular market, growing at the rate of some 10 million subscribers a month. Along the way, prices have tumbled. Today, carriers are offering prepaid phones (with no long-term contract) for Rs. 699 ($17.50). Texas Instruments and others in Bangalore created compact chipsets; handset-makers have incorporated these into consumer-friendly devices.

That means Indians are becoming good at frugal engineering for two reasons: they have a good idea of the trade-offs, and they are becoming end-user-knowledgeable. The first is not surprising, because those who grew up in a shortage economy (as in almost all Indians older than 35) are resourceful about scrounging and scavenging and making-do.

The second is intriguing. Young Indians are quite globalized and familiar with all the latest gadgets, and Orkut and Web 2.0 and mashups. But they continue to pursue hard applied-science courses which are now rather rare in the U.S.: they may take eight semesters of calculus. This may make them more adept than their American peers at design for the global market. This will be especially true as emerging-market customers begin to dominate certain product markets.
Indians have a tradition of excellence in engineering: for example, medieval Indian “wootz” steel with carbon nano-tubes on the surface still baffles metallurgists. This is one competitive advantage worth sustaining.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this from the pilgrim town of Udipi, Karnataka.

Yes, creative vision should be emphasized

In a time of tremendous growth and opportunity, India’s continued evolution into an advanced economy hinges on its ability to integrate into its education system the pursuit of leadership and creativity. I make this argument as another country, Japan, has fallen in love with the Indian education system. According to a January 2008 New York Times article, many Japanese parents are scrambling to get their children into schools run by Indian educators. They believe that the Indian system’s early emphasis on memorization and drilling will ensure their children’s success. And India’s institutions of higher education, such as IIT, are world-renowned producers of the brightest engineers and doctors.

So what’s wrong with drills and memorization? Bright engineers and scientists are clearly the bedrock of India’s success with software outsourcing. But increasingly, India is faced with opportunities to move up the value chain by doing design work or even replicating entire business operations. Cisco has staked its future in India, having made its lavish Bangalore site the hub for eastern hemisphere operations. GM has just opened a new design studio in Bangalore; Suzuki is investing heavily in Indian R&D operations. These developments mean that engineers are as important as ever. But they also suggest that India has the potential to be a creative driver of new design trends.

Innovation comes in many forms. One of them is the new Tata Nano, which costs $2500, is 20 percent shorter than the Maruti 800 (previously India’s cheapest car) and, according to Tata, 20 percent roomier. An exemplar of the new “frugal engineering” paradigm, the Nano is truly an innovative product. This accomplishment required creativity in problem solving (moving the power train to the rear and pushing the wheels out further to create room inside). It also owes much to Ratan Tata, who envisioned a car available to the masses. Designing sophisticated products for a growing middle class with disposable income is an endeavor which relies on skills beyond engineering ability alone. Consider the iPod and the iPhone, two products which are popular as much because of their appealing designs and marketing as their technological superiority.

Some of what produces a product like the iPhone is sheer business acumen, the ability to foresee a market and lead a team in efficiently developing a quality product. To be sure, India already has many talented business leaders. But while many of them studied at top M.B.A. programs, most had likely developed the qualities that would make them great before they ever set foot at Harvard or an IIM. India has the potential to advance far beyond the role of “out-sourcee” or exporter of parts. For this to happen, Indian schools must produce more men and women with the creativity, leadership, and vision to tap their own markets, rather than just the sheer computational ability to serve other countries’ cost-cutting needs.

Neil Dandavati is an analyst at Cornerstone Research in San Francisco.