Showing posts from 2021

Building innovation clusters: Smelling the coffee

There was a time when countries and cities rushed out to build their silicon something. After many failures and dead-end real estate, this tendency has now sobered. Silicon valley has remained where it was, and its ecosystem proved impossible to replicate. So, where does the thinking about innovation as redemption go from here? Despite the spectacular failure of some of the fêted projects, there should not be doom-and-gloom in the innovationland. There are some notable successes too, and useful lessons. As governments look to rebuild after the pandemic - and before a new urge to replicate takes hold - it's worth reflecting on what separates success from failure. It's useful to start at first principles: Innovation cluster is a zero-sum game! Silicon valley is difficult to replicate because it exists, because it vacuums out money and talent from all other places. It's not enough to ask whether one can replicate Silicon Valley, but whether one can compete with it. Without ans

Beyond the Pandemic: Shape of the 'normal'

The new year 2022 will be like no other. The shock of 2020 and the grappling of hope-and-despair of 2021 will be behind us. The pandemic, which seemed to threaten civilisation earlier, will become a mere logistics problem.  At the year-end party, we would celebrate modern science, for putting the shape-shifting killer genie back into the bottle. As the seconds are counted down, we would shed our fears and look at the future in its eye. At that hooray moment, we will know that there will be no going back to 2019. Our lives, societies and businesses, may have just been reinvented in the shadow of the pandemic. The memory of the 'pandemic years' will linger on: Therefore, in all our hope, there will be sobriety; our fetting of the new heroes will embrace the mourning for the dead; in our new exuberance, there will be the anticipation of payback time.  More than the outward changes, the changing ideas will matter more. The economic principles that we lived by - sound money and smal

On the origin of company silos

As an idealist who rather naïvely believed in shared purpose, I have been confounded by the pervasiveness and silly pettiness of the silos all through my working life. Initially, I approached it with the high-mindedness of youth: We must be able to find common ground! Gradually, that gave away to the cynicism of mid-life: People never change and bureaucracies are inherently corrupting! Eventually, I needed a full therapy - start-up life - to cure me of cynicism and gain some perspective on why silos happen. I now think that the silos are usually a response to a certain leadership style. Most leaders seem to assume that work-life needs to be built around competition. Office, in this version, is some kind of Darwinian playground where the fittest should survive. Obviously, that misses the point: The most crucial insight of Darwin is the understanding, one that he drew from the breakthroughs in geology, that evolution is a slow process that plays out over millions of years. Compressing th

No way back

There are moments when choices have to be made. This is perhaps one of those, for me. Ever since 2020, I kept my life in a holding pattern. Not thinking about the future, living a day at a time! It worked well - it was the right mode for the pandemic. But now I am getting tired of not dreaming. I must concede that the year has been extremely productive for me in a variety of ways. It's not just about overcoming my earlier entrepreneurial failure - which I have been brooding over for seven years and still dealing with its consequences - but also about learning a few things about entrepreneurship itself. As a result, I live a very different life now: I have gone back to being a company man I once was. Along the way, I became conscious of my baggage. I now have a clear idea what success looks like - how singularly focused, totally unconcerned about nuances one needs to be - and how my fundamental assumptions about business life were always too idealistic. I grew up in an entrepreneuri

How to create a Digital Commonwealth?

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighbourhood and yet we have not had the commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some ways, we have got to do this..We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. - Dr Martin Luther King, March 31, 1968 1 It is time to make Digital work for people. It's time to think about a Digital Commonwealth. Commonwealth used to be a community for common good. It was so in Renaissance and then for the founders of the American colonies, facing off the wilderness with the strength of working together.  Today the term lost some of that meaning, and got associated with the imperial legacy. It's time to reclaim it back. 2 Digital commonwealth is about enabling human communities to co-create digital possibilities. Today's narrative, that the sociopathic technologists and sociopathic investors would control the tools and the rest of the hu

Beyond vocationalism: reflections on general education and technology

As we learn to live through the pandemic, during which work and professions have been transformed through the use of information technology, the question of what effect technology will have on post-pandemic jobs has been raised again and again. Books that explore AI and humanity have come thick and fast; how we educate a new generation of workers has received a lot of attention too. There is much speculation whether this time, it will be different - and if there is anything to be found in our past experience with technological change.  I work in the faultline of this change and the object of my work has been to enable workers take advantage of technology. In a way, this is the less attractive end of education: This is not about groundbreaking research or completely novel ideas, but rather equipping the middling workers with skills to take advantage of technologies. I shall claim that this no less crucial in economic growth and progress - as without the skilled workers, the benefits of

