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Indianovation

The breadth, variety, and style of Indian innovation astonishes … but where the heck are its hackers?
September 8, 2007

I’m here in Delhi for a gig with Indian CIOs–an impressive array of intelligence and intensity. India’s economy is growing; it’s globalizing in a fashion rather different from China’s, and yes, I’m biased, in that the Indian command of the English language–on average–is superior to the Chinese.

The English-language press here is reminiscent of America’s print media of the ’60s–diverse, competitive, in-your-face, exuberant, and forward-looking. While mobile bandwidth continues to explode, the reality is that the populist Internet culture of, say, America, Korea, Estonia, the Nordic countries, or the U.K.–or vast swaths of urban China–simply doesn’t exist.

I’m struck by the notion that despite its Wipros, Tatas, Infosyses, and, of course, IIT, India doesn’t appear to have anything that rivals China’s culture of netadventurism. Where are India’s hackers? Are they all conformists looking for R&D jobs @ Intel or entrepreneurial opportunities overseas?

Indigenous innovation cultures are always different from global innovation cultures in ways both subtle and profound. With all due respect to Bollywood, India’s digital culture doesn’t seem nearly as playful or as experimental as others’. Analytical rigor and economic growth seem more “culturally appropriate” than weirdo Facebook/Orkut type technologies, Worlds of Warcraft, or Second Life.

Yes, the poverty here is grinding and heartbreaking. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that the C. K. Prahalad Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid market philosophy will dramatically influence innovation investment here. There is a belief that entrepreneurial innovation–as opposed to state-sanctioned socialism–may be India’s best bet for dramatically improving the lives of its poorest.

As fascinating as I find China, I think India will be the more intriguing emerging innovation superpower story over the next five years. The global reach of its diaspora entrepreneurs (Lakshmi Mittal, for example), its calibrated linkages with America and China, and a population that is bound to grow more innovative and playful as the burdens of the Bureaucratic Raj ebb should all combine to make the Subcontinent even more influential than many might expect. I’m not uncomfortable making the case that India’s biggest value-added export is its human capital.

Yes, the infrastructure here is not world-class, and that will become even more of an issue gating India’s future economic growth and success. But between the wealth of its human capital and a global marketplace that appears uneasy with China’s grasp of both rule of law and “quality circles,” India may attract more than its fair share of entrepreneurial expats and direct foreign investment.

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