A teacher educating students about the working of a computer in Gujarat. Photo: Tom Pietrasik / UNDP India

 

Innovation is perhaps one of the most overused words nowadays, seemingly sprinkled everywhere to gratify stakeholders instantly and grab the attention of the media and the public. This makes decoding ‘innovation’ essential. This banal usage makes it essential to decode ‘innovation’. More so because the previous decade of 2010-2020 was termed as the “Decade of Innovation” by the Indian government in 2009. 

The Central government didn’t just coin the adage, it put all its might into achieving this motto and targeted to increase the Gross Expenditure in Research and Development (GERD) to 2%, from its current level of  close to 1% of GDP. It also took several measures to raise private sector’s investment to 1% of GDP. Consequently, the “Decade of Innovation” saw India climb four spots to the 48th position in the list of top 50 innovative countries on the Global Innovation Index 2020.

The credit for the achievement goes to multiple programs at national and state levels focusing on diverse themes. These included financing innovation, start-up & entrepreneurship promotion, industry support, grassroots innovations, inclusive innovations, promoting culture of innovation through education, digital innovations, etc. All these got a boost because of the increase in funding for R&D, a key input in economic growth.

While India’s investment in R&D has consistently increased over the years, it continues to be between 0.6% and 0.7% of GDP, which is less than countries like the US (2.8%), China (2.1%), Israel (4.3%) and South Korea (4.2%)*. The public expenditure, which almost entirely belongs to the Central Government, is the driving force of R&D in India. This is in contrast to the advanced countries where the private sector is the dominant and driving force of R&D spend.

An energy-efficient motor installed for an orthodox tea making machine. Privately run tea processing units in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu have invested about US$ 2.5 million in energy-efficiency activities. Photo: Jayanth Sharma / UNDP India

 

The Decade of Action

While the decade gone by was about promoting innovation ecosystem, the current one needs to leverage on it to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The “Decade of Action” calls for accelerating sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges — ranging from poverty and gender to climate change, inequality and closing the finance gap.

To ‘do development differently’ through powering innovations for achieving SDGs, the United Nations Development Programme launched the Accelerator Lab Network globally in 2019, a strategic initiative comprising of 91 labs across 115 countries.

With its three distinct strategies of scaling up, scaling deep, and scaling out, the Accelerator Lab in India endeavours to integrate participation from policy making, institutions, and technologies to address innovation needs of the country.

The Lab has leveraged new and emerging technologies such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, and Internet of Things (IoT), and also works closely with grassroot innovations to support the government’s efforts to strengthen the innovation ecosystem in India through a collaborative approach.

It is developing an artificial intelligence platform using geospatial data to help regulators in northern India to monitor air pollution caused by brick kilns. Another endeavour is the development of a blockchain-powered traceability interface for Indian spices to enhance transparency in trading of spices and help strengthen the spices value chain.

A teacher explaining the working mechanism of solar panels at Saint John School in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Photo: Vijay Shankar / UNDP India

 

Paving the way for Inclusive Innovation

Innovation policies in several states are heavily inclined towards promotion, facilitation and incubation of start-ups that steer progress of science and technology, and eventually create jobs. Progressive states like Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra have established dedicated innovation cells. For instance, Maharashtra is promoting a defence innovation hub in Nashik and has created ‘regulatory sandbox’ to promote FinTech start-ups. Karnataka has five Technology Innovation Hubs in tier-2 cities to attract technology start-ups. Tamil Nadu has an innovation mission to promote start-ups in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Biotechnology. Most other states have start-up promotion platforms as part of their innovation policies and programs.

But, can such a strategy create transformative impact or solve complex problems like poverty alleviation, women empowerment, and climate change? Evidence across the world shows that the silicon-valley approach focused solely on start-up promotion has failed to address development goals.

A scientist demonstrates a testing machine at an energy research lab set up at the United Planters’ Association of South India. The lab encourages the use of briquettes made of agricultural residue that serve as an alternate to firewood in the tea sector. Photo: Shashank Jayaprasad / UNDP India

 

India needs a multitude of approaches to tackle the complex problems of the public sector. We need platforms of grassroots innovations, service delivery innovations, business model innovations, financing innovations, systems innovations and policy innovations – for specific context and development priorities of each district in India. We need a large portfolio of innovations attacking the problems from different angles. We need to create new capability for decision-makers in every state – to explore, experiment and grow portfolios of innovations to tackle wicked problems in social and environmental sectors. One such step has been the Accelerator Lab’s partnership with GIAN (Grassroot Innovation Augmentation Network) to set up a first-of-its-kind grassroots innovation cell in Telangana. 

As India commits to the “Decade of Action”, UNDP brings its global expertise, solutions and learnings from over 170 countries, which can be replicated, adapted and built on, to solve some of India’s long-standing development challenges. The partnership between India’s innovation demand and Accelerator Lab India’s offering through innovative radical development approach is uniquely positioned to serve the best interests of all. 

 

The authors are:

Ms. Sona Pradeep is National Consultant, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan is Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Ms. Swetha Kolluri is Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Ms. Rozita Singh is Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in India is part of the world’s largest and fastest learning network working on innovations to achieve the SDGs. Globally it was launched in 2019 and is currently present through 91 labs in 115 countries. The founding investors of the Accelerator lab are the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany.  

Icon of SDG 07 Icon of SDG 09

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP India 
Go to UNDP Global