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The Muse

March 25, 2006

Innovation and India

Its almost an accepted fact that socio-cultural pressures in India force us to tend towards professions like engineering and management as a career option. Our position in the world economy, our unique problems, our politics and our people all contribute to this trend, and it is no wonder then, that India is the preferred outsourcing destination of the world with its abundant supply of engineers and management professionals.

I feel that we engineers tend to grow up with this inherent attitude that makes us believe we are more significant than those from another profession [exception: doctors, MBA's and lawyers]. Our society, family and friends do little to rid us of this fallacy - everyone is busy proclaiming the achievements of his or her son/daughter in terms of college admissions, campus interviews and salaries. This extends right through to marriage proposals and beyond. Engineers look for engineers, doctors look for doctors and pity the person who does not have one of these high profile degrees.

Recently, I've kind of become really interested in the Arts. Besides my pathetic attempts at poetry, I've started to read about English literature and the work of some prominent poets. I've also started perusing some resources that deal with such issues. I even spent a pleasant two hours analyzing essays from students to a verse written by Emily Dickinson! I also read with fascination about how Lawrence Summers, the Harvard president, resigned due to power conflicts with the Arts faculty in Harvard. My exact thoughts were "...woah...wait a minute...he resigned due to pressure from the Arts guys...? " I went back to school and college and tried to think of the weight that arts faculties carried when compared to the math and science folks. I think in most of the cases, we science students had more say then them!

Why am I talking about all this? If you're an engineer you're probably ready to close the window by now....and that's exactly my point. What do we actually know about the Arts? Critical thinking, presentation, persistence, creativity and discipline are some of the many qualities that the Arts teach us. And India is hardly paying any attention. How many innovations have come out of India? Compare those with the number of clients whose back-end processes we manage. We are too concerned with managing others work, and need to start thinking about creating our own work. With the world becoming flatter, the onus is on humans to do the one thing that is still unique to humans - innovate. And this is integrally tied in to the Arts and Humanities.

Thomas Friedman had an excellent article on this in Friday's Times. Read it if you can. Some people he quoted from a recent Nasscom conference in Mumbai:

"..we need to encourage more incubation of ideas...make innovation a national initiative..."
- Azim Premji, Wipro

"..we have a creative problem in this country..."
-Nirmala Sankaran, HeyMath

"..more people will get PhD's in Sanskrit in the US than in India...and Sanskrit is the root of our culture..."
-Jerry Rao, MphasiS

Its not a lost cause yet, we engineers can also innovate, but only when we do not take the Arts for granted. We need to open our minds, educate ourselves and look at how and where we can learn from them. We're so used to certain mental models of thinking that we cannot break the mould...and that is the key to innovation. The next killer application, the next product, the next technology, the next invention - they will all arrive and transform how we live. Who creates it, and how quickly it gets created are two questions that are key, and these issues will decide the order of the world economy for generations to come. Creating, sustaining and supporting initiatives for the Arts and Humanities is a critical step that India, and Indians, need to take to have a realistic chance of overcoming this challenge.

What do you say?


  • Indian

    students are too much moving towards science
    and engineering and MBA. This can in the short term ensure a good flow of skilled workers in the technology and commercial sectors but this will come at the expense of creativity which is not good.

    By Anonymous Razib Ahmed, at 5:26 AM  

  • Yeah machi U r right about the depleting creativity... but when u think abt it there are a lot of guys who are finding a medium for expressing themselves... you must come to Blore and check out the number of Actors in Theatre from IT companies performing when they find time... Art just cant't die ... No way... its just a phase... I am sure the next generation woud be able to challenge society... they would find the encouragement from none other than us !!! Good Post man....

    By Blogger prosaicblabber, at 12:07 AM  

  • Razib - Very true. It will be interesting to see how our government tackles this. Get ready for the next "commission for sustaining interest in the arts and humanities"!!

    Kichaa - thanks for the info. I had no idea about engineers in theatre..sounds interesting though...

    I've always been a proponent of interdisciplinary initiatives. Perhaps we could include some Arts/Humanities classes in engineering syllabuses? Definitely more interesting than some of the lame stuff we never used anyways...

    By Blogger Ram, at 12:51 PM  

  • Totally agree Ram. Other professions in India aren't given the same importance or weightage like engineering/medicine/law... but since we are a developing country this phase, i guess, is inevitable... but nowadays journalism, hotel management, catering, sports, arts are also getting popular and are becoming equally respectable...

    i agree with prosaic on engineers perfoming arts during their free time... lots of dramatics, poetry and other art groups in bangalore...

    By Blogger NaiKutti, at 11:14 PM  

  • Yes Karthik. You're right that more professions are becoming respectable. It will be interesting to see how these perceptions effect our schooling - more streams to choose from after X? Let's watch what happens...


    By Blogger Ram, at 8:40 PM  

  • true, atlest in Chennia even before we realise what ART subjects are , we comfortably shun them..
    but i guess the ART subjects still reign hard in Delhi!
    Scarcity of Creativity is indeed a frightening scenario... this nednt mean getting enrolled in ART subjects ..rather we will have to unleash the creative instints in each of us irrespective of the education.
    when u start setting ur educations as the boundry condition for ur creativity, it gets hampered.... aftre creativity measn to look beyond wat u already know!!
    plz do correct me if i m wrong!

    By Blogger pushkala, at 3:40 AM  

  • Hi Pushkala, maybe to an extent the exposure is a little more in Delhi than in Chennai but its definitely not upto what we would like it to be.

    You're right, its doesn't need to mean enrolling in arts classes. But it is also not something that we should underestimate and include as something we can do on top of what we are already doing.

    It needs concentrated efforts, focus, and talent of a different kind. Not everyone has the ability to look beyond what they already know, right?!


    By Blogger Ram, at 8:08 PM  

  • Hey agree on this ocmpletely..I choose not to take up science after school as I didn't want tobe in the bandwagon of engineers and Doctors...Well everyone begged me to change my decision...I wanted to go for Arta but that was a big NO from my parents n then went on to do commerce...I guess I turned out fine....Was really happy with myself n my job in India..I come here n now I am in a vaccum...Cant get a H1B...Cant go ahead n do my masters until I finish my 16 years of edu (have 15)...So I feel really dumb n worthless out here....Do I still love arts and commerce as much as I did back then...I never dremt tht this is wht future would hold for me.....
    You have done some real good job by reading up stuff n investing some time in Lit etc...good one there...I have this snippet, we had this discussion about innovation and India sometime ago and this may somewhat relevant to this topic so am just pasting it here


    Today I hear bout Chindia and I suddenlt relaise the gap we have in terms of manufacturing sector in India vs China.....

    Good post Ram...N could comment on this one!! :)

    By Blogger SCRIBBLEZ TO WAKEUP, at 6:22 AM  

  • Hi Scribblez, thanks for dropping by. Don't worry, I'm sure you'll get into a groove pretty soon.

    Thanks for the link too, I remember reading it earlier. Manufacturing is definitely going to be a strong driver of economy in the near future. It will be interesting to see how India adapts to this need.

    By Blogger Ram, at 10:00 PM  

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