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The-Man-with-a-Mission-for-Masses
Jaya Smitha Menon
Thursday, December 9, 2010
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He is hailed as the Telecom Czar of India who revolutionized the Industry which is today standing tall as one of the key drivers of Indian economy. He is known as the Game Changer who is believed to possess the ability to transform and redirect the field he steps his foot into. Meet Sam Pitroda, the articulate leader, who conceptualized and triggered the thought of growth at the bottom of the pyramid in India.

An entrepreneur who has over 50 patents to his credits, Pitroda has sketched a unique path of glory and gratification for himself. While the best brains of the world were busy solving problems of the rich, he espoused a mission for the masses of a developing country like India. Today Pitroda is embarking on his next big mission as Prime Minister’s Advisor and Chairman of National Innovation Council.
In an exclusive interview to siliconindia, Pitroda talks about the need for identifying leaders at all levels, India’s growth trajectory and his ideas on innovation.

Defining leadership
To me leadership is about creating a vision, a vision that you want to implement. Leadership is also about articulating these vision into small pieces, communicate it to large number of people and then break it up into pieces of work. At the end you have to excite, encourage, motivate, create a dream and finally make it happen. There are all kinds of leaders; political, social, business and so on. They are all products of their era, their experiences, their own ecosystem, and the challenges they try to solve. Bigger the problem, bigger the opportunity for leaders. More than anything, I believe leadership is about building the self. Leadership in the 21st century is going to be very different from that of the 20th century. Leadership of the 20th century focused on command and control, whereas leadership of the 21st century is all about collaboration, communication, co-operation; mainly because the internet and the accessibility of information and the power of communication has changed the dynamics of social structure, productivity and business model.

A need to re-haul the education system
The power of communication and information accessibility has made it necessary for the educational system to be revamped. When you think about education, what comes to your mind is always a blackboard, chalk, classroom, teacher, textbook, exam and all that. But the times are changing. My 6 year old niece goes to the Google for information. The modus operandi should change. Teachers today spend 90 percent of their time in preparing and delivering content.

So, take the teacher out of preparing and delivering content. Content can be delivered on cellphones, internet kiosks and other modes anytime, anywhere and in any form. Then you create a whole new concept of learning that kids network themselves in groups; they don’t go to classes, but follow a schedule. The teacher then becomes a mentor and not just a deliver of content.

Moreover, you just can’t produce leaders by just producing mathematicians and scientists and engineers and doctors. India needs leaders at many, many levels. We need leaders all over. We need leaders in education, science, industry, NGOs, government; leaders at district level, state level, and leaders for youth. This will happen only if we redesign our educational ecosystem.

Innovation at the bottom of the pyramid
Innovation at the bottom of the pyramid is something which the world, even now, is not seriously concentrating on. Until now, design has been only for the rich; the best brains are solving problems of the rich. I work with the Institute of Design (at the Illinois Institute of Technology) and I asked the director (Patrick Whitney) why don’t you go and design better slums?

He decided to visit Dharavi slum in Mumbai and was completely shocked at the opportunity for design. He put together a team of about 10 students and one simple design idea that came out was to help poor people who don’t have space to store water. Since they don’t have tap water, they have all kinds of drums, ‘dabbas’, cans and other things to store water. So, they (Whitney’s team members) said how about if we design an inexpensive plastic bag that can be used to store water and hung from the wall. You can save all the floor space that people can use to sleep, cook and all that.

Thoughts on Innovation in India
Today the nature of innovation has changed. Innovation is multi-disciplinary. Its about collaboration. It is growing at a faster pace than ever before. India is a country in a hurry. With a 1.1 billion population, growing at 9 percent, 550 million below the age of 25, expanding from all sides and demanding low cost solutions.
When I entered the telecom industry in the 1980’s, we just had 2.2 million telecom connections for a 750 million population. But today we are adding 7-8 million cell phones every month. The cost structure is such that when the world is looking at $11 ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), India is surviving and flourishing at $5 ARPU. Today our need is scalable, speedy and low cost solutions.
A lot of innovation is happening at the bottom level. But many are not scalable. Our aim now is to harness innovation and make it more scalable. India has huge potential to foster innovation, its main strength being diversity. Diversity, according to me is a fertile ground for innovation.

Innovation in India vs U.S.
Innovation in India and U.S. is totally different. A lot of innovation in U.S. happened in the area of defense, even transistors and internets where created to fulfill the defense requirements. We are not talking about such innovations. Even a Silicon Valley kind of innovation is not what we should envisage in India. In U.S., the best brains are busy solving problems of the rich. We don’t have such problems. We should focus on innovations which could help in solving problems of the poor which is not a very romantic proposition, since it does not involve monetary benefits or media publicity.

Roadmap for encouraging innovation in India
At the national innovation council, our first task is to focus on innovation as a platform for everybody. Then we want to focus on innovation which can bring in inclusive growth which ultimately gets translated into affordability, accessibility, scalability and many other related concepts. Then we want to create an ecosystem for innovation. We are also creating a billion dollar fund for encouraging inclusive growth based innovations. Also we have identified 20 universities to seed innovations. Similarly, 20 clusters across the country around different verticals to seed innovation. In all this, our main aim is to make this initiative reachable, accessible and affordable to the masses.
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Reader's comments(1)
1:Very very relevant and awesome thoughts. I have never have heard anyone talk with such conviction and precise thoughts on what is need of the hour of India. Rather than innovating another twitter or facebook from India, I completely agree with Sam\'s viewpoints on the need of innovation for the much needed people in India.
Kudos to you and your team.
Posted by: Gopinath Venkat - 19th Dec 2010
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