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Sustainability must consider local ecosystems

Sustainability Outlook spoke to Sam Pitroda, Chairman of National Innovation Council, on what it takes to decouple growth from consumption.


How do you see the preparedness of Indian policymakers, corporates, and entrepreneurs to innovate and propel India along a more sustainable path?

Well, first of all, sustainability is an attitude. It is a cultural issue. Some people in rural areas are very focused on sustainability, and a lot of people in urban areas are not focused on these issues at all. Resource constraints are one element of sustainability – not necessarily the only element.

I go back into Indian culture and history and I find that sustainability has always been a part of Indian villages. I have a whole new theory about the invention of zero. Zero comes from the idea of sustainability. Without zero, numbers are not sustainable. Zero really implied that a cluster of villages were self sustained. Then you connect to another cluster, and then another cluster. By networking [between self-sustaining clusters], you can create a big number.

Now today, the world is focused on globalization without worrying about localization. You have got to decide in terms of sustainability what is local and what is lobal, because every region, every community has local resources - you have got to think local and make first locally sustainable solutions. Then whatever else is required, you can go national, and then international.

Sustainability is very important but it must take into consideration local ecosystems.

Given the resource constraints India faces, it will be important for us to decouple growth from resource consumption. How can we help corporates innovate and create sustainable solutions?

We need to look at sustainability from the view point of individuals, communities, families and villages. That is the starting point. Not the corporates. We need to innovate. We need to innovate not in terms of products but in terms of lifestyle. We need to innovate in terms of who we are and what we are and what we need to be doing.

Just think of the cars. If everyone in India would have a car, there would be 1.3 billion cars. Is that model sustainable in India? No. So the whole model has to be re-designed. I am very clear that the sustainability debate has to move from Western way of thinking about sustainability, to Indian way of thinking about sustainability.

We need an Indian model of development, we need local considerations, we need to focus on village as the unit. Gandhiji has talked about this.

A lot of these answers lie in the democratization of knowledge. Until now, we have not been able to address these things because we didn't have access to knowledge. Now, the world has changed completely. With internet, knowledge can be made available to everyone. This will increase even more as broadband gets connected and then we'll be able to figure out what needs to be done locally. Earlier this was not the case – knowledge was power and very few people had it. Hence the democratization of knowledge will be very important [to stimulate innovation at the local level].

One of the things we have been struggling with is the need for industries to grow and provide for our populace, while facing resource constraints. For example the Indian manufacturing sector needs to grow from about 15% to 25-30% in the next decade. How do you think the current policy landscape addresses these issues?

Policy makers are really not focused on long term issues and I include myself in that. Take for example energy. The entire energy model today is based on centralized power – world over. Big utilities create power at one place and deliver it through massive transmission lines with a lot of losses. Today you need distributed energy, micro grids, DC power.

This is exactly opposite to all that we have. None of our policies are dictating that. But before you change policy, you have to change the narrative. The conversation in India will dictate the kinds of policies which get decided.

It takes time to bring about a change in a society of 1.2 billion. Don't expect something to happen in 3 years or 5 years. No way. Telecom took us 30 years to create a change. Nobody understands how Telecom happened. Nobody has any idea.

Changing things takes time in a society like India.There are no quick fixes. Everything we do today needs to be questioned. Start with the fact that everything we do today is essentially obsolete. Start with that. Then you can view the world very differently.

So far, the conversation within SMEs has been around efficiency gains they can make, and how much risk is appropriate for them to take, by doing things differently. How could we support this segment and help accelerate sustainability?

There are two issues. One is how we support SMEs to innovate and help them think about sustainable solutions. The other issue pertains to the unorganized sector. These two are the key pillars of India – SMEs figure into the economy, but the unorganized sector doesn't figure into the economy.

At the National Innovation Council, we are focused on clusters. We go into clusters and we try to seed innovation. We are working with eight clusters. Take for example Moradabad brass cluster. There are 500,000 people who work there. We found that the furnace they had been using was last designed 70 years ago – seventy! So we put in a group of talented engineers and re-designed the furnace, because the furnace they were using was inefficient. It was not burning coal right, it was creating a lot of smoke and people were getting lung disease. We redesigned the furnace, and we found that productivity went up by 50%.

This is the kind of stuff we need in innovation. This kind of innovation these 2 sub-segments can not manage on their own. They don't have the infrastructure to do it. They haven't done it before. And we have a lot of expertise in the national labs that no one is capitalizing on. We have a bunch of scientists, who are very capable, but we don't know how to link them. This is one area where we need to do a lot more.

So it sounds like there is actually innovation at the grassroots level and cluster level, but it doesn't get percolated upwards and get industry wide acknowledgment or industry wide recognition. Is that something that the National Innovation Council addresses?

Part of the problem is that the clusters are not organized. When we went to a cluster 2 years ago, the biggest challenge we had was to convince these guys to form an association. Everybody wants to do their thing, and if you invent something, they say 'give it to me, don't give it to anybody else'.

But we won't work with a cluster until they organize as an association. They've got to collectively come up with a challenge they want us to help solve - not just ask for us to solve it for one person and not give it to anyone else. It requires a whole different attitude.


Sam Pitroda is Advisor to the Prime Minister of India and the Chairman of National Innovation Council. Mr. Pitroda is also the Chairman of the Smart Grid Task Force and one of the founding Commissioners of the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development.

This interview was conducted by Riddhi Gupta and first published in the October 2013 print edition of Sustainability Outlook. 

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Author: Sustainability Outlook
Calais Document Category: Technology