Anand Halve

The cultural bias of innovation

To say that our thinking is shaped by what we see around us, the influences we encounter and the cohort to which we belong, is to state the obvious. If we grow up in England we probably think of a dog as man's best friend; if we grow up in Korea we may think of a dog as dinner. The ways in which culture shapes our preferences, our notions of beauty, of what is admired have always been leveraged by marketers and advertising practitioners. The elements of culture they celebrate of course, are the ones which they think are most desirable (marketing is nothing if not the the satisfying of desires)

But this has taken an entirely Westward-looking, even America-ward-looking shape and form in recent years. So a modern miss MUST wear jeans and a t-shirt. The t-shirt that says 'Notre Dame' is of value, even if the wearer doesn't know that it does not mean a woman of the 'notre' type; girls in salwar-kameez apparently are legally prohibited from eating at Pizza Hut; happiness is a high-five not a 'de-talli' and the wife of a successful man doesn't wear a saree, unless she's in a wedding jewelry ad (platinum jewelry and you're back to Western attire)

But I fear that this Occidental orientation in lifestyle seems to extend to innovation. Not only do new innovators want to be 'the next Zuckerberg', they usually want to do so, by doing exactly the same thing he did! Recently, I saw ideas submitted at an entrepreneurs meet and a large proportion were me-too's of US online businesses. Even VCs and cherubs and angels seem to have the same world view, so it is not surprising that we have so many Jabongs, Myntras and Yebhis (indeed, Yebhi's commercial has an almost pleading signoff, “Yebhi try karke dekho”; Translation: Try this one too). Similarly, there was Groupon, followed by SnapDeal and MyDala.

But there seems to be a striking lack of innovations and new ideas born from Indian soil. If you live in a desert, innovation is finding ways to conserve water. In the heat of Rajasthan, people designed the earthen 'surahi' to get cold water. But there are far too few contemporary innovations designed around Indian living. HAFELE has extremely innovative designs for kitchen storage; the 'home mandir' that so many Indian homes have however, has not seen any comparable innovation. In coastal India grated coconut is a culinary ingredient needed daily, but coconut graters continue to be of neanderthal design. The same is true for 'chakli makers' and other aids for the Indian kitchen. Bottled non-alcoholic drinks in several flavours are available, but a good shikanji or kokum juice is hard to come by. Starbucks was an answer to the American urban reality. Why don't we have a chain of dhabas instead of a wannabe CCD?

Certainly, there are companies that are building businesses around the reality of India, rather than the emulation of Western models. HDFC Bank for one, is a remarkable company. And mind you, catering to the Indian reality does not mean avoiding new technology; it means applying technology meaningfully. Indeed, one of the simplest and most impressive applications of technology in the past several years is the introduction of wheels with tyres on animal-drawn carts, to replace inefficient, animal-unfriendly wooden wheels.

The hygiene spout is a perfect solution for Indians who believe that cleaning with water is fundamentally superior to using paper. But we still don't have high quality, well-designed products for so many needs. The American home has carpeted floors and needs a vacuum cleaner. Indian homes, on the other hand, are usually tiled, and need cleaning with a broom and swabbing. A decent floor mop still seems far away. We don't have well-designed 'sandshis' and 'belans' (rolling pins) or a chapati maker. But these are unlikely to happen as long as we focus on 'Indian adaptations' of Western products like a microwave oven with a kabab skewer, rather than developing Indian solutions to Indian needs. Until then, we can continue to buy Diwali diyas made in China.

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