Fostering Creativity and Innovation

Greater Kashmir


I read ‘My Dream Not Realized’ by Z.G.Muhammad (GK January 4, 2009). Besides a few weeks later through this very newspaper, the noted writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal expressed somewhat similar dismay and hoped for an early revival of cultural activities in the valley – so badly hit by the political turmoil of the last two decades.
While both these writers have essentially focused on what could broadly be classified as ‘Literary and Creative Arts’, I am tempted to flag the need for creating an environment that fosters, encourages and rewards both Creativity and Innovation across the broad spectrum of fields including science and technology, business enterprises and the government and social sectors. This is in no way to undermine the importance of fostering creativity among the young students in fields such as writing, paintings, dramatics etc…
This should also help us to demystify and therefore appreciate that creativity is not limited to arts but encompasses a larger canvas. For instance, how does one categorize Leonardo de Vinci – a painter/ artist or an inventor? Will Bertrand Russell qualify more as a writer and less of a scientist cum philosopher?  How does one describe Kabir – a mystic poet or a religious philosopher or both? Therefore, without getting into definitional argument, it is suffice to say that the process of renaissance and reformation and (I may add industrialization) that the Western Europe was quick to embrace, was largely facilitated by the forces that encouraged creativity and innovation in all forms of art and rewarded entrepreneurship across the continent. That was not an easy task considering Europe was still struggling to come out of the dark ages, while China and India were at the peak of their civilizational growth.
While printing originated in China, it is the West that took advantage of it – both as a commercial enterprise and as an effective tool to spread information and knowledge. Similarly, during ancient and middle Ages India’s architectural and scientific achievements were far too ahead of their European counterparts. Both the art of dying and the development of iron took place in India much before it travelled to the West. And it is the Arabs who were the first to discover the discipline of Algebra! The East was ahead of the West in almost all conceivable fields.
The tide began to turn in the fifteenth century in favour of the West with the advent of modern science – thanks to scientific discoveries (challenging the church-supported traditional beliefs!) made by Copernicus and Galileo. But now the Asian countries -particularly China and India – are embracing innovation as a serious discipline, giving birth to more and more success stories across the businesses and social / government sector. The coveted Deming prizes constituted by Japan for managerial innovation have, of late, been awarded more often to Indian companies than to firms from any other country, including Japan itself.
It is this innovative entrepreneurial wave that is driving optimism and confidence that the Indian economy, as per the Goldman Sachs report, will emerge world’s third largest economy anytime after 2040, if not earlier. This is happening in spite of the governments – both the state and the central – that continue to be plagued with corruption and inefficiencies, and the political leadership continues betraying any long-term vision. One of the major factors that have contributed to the rise of the southern states versus the Hindi heartland has been the spread of modern education along with retaining the traditional value system of ‘giving-back-to-society’. This has resulted not only in a more knowledgeable workforce leading to better employability but in also unleashing the creative and innovative spirit among the youth (and others!) in the form of innovative community initiatives.  It is, therefore, not surprising that the southern states not only provide the best IT services but also top class medical facilities that is reasonably affordable. It is this cocktailing ‘commerce’ with ‘community’ that the valley needs.
In the context of Jammu and Kashmir, it is safe to state that while we have very rich arts and cultural scene producing some of the finest writers, poets, painters and artisans, but it is in the area of utilizing creativity and innovation in business spheres and in other socially- relevant areas that we continue lagging behind other states. Or else, how does one explain the negligible presence of innovative business ideas in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Ideas that are ‘orbit-shifting’- both in their originality and impact.
Most, if not all, of the newly launched enterprises in the valley continue to be an extension of the family businesses engaged in traditional arts and crafts or in tourism trade. Nothing wrong in it, except that most of these businesses are stuck with the models that served – and successfully at that! – the needs of the 20th century trade. True, there are some talented youngsters in the valley who have ventured into other newer fields but the number is too insignificant to provide a ray of hope for the beleaguered state. Also, most of these new businesses – though praiseworthy – are not radically different even if we were to stretch the definition of innovation. We have to make a transition from cloning, copying and improvising products to creating breakthrough products.
Let me illustrate it with examples:
a) Transform Surat ! The city afflicted by a disease of the middle ages in 1995. The then Municipal Commissioner S.R.Rao took up the challenge and transformed Surat into one of India’s cleanest cities through innovation at all levels of governance and delivery systems. Staff empowerment along-with citizen participation defined his key innovation strategies to rid Surat of Municipal mess.
b) Manufacture the cheapest car in the world! Tatas defied all logic and have succeeded in surprising world with their cheapest NANO.
c) Steve Jobs decided to challenge Sony Inc. and launched iPOD! No wonder, Apple Inc. is now associated with 21st century gadgets and not with computers.
While these essentially are major break-through innovations, there however is good number of examples of innovation done at a much smaller scale.
Take the very recent case of Akshay Mehra, an IIM graduate who recently chucked up a cushy job in Singapore to launch ‘Village Laundry Services’ under the brand name CHAMAK in Bangalore. He challenged the traditional business model and opted for charging by the ‘weight’ instead of ‘per piece’ – thereby offering affordability. It is a classic case of ‘Disruptive Innovation’ as first propounded by the noted Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. 
Or the launch of special auto service called ‘G-AUTO’ in Ahmedabad by a young entrepreneur. In a G-AUTO passengers can read a newspaper, charge mobiles, make phone-calls through on-board PCO and use a city map among other things. G-AUTO has come to be associated with courtesy, efficiency, comfort and honesty. Imagine tourists enjoying the beauty of Kashmir in an auto without the fear of over-charging!
We also have an innovator from the valley in Mushtaq Ahmed Dar of Islamabad district who has been rewarded by the National Innovation Foundation for developing a robot to run a spinning wheel to yarn wool. He has also to his credit developing a machine which helps crack walnuts at a higher speed than the traditional manual methods. Musthaq continues innovating and has recently come up with a portable climbing device that can be used to climb trees or electric poles. He can be an inspiration to others in the valley.
It is time we start discussing and debating the framework that needs to be developed to instill among the youth of the valley the ‘spirit of inquiry’ and ‘out-of box’ thinking – to create and seize new opportunities. While the state governments across the country are displaying their helplessness in providing jobs to all those who are supposedly employable, it is the duty of the state to create an environment that incentives fresh ideas and support those risk tapping into newer untested areas because “a new idea is always born drowning”.
While one lauds the efforts of the state J&K Bank in sponsoring various musical contest programmes on the public broadcaster, it will make immense sense for the bank to fund Innovation activities / Clubs across the schools and colleges to trigger creative thought process. To be much more meaningful to the society at large, both creativity and innovation have to extend beyond enterprises and businesses into social sectors and governance that affects the citizens. We have seen how the state bureaucracy has failed to come up with creative, innovative solution to rid Dal Lake of encroachments and pollution.
Therefore, what the state requires is innovators like Mustaq Ahmed – not in hundreds but thousands. Innovators who are future-focused and solution-driven! We have to worry not of today or even tomorrow but of 2030 when a child born in 2010 will be at his creative best.
It is time the Naya Kashmir vision document enunciated decades ago now incorporates the language of the 21st century, the language of change and movement. Hence, THINK PEACE to restore normalcy, THINK GREEN to save environment and THINK GREY to foster creativity and innovation across all fields.  
[The author, a native of Kashmir, is a noted Management and Media Educator and is currently Founding Director of the Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication. He was until recently Vice President, Discovery Channel & Animal Planet in South Asia. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of ASCENT GROUP that counsels and coaches the Kashmiri-based students for both state and all India competitive examinations.   Feedback at]