Case for a fresh start in Indian Education

In 1921, just after the Influenza pandemic, H G Wells was writing "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." As we strive to look beyond the pandemic, it's a useful place to start. Of course, we are still counting the bodies and the public health challenge must be met first. But it will be a mistake not to think about what comes after, as otherwise, the after-effects will linger on and may eventually break the society as we know it. In the influenza pandemic, India lost approximately 5% of its population. This time around, even with the near-collapse of the healthcare system in some cities, the toll is likely to be lower. But the economic and social impact of the Pandemic would be far more severe, with the global supply chain reaching a breaking point and the dislocation of the health and education systems due to the pandemic.  However, my objective here is to try to look beyond the pandemic and what needs to happen to contain the afte

Human+Tech in Education: Meeting Bloom's challenge

  For this post, I owe a debt of gratitude to a fellow-traveller who connected through this blog and introduced me to Bloom's 2-Sigma problem . Serendipitous as it was, the conversation led me to think of my own quest in a new light and, to reframe the Human+Tech network proposition with a new sense of purpose. It was no longer a solution searching for a problem; instead, there was a clear goal and even a metric against which we can measure the efficacy of our intervention. For me, this is also a great way to move beyond the false binary (as described in an earlier post - Human+Tech in Education ) of human vs tech in education. While I celebrated the possibilities of technology - my entire career was about deploying new technologies - I always resisted the logic of automation: I do not think that the technologies can replace the human in education. Instead, I see Edtech's big - and sole - role as one of augmentation, one like the mobile phone that can carry human voice across t

Human+Tech in Education

  I wrote in an earlier post, that it is time to move beyond the false binary of online vs offline in education. After the pandemic, it's going to be both. But, as I explained, this is not going to be 'blended' learning of the vanilla variety. That is because the word 'blended' presupposes content as the driver of education. The post-pandemic priorities will demand moving away from the publishing paradigm. We already know that it's context, rather than content, that drives meaningful educational outcomes. We have to do much more than blending the content now. As we look to do this, we should also demolish another, equally false, binary: That of human vs the tech. We often mix up humans with face-to-face and tech with the online side of the argument. But that is a mistake, at least now, when tech is getting smarter and laying claims on human functions. The publishing paradigm in education, based on the view that serving content is what the teachers do, exacerbate

What happened in West Bengal

Finally, the poll results are out in West Bengal. While Bengalis like me are not surprised - the feeling is more like a collective sigh of relief - many friends from outside are very surprised: Over the last few years, they have got used to big-man politics and never saw this coming. Here is my I-told-you-so moment, but I think I owe them some explanation why these results were predictable. But, first, what I think it is not. To start with, it is not a win for vote-bank politics. This is how the BJP would want to portray it - that Mamta Banerjee has won this election by pandering the muslims! But BJP pandered the Hindus in equal measure, and during the campaign, Ms Banerjee tried to be as even-handed as she could be. If anything, this result is a rejection of BJP's strategy to turn this into vote-bank election. But, equally, this is not a triumph of secular politics. If that would be so, then the Left and the Congress would have something to show for their efforts. That the two par

Higher Education after the Pandemic: Shaping the expectations

While I am, like everyone else, weighed down by sadness of the human tragedy of the pandemic, it is clear that we know how to end the pandemic. Vaccines are working, testing has become more accessible and there is a treatment around the corner. From now, it is a question of political will and logistics, and not an intractable battle with nature (as is the case with AIDS, for example). Therefore, the horrific scenes on television notwithstanding, it is worth thinking the post-Pandemic world. If history is any guide - and it usually is a reliable guide - this worldwide disruption should set off a new 'golden age'. Pessimism, at the end of such disasters, usually turn to optimism. Who would have imagined that the daily commute to office can ever be something to look forward to? Therefore, getting back to normal with a vengence is indeed a distinct possibility. Such a scenario has already been factored into the expectations, in stock markets, house prices, in all those loans given

