When Worlds Collide #35: Nurturing Innovation in Sri Lanka – Where Have All Our Mavericks Gone?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 30 September 2012

“Those who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones that do!”
– Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

It will soon be one year since Apple’s co-founder and inventive genius departed in a hurry. There are many ways to remember him. I think of him as the quintessential maverick.

Indeed, he turned that personal quality into a core value at Apple. That was also the theme of a memorable advertising slogan – ‘Think Different’ – that boosted the company’s sagging image in 1997.

Jobs had just returned after 11 years in the ‘tech wilderness’. The campaign’s TV component, a commercial named “The Crazy Ones”, saluted notable mavericks through history.

The commercial, entirely in black-and-white, featured 17 iconic personalities –including Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Also included were Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Pablo Picasso and Muhammad Ali.

The voiceover said: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do!”

Jobs himself narrated the first commercial, but it never aired. Instead, the version that went public was voiced by actor Richard Dreyfuss. Those 30 seconds (and a longer 60 second version, below) captured the very essence of Apple without showing a single product.

Our own mavericks?

Celebrating the transformative maverick’s life, I asked in a tribute: why don’t we have the likes of him in Asia?

In an essay titled ‘Goodbye Steve Jobs; Long Live Mavericks’, I argued: “We might admire – even revere – mavericks like Steve Jobs from afar, but few Asians have any idea where mavericks come from, or how best to deal with them. Our conformist and hierarchical societies don’t nurture mavericks. Our cultures tend to suppress odd-balls and iconoclasts. That’s probably why we don’t have enough of our own Steve Jobses, Richard Bransons and Anita Roddicks.” (Full essay at: http://tiny.cc/SJMav)

Oh sure, we Asians are smarter than most other nationals in science, maths and engineering. Asia’s share of global research and knowledge creation is increasing. We do excel in the collective form — just like honey bees — and that’s no mean accomplishment.

But how many Asian tech mavericks have become iconic? For instance, do we know who heads the Samsung Corporation in Korea, Apple’s bitter rival in smart phones? Can we recall a single Japanese inventor?

There are reasons for this. Information technology and consumer electronics are driven by incessant consumer demand. Armies of wizards must work 24/7 to keep up. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of patented ideas go into making modern gizmos.

Despite all this, there is still a niche for lone inventors tinkering in a backyard and unorthodox scientists swimming against the current. Provided they are allowed space to grow…

Mark Twain once said: “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds”. Do we hush down our home-grown ‘cranks’ before they have a sporting chance? Are we culturally biased against individualism that inspires mavericks? Also, why do so few girls and women take to this line of work?

As a ‘maverick spotter’ and cheerleader for innovation, I worry about this bigger picture. Hosting a TV show about innovation (Malima, Rupavahini on Thursdays at 5.30 pm), I have come across bright young men and women who were ridiculed in the classroom (‘freaks!’) or scorned at home (‘losers!’). Simply because they didn’t follow conventional career paths to become doctors, engineers or lawyers.

A few doggedly pursued their passion. A medical doctor who came on my show recalled how his father had forbidden him to study electronics – and thrown away the amateur radio kit that meant much to the young boy. So the young man dutifully studied medicine, but also kept on tinkering. Now retired, he develops electronic devices to solve practical problems.

How many might have given up their passions and dreams altogether due to family or peer pressure? Can Sri Lanka become an inventive nation if we ridicule the few ‘oddballs’ among us?

These questions don’t have easy answers. But nurturing innovation is more than a question of patents, award schemes and investing public or private funding. Society’s attitude must also change.

Celebrating innovators

“Inventions in a society take place within the context and are influenced by three factors: economy, education and society’s attitude towards new ideas,” says Deepal Sooriyaarachchi, head of Sri Lanka Inventors’ Commission (SLIC).

Sahasak Nimawum 2012: Sri Lanka’s national exhibition of inventions and inventors

To influence the latter two factors, SLIC is organising a national exhibition of inventions and inventors. Named Sahasak Nimawum (‘A Thousand Inventions’), this public event will be on at BMICH in Colombo from September 30 to October 2.

SLIC is the state agency dedicated to promoting innovation and supporting inventors. It was created by the visionary politician Lalith Athulathmudali who drew up the Sri Lanka Inventors Incentives Act in 1979. The Commission, which started work a few years later, has been around for two decades – but rarely made much impact. Our inventors harbour mixed feelings about its efficacy.

To be fair, governmental support can go only so far. Innovation is a delightfully quirky process. It defies easy quantification or institutionalisation, and baffles bureaucrats. Roots of human imagination and creativity are still being understood.

Deepal, with his background in marketing and corporate management, seems to grasp this reality. One year into his appointment, he is making haste slowly…

“We have slightly shifted the focus from being an organisation that does things (into one that enables). What is needed is to be a catalyst and a facilitating agency,” he told me last week.

Creating social and cultural acceptance for inventive mavericks is a gradual process, but strategic interventions help. SLIC has been encouraging schools to form young inventors’ clubs. Nearly 400 school inventors from all over the island will be showing off their talent at the Colombo exhibition.

On another front, SLIC is partnering with the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing (SLIM) and the Postgraduate Institute of Management at University of Sri Jayawardenapua (PIM) to help inventors to commercialise already authenticated ideas.

Deepal adds: “We have also proposed a venture capital fund as a private-public partnership to invest in potential ventures rather than just giving handouts or loans.”

So far, so good. We hope the energetic Commissioner would guard against bureaucracy, sycophancy and over-institutionalisation that affect many state agencies. He should also be wary of the intellectual arrogance of credentialed ‘experts’ who aren’t always best positioned to assess mavericks.

Maverick spotting isn’t easy. Last December, one of the world’s top innovation-scouts proved this to an elite Colombo audience.

Delivering the inaugural Ray Wijewardene memorial lecture, Dr Anil Kumar Gupta, a Professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India, listed a dozen recent innovations by Lankans. One or two, like the safe bottle lamp, were known. But his packed audience had no idea about most other home-grown innovations, some already patented.

Gupta told them: “You get innovators all over Sri Lanka, but most are not known or recognised even in their own communities!”

Many innovators are loners — day-dreamers who don’t follow the pack, he added. “They don’t come to meetings or speak up much. We have to reach out to them, make them feel comfortable and valued.”

He urged Sri Lanka to launch a national effort to discover its innovators — both technological and social. SLIC is taking a useful step forward with the inventors’ exhibition.

It’s a long and bumpy road ahead.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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2 Responses to When Worlds Collide #35: Nurturing Innovation in Sri Lanka – Where Have All Our Mavericks Gone?

  1. Pingback: When Worlds Collide #36: Ready, Steady, Innovate? | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

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