From mobile phones to reusable rockets, we live with inventions that were once considered science fiction. And, to say that innovation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have not impacted those on the fringe would be an understatement. However, the fringe continues to pose a challenge in terms of its adoption of disruptive technologies. But can we look at this in an inverted, lateral way? Could the fringe be the source of the next big idea?
What is the fringe?
In the parlance of innovation, the fringe refers to the edge; those use cases that require the maximum deviation. By that, the fringe is India and the subcontinent at large. India's richest 1% hold 58% of the country's total wealth. 2% of the Indian population speaks English with the majority using one of our 22 main languages. More than 98% of the population is untouched by technology and its manifestations in English. Alexa and Siri would have a hard time here! From a road safety perspective, about 150,000 fatalities happen on Indian roads each year – around 400 every day. Groundwater, the world’s most extracted raw material, is often inadequately acknowledged. India extracts the most groundwater globally, amounting to 25% of the world’s total.
If this is not fringe, then what is? Seen from one angle, India is the world’s solutions provider with a $160 billion IT service industry. Seen from the diametrically opposite angle, these fringe cases put the country and its citizens at risk socially, economically and technologically. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have started to become integrated into production systems. India needs these technologies to solve these kinds of challenges at the fringe.
The advantages? Here is one to start with: If a fringe case is solved via technology or design, it has the potential to be applied anywhere else in the world.
The fringe takes care of edge cases, of deviations, of order within the chaos, and acts as a test bed for regression testing of a scenario.
India is no stranger to innovation
India has been a champion of innovation since antiquity, from Sushruta, the great Indian surgeon of the 6th or 7th century BCE, to the 1,600-year old Iron Pillar of Delhi, a metallurgical marvel. In the modern era, India’s lunar and Mars missions have put her on the space map.
More pertinently, in a 2009 book the Indian-born scholar and leadership expert Navi Radjou coined the term ‘jugaad’ as any frugal solution designed to address a specific socio-economic pain-point. Does India have the capability to produce world-shattering innovation in today’s world? After all, space missions do not solve the basic needs and challenges of daily life within the country.
There are opportunities galore at the fringe
And if these are solved, with a frugal solution designed for a subset of people or socio-economic stratum, it has the potential to scale to the rest of the world. Here are some of those opportunities:
a) Language: Language poses one of the biggest challenges in the fringe to bring man and machine together. 98% of the Indian population can still not talk to a Siri or an Alexa as fluently as they would communicate in the local dialect, despite having smartphones. Attempts to apply AI and machine learning have gone in vain when it comes to our ocean of dialects – and therein lies an opportunity. Perhaps we need to look back at Sanskrit, and use it as a common transliteration engine. The technique and algorithms could then be applied to make machines understand other languages better.
b) Autonomous driving: Some of the west’s biggest brands are developing autonomous cars. In India, however, driving is no longer a science but an art. With all the traffic-dodging, an autonomous vehicle here would need much more than AI to adjust in micro-seconds and make a decision. It probably needs a change in the algorithm – and this could take on any road in the world.
c) Sustainability at the fringe: India’s air quality index could become the basis for applying AI and machine learning to solving most of the challenges around climate change, the world over.
There are opportunities galore. The ideology has to change to looking for problems at the fringe, and then scaling them for the world. Innovations and solutions can start as a ‘jugaad’ – a local, frugal innovation – but it needs a keen eye to scale them to global proportions. Today, India stands at the precipice of change, and with favourable socio-economic and political factors, India as a fringe can become the innovation crucible of the modern world.
[To read the article originally published on the World Economic Forum’s website, click here.]
ARTICLE BY :
Nikhil is the Global Head of Innovation at Tech Mahindra and the creator of Maker’s Lab, Tech M’s R&D lab set up in the US.