Anil Gupta is a pioneer and all his attempts are focused on harnessing inventions and converting them into innovations that are commercially viable and would serve the masses.
Gupta uncovered innovations in the most unlikely places and thus he continued to travel through the Indian countryside in discovery of wayside inventions and innovators. He discovered ground -breaking useful devices such as a pedal-operated washing machine, a micro-windmill battery charger, a hoe powered by a bicycle, and many more that were featured in box office successful movie 'Three Idiots'. Looking to the poor of India, business professor Anil Gupta saw innovations and talent that were not being supported. In response, he started the Honey Bee Network and began searching the country with colleagues, often on foot, finding a myriad of inventions developed out of necessity. Since 1988, the network's database of original inventions has grown to over 12,000.
Gupta worked with the government of India to establish the National Innovation Foundation, which holds national competitions to encourage new inventors and sustain them through the National Micro Venture Innovation Fund.
Q. Can you tell us what will Sri Lanka gain by the Ray Wijewardena Trust?
This trust and the agenda it has in nurturing innovation is very critical for the future of the country and society at large and not only for Sri Lanka. To me the trust can provide insights on solutions that people produce or students will develop which may help even china, Malaysia or India and the rest of the countries. We should not forget that Indian teams have lost to the Sri Lankan cricket team so just because the country is small we should not underestimate its greatness. I'm sure this trust will help in doing four or five things first it will try to create a map of creativity of innovation in thousands of villages, slums and urban settlements with the help of the students who during the summer vacations could be motivated and encouraged to go and meet what I call as 'odd ball' people who do things differently. They are born that way and they look for oddity in life. They will do things out of the ordinary and the students will go to villages and look for creative ideas. Secondly when you create a database you can also protect their knowledge rights. Thirdly it will act as a bridge that can be built between formalized science and informal science. The Minister of Science and Technology was keen that the trust could work with the public institutions to spread creativity through centres and other ICT applications so that people become optimistic about their ability to solve their problems.
This can also create partnership with formalized research and development institutions so that they can validate and add value to the innovations. They can also help tap traditional knowledge of the elderly people. We in our network try to work with centenarians who have lived for 90 to 100 years. They are depositary of tremendous knowledge of our society they may be able to impart knowledge that can help us manage our lives better with regard to food, nutrition, healing and health.
So I see the foundation as a platform that will do more in less time when compared to things related to innovation that may take a longer time.
Q. Tell us about grass root innovation for inclusive development?
Ray Wijewardena was a maverick innovator himself and it is not that he only did innovations that pleased him. He was also concerned about innovations that resolved social problems. It was appropriate that the trust set up in his memory tries to celebrate the spirit of inclusive development is a process of development where nobody is excluded. It is where the workers, the socially disadvantaged people and the untouchables also benefit from the changes brought about by technology.
So during the memorial lecture I spoke of the spirit he reflected through his work that is celebrated world over. Inclusive development is when Ray Wijewardena developed the land master. I was going through the library and many of the books in his racks convey the concern of how can farmers or artisans use local resources to solve their problems.
If we can do that we make knowledge reachable to economically handicap people. A large number of examples we have are of the inverted model of innovation. Children are going to be future leaders and they invent, engineers fabricate and companies commercialize. The beauty of this model is unlike the many of us who knew societal issues but learnt to live with it whereas the youth weren't patient. They looked for a way around it and thus they propelled innovation. Similarly empathetic innovations are when creativity is born out of the pain of others. In emphatic innovation, many of the innovators didn't have problems in their own lives.
Q. What do you mean by the mind of the margin are not marginal?
If you observe you will see that the minds of the margin are not marginal. You cannot ignore the homeless people on the streets. In the Hindi movie 'Three Idiots' there was an innovation which I must highlight. The innovation was by an underprivileged person who was in the database of grass root innovators which my foundation maintains. I helped the producer and director of the movie to develop it into the script. The innovation was a bicycle with a grinding machine in which the heroine comes to slap the hero in the final scene. The grinding bicycle was created by Sheikh Jehangeer from Maharashtra and he lives in a shack. We often ignore people on the margin assuming that they are poor so how can they think. Most innovators I come across are knowledge rich economically poor people, we should help them achieve and recognize them for their contributions. So if someone gains some income out of the knowledge a reasonable share of that should go back to the people.
Q. What do you find most fascinating about Ray Wijewardena?
Ray Wijewardena had a privileged life. He had all the comforts and he could afford to be alienated from the rest of the world and spend time pursuing his own passions, which to some extent he did. When designing his air plane and all of that. The fact that he involved himself in everyday problems of the common man with regards to irrigation problem is commendable.
He wrote to me in 2004 to ask about grinding or compressing seed for oil. He was always looking at learning regardless of where it came from he wanted to pass the benefit to the common man. I wish this becomes the ethics of modern institutions. I wish the students of technology and culture imbibe his spirit of being inclusive. He was ahead of his time.
Q. Why has discovery and passing on ideas and inventions become your passion?
It keeps me young, if you discover new ideas everyday which people solve things without many resources, you feel humble, inspired by the fact that economic wealth cannot guarantee new knowledge, creatively and optimism, that we see in the people of these curious, compassionate and concerned communities in the villages. If the world could mimic those values it will be so much more meaningful.
We learnt new things all the time; also the knowledge expands the frontiers of science. For an example the farmers in Andra Pradesh sprinkle milk to beat the viral disease for chillies and tomato plants. They also dip their hands in milk before transplanting tobacco seeds and these farmers have been doing it for generations which an American University found in 2010. Why should it happen that every time our own knowledge is packaged and sold back to us?