The world's most neo-liberal country

India loves global kudos: They were credulous that their Prime Minister was declared by the United Nations the best Prime Minister in the world only recently. Therefore, I believe that the honour of being the world's most neo-liberal country would be received with enthusiasm.  Of course, this honour had to be hard-won. The standards set by United States and United Kingdom are high. India joined the bandwagon early, of course, signing up to go down the road early in the 1990s, but it only took a lot of hard work of dismantling institutions and buying up the democracy to finally arrive at the billionnaire raj. While other nations had to tread with stealth, careful not to completely wreck the modern social contract their nations are based upon, India was bold, cheered on by its middle class - which hoped to be a beneficiary - and went about marginalising minorities, steamrolling the environment and tearing up constitutional protections in a breakneck speed. All in the name of developm

The case for Cultural Education in India

India's New Education Policy - which sets the legislative agenda for Indian education in the coming years - recommends that the core of India's higher education should be a system of 'liberal education'. It cites several reasons for this: Human capital justifications such as the changing nature of work and workplaces and the need to be broadly educated (what some will call 'T-skills'). What I want to argue here is that this is only a limited view of the requirement and we need to define what kind of 'liberal education' India may really need. The central problem of Indian nationalism has been that while it defined itself against the European, and more specifically the British, imperialism, it was itself built upon essentially European concepts and ideas of nationhood and self-determination. Not only such concepts were only understood by a small, European-educated elite, these did not provide the broader populace any clearer definition  of their own role i

India's business culture in the brave new world

The Indian economy is at a crossroad. Its internal markets have sustained the economy through the global recession of 2008/9, but as it looks beyond the pandemic, that would clearly not be enough. Its own version of 'Great Leap Forward', hastily imposed neo-liberal reforms of the economic life, has stunted the domestic demand and ravaged the banking sector - and it must find new sources of growth. The government's hopes lie in the exports - the aspiration that India could be the new China, workshop of the world. Labelled somewhat misleadingly as Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India), a new set of initiatives has been rolled out in search of this illusive export success. In this quest, India's key strength - perhaps its only one - is its people: A large working-age population ready to work for relatively cheap wage! How we view India's demographic opportunity has undergone a subtle shift - its young population was earlier seen as an exciting market and only now, as

Designing Education for 'Employability': 2 Illusions

I wrote earlier about my recent experiences regarding the design of education for 'employability' and the field of constraints that any design must consider (see here: Limitations ).  The focus of that earlier post was on the educational side of the equation, which is not the only constraint for consideration. In fact, an even bigger challenge is right at the centre of the employability initiatives - the myth of the employers!  The mythical employer (employers, more correctly) who is invoked all the time in the employability talk has one problem - she does not exist! The logic of the employability initiatives - that employers demand certain abilities which universities can not educate for - is based on employers being fully aware and being able to fully articulate what they want. However, it is time to say, after Steve Jobs, that employers do not know what they want. This may seem anachronistic: After all, employers are the customers for employability initiatives, right? But ap

Designing Education for 'Employability': 1 Limitations

A large part of my work now is designing an educational programme that can sit alongside university curricula aimed at student 'employability'. We started this very predictably - with a mandate to ensure early preparation for the job market and industry connections - but as we assimilate various ideas and learn from experience, we know that we can't stick to the business as usual.  By business-as-usual, I mean the mechanistic employability programmes that are now so popular. A degree does not ensure jobs any more. Besides, the governments across the world are paying more attention to student loan books than they previously did and holding universities responsible for employment outcomes. Hence, it's common to see training programmes that prepare students for job search, CV writing and interviews.  There are clear limitations to what such training can do. These make two assumptions which are not necessarily correct: First, it assumes that the job the students will have e

India's Education Dilemma: More Indian or more global?

A close reading of India's New Education Policy illustrates a dilemma at the heart of India's Higher Education: Whether to become more Indian or more global?  For a service economy servicing a global clientele, a Higher Education system that prepares people with global service economy skills is critical for India to build. Higher Education is one sector in India that needs 'liberalisation', thirty years after the rest of the economy opened up. And, besides, it is hard to avoid the global drift when the Higher Ed policy narrative is framed within the human capital paradigm. On the other hand, there is a deep cultural agenda of the policymakers to make Indian Higher Ed more Indian. It is not just revivalism or Hindu fundamentalism. This is also based on an accurate reading of the chasm at the heart of the Indian society, between an English-speaking elite and vernacular rest, which is threatening the cohesion of the state. This is also about undoing the colonial legacy, th

Creative Commons License