India's presidential palace was the site of an unusual gathering this week, celebrating the democratic inclusion of people with no or little training in the country’s innovation system.
It brought together world experts on innovation with citizen inventors from across the country — farmers, healers, young students.
As citizen inventors walked across an official stage to receive awards I saw a moving mix of pride, humility and gratitude. And the moment seemed to symbolise India's embracing a kind of innovation that values the knowledge held by everyone regardless of training in modern science and technology.
This is innovation without fancy labs or hefty R&D funding. Its essential ingredients are a spirit of creativity, cheap accessible materials, and a drive to solve everyday problems for the common good.
The inventions by citizens without specialised training range from new crop varieties to wheelchair designs to agricultural machinery to herbal treatments for livestock.
Science for society is the new mantra.
Harsh Vardhan, science and technology minister
India's grassroots movement has built momentum over the past three decades under the leadership Anil Gupta, founder of the Honeybee Network and executive vice chair of the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), which organised the Festival of Innovation this week (March 4-10).
Crucially, for me, it recognises the capacity of poor and marginalised people to improve their own lives. "Minds on the margins are not marginal minds," Gupta is fond of saying. And I think it's an example of what capacity building should really be about: supporting people to help themselves, whether that's through networks or seed funding or helping their ideas develop.
In a speech on the opening day, president Pranab Mukherjee called for a Ghandian model of decentralised and distributed innovation for the country — a vision of the future that he said is tied to improvements in education to support the kind of creativity needed to solve India's pressing problems.
The president's hosting of the event signals a recognition of the value in this inclusive brand of innovation. Words by other dignitaries struck a similar chord. "Science for society is the new mantra" said science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan. Over the course of the week I heard representatives from governments, multilateral institutions, startups and business schools offer praise for India's championing this more democratic way of doing innovation.
There was talk of a paradigm shift that's fundamental to how we think about people and social innovation — that this is not just about feeding millions of mouths, but harnessing the power of millions of minds.
I also heard reflections on the future of the movement, with some delegates pondering how it might navigate the high-level government recognition — will ties with the state become stronger, and what might change as a result? And is there a plan to channel the diffuse creative activity on show in a certain direction, so it can make a stronger impact on the country's development?
The spirit of inventiveness nurtured by Gupta and NIF certainly seems to be thriving. This year's competition attracted over 33,000 submissions from 530 districts across India. Each one was evaluated by the NIF to shortlist innovations for national, state, consolation and appreciation awards.
NIF actively scouts innovations across the country, runs 86 innovation clubs and catalogues projects by students in an online 'techpedia' that aims to avoid duplication in ideas - because, in Gupta's words, "without originality there's no innovation".