‘Innovation is critical to accelerating solutions … we need to tap into the global brain for latent ideas’

Solomon Darwin, executive director, Garwood Center Corporate Innovation at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, is an adviser to Niti Aayog on the post-Covid recovery road map. He spoke to Amrita Didyala about the plan and on the need for global collaboration to encourage innovation:

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On the recovery road, what are the most important aspects?

We need to look for long-term solutions in rebuilding India. Short-term solutions are many and are costly, and may relieve the pain temporarily but will hurt the recovery in the long run. UC Berkeley is working with Niti Aayog and 38 participating firms on three long-term initiatives to move India forward. The first initiative is to establish India as the second manufacturing hub for diversified global supply chains. It will be done by expanding hub-diversification strategies and developing efficient supply chains for consumables.

The second initiative is to develop digital infrastructure for early education and skill development for job creation. This will be done by leveraging digital platforms to deliver holistic early education to build a talent pipeline and accelerating digitally enabled certified corporate training for job creation among aspirational youth.

The third initiative is to build ecosystems in key sectors to mitigate pandemic risk. This will be done by creating digital healthcare solutions for efficient last mile access, by creating transparent agriculture platforms for frictionless farm-to-plate channels. Also we will deepen financial inclusion and risk management in underserved sectors and regions. We hope to move India forward in a collaborative environment with the 38 participating firms and the full support and commitment of the Indian government.

At the time of a pandemic like this what kind of innovation is needed?

At a time of crisis, innovation is critical to accelerating solutions but we need to tap into the global brain for latent ideas and IP [intellectual property] that are already available to the world. This takes the ‘open innovation’ process at a time like this to accelerate solutions, a subject I had been teaching at Berkeley for some time. The process of innovation falls into two categories: a) closed innovation; and b) open innovation. In the current pandemic, innovation needs to not just provide a solution but also expedite it. The main purpose of open innovation is to provide solutions to problems real fast to put out fires, stop the suffering, relieve bottlenecks and tighten the weakest links.

In the current crisis, what is needed in many parts of the world are solutions to controlling the spread of the virus, tracing patients and their contacts, and addressing the need for adequate healthcare infrastructure to care for those who are suffering. Sharing knowledge does not mean that it is for free – solving the problem first and attending to human needs is more urgent than figuring out the business model. Prosperity follows doing the right thing.

What is the difference between open and closed innovation?

Closed innovation is what we call ‘outside-in’; here knowledge only flows one way. This is when entities or people grab knowledge from others to benefit but not share their own knowledge with others. Closed innovation does not benefit the world due to the selfish or greedy nature of human beings. On the other hand, open innovation promotes knowledge flow in both directions: outside-in and inside-out, a process where entities or individuals share their knowledge to come up with solutions.

Usually in a crisis like this, out of self-preservation, people open up to tap into all the available knowledge to accelerate the solutions before major destruction happens. As always, even at a time like this, there will be predators who come to steal to gain for themselves as they do not care for the people who are suffering. In a crisis that we are in, we need open innovation to work. This requires trusted environments where people are willing to share to serve one another for the benefit of all.

Why is collaboration important for innovation?

Knowledge is useless unless it has a business model to deliver the value. The business model is also useless unless it is scalable. Scalability is also useless if it becomes an enemy of sustainability. Sustainability is also useless unless it makes people happy. Collective intelligence is essential as our brains are too small. We cannot say to others that we do not need them as we need global brainpower to solve a crisis.

How is the innovation scenario in India?

For innovative products to succeed in India, they need to address the pain points of the majority who are poor. For the products or services to scale they need to be co-innovated with the end-user or customer. Most importantly, they need to be affordable, scalable and sustainable.

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