Invention vs. Innovation: Road Ahead For Indian IT

by Sohini Bagchi    Jul 16, 2015


Industry veteran NR Narayana Murthy’s recent remarks has taken the industry by surprise and sparked off a major debate. The Infosys scion’s speech: “There has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that became a household name globally…”, which he said at an event organized by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, has not only been widely criticized by a section of science and technology community, but also brings us back to the enduring topic of invention vs. innovation and prompts us to explore where exactly the country is heading.

Experts have long complained that India’s IT industry has lured bright brains away from research and innovation. Senior scientists across India’s academic and strategic technology institutions have often argued that companies such as Infosys have been responsible for drawing talent away from science and technology.

While Murthy boasts of the “only two” ideas that have transformed the productivity of global corporations - global delivery model and the 24-hour workday – both coming from Infosys and adds that he does not find any difference in intellect, enthusiasm, energy and confidence between Indian young students at western universities and those at the IISc, Senior scientist V. Siddhartha, who worked at India’s department of space and the Defense Research and Development Organization argues, “When NRN asks ‘is there one invention from India that has become a household name in the globe?’, let me counter: Is there a single software product developed by Infosys which has become a household word even among computer users?”

The researcher adds there are several powerful software tools developed by Indian institutions that are in widespread use in the aerospace sector, but not “household names” because the “household” is not their market.

Invention-innovation: Thin dividing line?

In this regard, Subroto Bagchi, Chairman of IT services company Mindtree, said earlier in an interview with Business Line, “We often tend to confuse innovation with invention. Thomas Edison’s light bulb is a great invention but “that doesn’t make him a great innovator”. In today’s context, “innovation is about the creation of new economic value with breakthrough ideas that will be widely adopted,” believes Bagchi, giving classic examples of Apple and Google.

Eminent researcher and author, Horace Dediu explains in his research paper, “Invention is said to be the, well, invention of new things. The smartphone, the car, the desktop computer these are inventions. Innovation is the continual upgrade of inventions. So, moving a desktop version, changing the size of a smartphone screen, etc are innovation.”

“There’s no clear and obvious dividing line between the two but that’s fine, we’re used to economics having a lot of things in it that are spectrums. But the reason we like the distinction is because we then tend to go on to say that innovation is what large companies do, invention tends to be the preserve of the small, upstart, company.”

He cites the example of the Apple’s iPhone, which, at first is an invention and the subsequent upgrades to it are innovation. At another level, the iPhone itself was both invention and innovation.

On the other hand, technology evangelist Rajeev Srinivasan who has worked for innovative companies such as Bell Labs and Siemens argues in his blog, India does a great deal of invention, but very often fails in converting that into innovation. “Unless the invention creates any “value” in business terms, such as through increased benefit, or reduced cost, or both, it may not be valuable,” he states.

The road ahead

He sees some amazing inventions coming out of unexpected places, especially in rural India. For instance, there are many intriguing rural inventions nurtured by incubators at IIM Ahmedabad. Some of these fail to get enough traction in the marketplace, perhaps owing to lack of good marketing and sales, some however, do get to be viable, he says, adding that it is likely that inventors will figure out what they actually want (or need), and create more products that become successful innovations.

Experts however believe, even if there’s much more India can do in research and invention, it would be wrong to blame the IT sector for drawing away youngsters. As long as young professionals meaningfully contribute to the society, the economy, it makes sense to the world.

Another survey conducted last year by the CII found that “most Indian companies are not engaged in sustainable and inclusive innovations so far. The good news however is, as the report notes is that in the coming years, companies may have little choice but to develop innovative capabilities in several areas – to survive and grow.