A View from Michael Schrage

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.