India’s jugaad: showing the developed world the way

Rarely has India been on the receiving end of so much bashing from abroad. Time magazine of the US and the Independent newspaper of the UK are among the latest to blast Manmohan Singh, prime minister, for underachievement and subservience, causing much nationwide chagrin.

So it is good to see a major western institution applauding India not only for its achievements but also for showing the developed world a lead.

This month, Time ran a front cover picturing Singh atop the strap-line “The Underachiever”. The image set off a wave of largely predictable outrage from a nation that, while disdainful of the economic failings of its government, remains more than a touch prickly over criticism from outsiders.

There has been more of the same umbrage this week, when a columnist in the British Independent newspaper described Singh as the “poodle” of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. In general, foreign media and investment analysts have become increasingly critical of ongoing drift in New Delhi.

It’s a pleasant change, then, to read a report published on Wednesday by Britain’s National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta), arguing that cash-strapped western countries can learn from India’s rough and ready approach to economic innovation.

The publication, Our Frugal Future: Lessons from India’s innovation system, is only the latest spin on the fashionable concept of jugaad – a Hindi word meaning something cobbled together or improvised – that has spawned a couple of recent management books in praise of low-cost products like Tata’s ultra-cheap Nano car. (It is also used to describe cobbled-together vehicles, like the one pictured.)

The report provides a handy top 10 list of such prudent Indian inventions, and also runs a rule over the (uneven) state of R&D coming out of universities on the subcontinent. But while the jugaad books tend to focus on the lessons western businesses might learn from such thrifty examples, Nesta, a research foundation originally set up with money from the British government, says it is the governments in advanced nations who should be paying attention, or as Nesta puts it:

In a climate of lacklustre growth, public austerity, environmental pressures, and competition from emerging markets, frugal innovation should not be overlooked as a route to innovation success in the UK. The report calls for frugal innovation to become a strategic focus for collaboration between the two countries: including more ambitious partnerships in sustainable energy, the use of challenge prizes to stimulate new innovation collaborations and stronger links in higher education.

British leader David Cameron has made plenty of noise about increasing trade links with India, arriving early in his prime ministership with a bunch of businessmen in tow, and even a few years earlier video-ing himself careering around New Delhi on the back of an auto-rickshaw.

But for all that Kirsten Bound, one of the report’s authors, says there is much more for countries like Britain to learn from scrappy Indian production techniques, arguing they should build fresh links with Indian scientific institutions. But her report says Britain is “still some way short of being the ‘partner of choice’ for India in research and innovation”, and notes that formerly developing countries, notably South Korea, are moving quickly to build links with Indian academic and government institutions.

What this actually amounts to in practice is a bit less clear. The report suggests various slightly nebulous new approaches, mostly involving “collaborative engagements” in research between the two countries. It also gently chides Britain’s government research councils for spending only 0.3 per cent of their budgets on India-focused projects, while floating the idea of a competition with a £1m prize for frugal projects developed by Anglo-Indian teams.

Yet even if the recommendations lack something in the way of punch, the broad thrust of the report will surely be welcomed in India itself. Given the country’s declining economy and chaotic political leadership, foreigners have become frugal with the compliments of late. They ought not be, in this area at least. India’s prime minister may well be an underachiever but his country’s contribution to global innovation is only going to increase.

Related reading:
More with less, FT book review
A balance of independence and tradition, FT
Hard sell: Environment initiatives for the poor, FT
Indian innovation can’t mask chaos within, FT book review