When Worlds Collide #36: Ready, Steady, Innovate?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 7 October 2012

Sahasak Nimawum entrance at BMICH Colombo – photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

Last week, I spent many hours at Sri Lanka’s first exhibition of inventions and inventors held at BMICH, Colombo, and took lots of photos and notes. I have yet to process all that information, but some trends and directions are emerging.

Ambitiously named Sahasak Nimawum (‘A Thousand Inventions’ in Sinhala), the event showcased nearly that many ideas, designs, prototypes as well as some inventions already in the market. There was diversity in topics, themes, inventors and technologies.

It’s like a gem mine – precious and semi-precious stones amidst lots of gravel. We just have to sift though much to get to a few treasures.

That’s how it works in spotting or nurturing innovation: no shortcuts, guarantees or productivity schedules. Innovation takes time, effort and patience. Society’s celebration sure helps bring out more.

Encouragingly, close to half of the 900+ exhibitors were school children, drawn from all parts of the island through young inventors’ clubs formed in schools. These included some from the war-affected areas in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Those children have spent most of their lives amidst scarcities, restrictions and hardships. Dire circumstances drove their families to be masters at improvisation – and signs of that genius were evident in the problem-solving ideas and devices they showed. Even a quarter century of war hasn’t crushed these Lankans’ spirit of enterprise.

Mobile Phones and LEDs

Some innovations are about new uses for everyday instruments, or integrating existing devices into new designs. I spotted at least two trends.

First involves the now ubiquitous mobile phone, which is finding its way into all sorts of uses, some more innovative than others. The ‘missed call’ (a.k.a. ‘ring cut’) has become a common practice in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. As researchers at LIRNEasia have documented, thrifty users have turned this into an art, much to the chagrin of telecom operators. Missed calls use the telecom network without generating any revenue!

Some tech innovators are now joining in — and not all of them are free-riders. I saw school kids and others integrating low-end mobile phones into various alerting and signalling arrangements. One was a basic burglar alarm system. Another was for remotely monitoring factory processes. All rely on the pervasive mobile phone networks.

A higher end innovation is the mobile phone based microscope that allows researchers to examine specimens in the field. With a tiny microscope fitted on a smart phone, the device is portable and cheap, and can magnify up to 1,200 times. Users can swap still or video images in real time from anywhere with signal coverage.

Chandula Padmasiri with his microscope fitted on to mobile phone

The young inventor, Chandula Padmasiri of Ananda College, Colombo, won an award it at the International Science & Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) in 2009. His Lankan patent application is pending.

On another front, our inventors are finding various applications for light emitting diodes or LEDs. Engineers have known these tiny, single colour light sources for 50 years. But only in the past decade have LEDs become brighter, more stable and (relatively) cheaper. Being 10 times brighter and also more energy efficient than ordinary and fluorescent lamps, they are in demand.

Cost is still a barrier. Basic LED-using lamps are advertised for over LKR 2,000 (USD 18), when a comparable CFL costs one fifth. Helpfully, small enterprises now offer LED lamps for LKR 750 upwards – thanks to the Chinese!

Affordable LEDs can trigger a wave of innovation. I came upon inventors who had embedded single LEDs in ordinary pens and shoes, enhancing night use. This is perhaps only the beginning…watch this light.

Compassionate innovation

One theme for the exhibition was making the disabled independent. Our innovators responded with many solutions that make life easier for those living with different disabilities. These included hand-held alarms for the blind, improved crutches (with shock-absorbers), foot-operated mortar and pestle, and devices that assist with grip for those who have no fingers or hand.

These and other innovations can surely make a difference – if they go beyond prototypes. Some already have: an inspiring example is the more flexible artificial leg, Lanka’s answer to the Jaipur foot. Its inventor has his own company (http://aawas.net), offering a full service.

Protecting life and limb (safety) was another popular theme. Solutions on show ranged from a (low tech) skating board with brakes to (more high tech) systems that detect and prevent drunken drivers from taking to the road. Taking these forward can save many lives.

Jaffna school girls presenting one of their inventions – Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

School children led the charge against a tiny enemy that has claimed hundreds of young lives in Sri Lanka: mosquitoes. Since outlawing mosquito breeding hasn’t helped (they clearly don’t read government notices!), other methods need to be found – and fast.

Imaginative kids have come up with clever mosquito traps and roof gutter covers to prevent the little devils from completing their life cycle. These low cost devices can strengthen the arsenal of public health officials, currently considering high cost options including helicopter-mounted spraying of anti-dengue bacteria.

Besides these, there were hundreds of other inventions that make life easier, save energy, reduce costs and produce various other benefits to families and businesses. Many such improvements in the kitchen, rural workshops, paddy fields or other farm yards may not be earth-shattering or even patentable. But delivering incremental benefits to society is an important goal by itself.

Inspiration Unlimited

In my view, the lasting impact of events like this is in their inspiration value. The Sri Lanka Inventors’ Commission (SLIC), which put up the show, realises that it’s impossible to discern or measure this.

Yet it’s vital to study the socio-cultural processes of innovation, which ultimately matter far more than mere gadgets and patents.

What happens when you gather a few hundred day-dreaming and tinkering individuals and let them loose in one place for three days? Everything from mutual-learning and spontaneous mentoring to cross-fertilisation of ideas and nascent collaborations probably took place at BMICH. SLIC should now look for ways to catalyse such processes all year around.

What next? Preserving the sparks of imagination and the sense of wonder, especially among the kids, is a real challenge in our kind of society. As I said last week, we don’t allow mavericks if we can help it!

“There is no doubt that children are born creative – but schools and colleges work hard to stifle their creativity! Maybe because, otherwise, the offices and companies will not have compliant, congruent and conformist workers?” says Dr Anil K Gupta, India’s top innovation spotter.

His poser is equally valid for us: “Should we not worry, if in the process, we lose diversity, and sap the seeds of innovations that can make society more creative, collaborative and compassionate?”

In Gupta’s vision, the confluence of three factors is needed for a society to really benefit from innovation. Moving forward from Sahasak Nimawum, we must find ways to link innovation with investment and enterprise. Together, these three elements form what Gupta calls the ‘golden triangle’ for grassroots creativity.

And don’t forget: we need social innovation and systemic thinking too. Gadgets alone won’t get us there.

Photos by: Janaka Sri Jayalath

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

Asurumuni Didula Loliya, a student of Matugama St Mary’s College, shows his mobile colour light – Phorto by Janaka Sri Jayalath

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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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