Why innovate? Answer inspired by Ghandi ‘Serving the unserved’

Lasting innovation comes from identifying and responding to need – human need.

We are often reminded that people in developing nations are amazing innovators – living, that is staying alive, on less than $1 per day. Ghandi is known as a liberator and revolutionary of his people, yet he approached the issues of tackling the British colonization with the mindset of an innovator.

While I have been travelling over the last few weeks I re-watched Sir Ken Robinsons 2006 and 2010 TED Talks to see how was are tracking since this call to educational change. I had already come to the conclusion that we need both a top down and bottom up approach to change in education. Sadly, we haven’t come far too far in changing the minds of the policy-makers. Standardized tests and the focus on academic intelligence as the primary measure remains, and this still needs significant work. But simultaneously we need to keep activating at the grass roots of education.

Ghandi faced the problem of British colonization through inspiring innovation in the day-to-day lives of the people, a simple idea that would bring change. Britain controlled the textile industry in India. Heavy machinery was used to make cloth from cotton and silk. But what if ordinary people could make their own cloth? This was the inspiration behind the Box Charkha. A portable (and inexpensive) spinning wheel used for spinning cotton and silk into thread. A small idea, with big consequences.

This simple innovation, inspired by Ghandi was then developed, made into reality, by his colleague. The Box Charkha made it possible for ordinary Indian people to ‘compete with modern industrialization by creating mass individual modernization.’ (Sawhney)

Ghandi’s approach to innovation had two key elements. It needed to be affordable and sustainable. Similarly in education, we need not always assume that to be innovative, there needs to be significant funds attached, but begin as Ghandi did, making important changes at the grass roots, he was able to to more with less. His focus was improving the life of his people, giving them the tools to be able to break from the constraints of British colonization.

Learning from Ghandi there are a few things to consider in getting innovation right

How do we serve the unserved?

Does the vision have a strong human dimension?

Are our goals and milestones too safe?

How do we use constraints to expand our creative capacity?

Are we measuring the right stuff?

Who are we doing this for?

‘Today, technology can be a similar equalizer in our search for economic development or innovation, provided these technologies function to empower the individual.’ (Sawhney)

A synthesis of Ghandi’s innovation applied to education
1. Disrupt existing business models – alter the way schools ‘do business’
2. Modify existing capabilities – break down subject hierarchies and silos, work together
3. Create and source new capabilities – look beyond usual boundaries for input, expertise and ideas

When faced with innovation, there are only two choices
Leverage existing resources in new ways
Change the rules of the game entirely

The choice we make depends on the context. But like Ghandi, if we are passionate enough about educational change, we need to make a start. I was initially discouraged after watching Ken Robinson’s TED Talks to see how little governments have changed, but I know at the grass roots, so many of us who are committed to making schools and education better and more relevant to our young people.

So at the outset of 2013, be encouraged and keep the flame for innovation and change burning. Be inspired by revolutionaries of the past, who, while they were in the thick of it probably doubted the difference they were making.

Quotes: What Ghandi, yes Ghandi, taught me about design, leadership and technology, Ravi Sawhney

Model of innovation: ‘Innovation’s Holy Grail’ C.K. Prahalad and R.A. Mashelkar
HBR, July 2010

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