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BW Businessworld

Innovation Insights

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Theodore Levitt put it succinctly: "If creativity is thinking up new things, innovation is doing new things. Innovation is action-packed, revolutionary and, at times, explosive." Innovation changes companies, people and, hence, countries. But how does it all happen? And are there palpable trends to it? Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, China business and finance editor at The Economist, pursues all these queries in Need, Speed And Greed. A keen observer of how economies and businesses work, Vaitheeswaran is the author of Power To The People: How The Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform An Industry, Change Our Lives. His new book reflects his world view. He has worked and written about different industries and in different environments. So, he moves seamlessly between markets and industries and draws from a slew of sources. He seems to have a soft corner for Harvard doyen Clayton Christensen, who has researched innovation quite deeply, specifically developing a theory of disruptive innovation.

Vaitheeswaran approaches innovation from a simple premise. To him, three components form the process of developing new ideas, methods or processes — need, speed and greed (or the impact of these). Each of these keeps changing thanks to a number of issues — mainly due to globalisation, the ease of transferring new ideas and the flow of economic power to a new group of emerging players. The book has three parts. The first part, on need, shows why innovation matters, while the second segment on speed tracks where innovation is headed. The final part, on greed, discusses how to win in the age of disruptive innovation. The author examines each component in detail.

On need, he cites differences in approach. For instance, ‘techno optimists' see opportunity in new and disruptive technologies, while eco pessimists see great cataclysms ahead, courtesy demographic and ecological forces that have been unleashed. That said, he says, such ‘needs' emerge across the globe and not just from the more developed markets or even the more traditional industries. He talks about how issues have gone global, and as prosperity fades in the West, newer economies take on a larger burden for solutions. Relevant for us in India is his description of the NDM-1 bug, which — while its naming raised hackles in India as it ‘honoured' national capital Delhi — was a relevant example of how global the fight against pathogens and disease has become. His other example is the frugal engineering emerging in our markets, mainly because we have always been strapped for resources. He also raises the spectre of a poorer developed world being left behind in this race.

While discussing speed, the author looks at where innovation is going in terms of the need for new skills, the nature of innovation in the new world and the new democratic movements now emerging in the entire innovation process.

The last section examines the greed factor: why capitalism needs to change to become softer, less protective of older, inefficient industries and how knowledge industries can be connected to innovation to create social entrepreneurs. Vaitheeswaran also talks about ‘philathrocapitalists' (such as Bill Gates), who pursue profit not for its own sake but to fulfil their inspiration for a purpose. The new knowledge economy in itself emerges as a harbinger of change to the innovation process, he notes.

Vaitheeswaran borrows from leading commentators and thinkers on innovation, along with a range of examples of innovative ideas and processes such as Vinod Khosla's Chindia test (price low to succeed), Ray Kurzweil's Singularity (a post-biological world will emerge as machine intelligence surpasses human), Alan George Lafley's contributions to P&G, and others. Such examples make the book a must read for all involved in and impacted by innovation.

Badhe is a marketing and retail consultant

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-06-2012)