Earlier this year, while at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, I met the organisational psychologist Adam Grant on top of the Rinnerhorn Mountain. His book, Give and Take had inspired me to launch Network Capital, a global community for mentoring across borders, and I was eager to learn more about his upcoming projects. As luck would have it, we happened to share the last cable car back to the meeting.
Floating down through the clouds, Adam shared three key insights with me about nurturing original thinking and entrepreneurship. First, innovation and economic growth rates of entire countries can be traced back to the books children read. Second, finding the right mentors is hard but we can locate relatable role models in stories of great originals in history and fiction. Third, the logic of consequence and the fear of failure are huge barriers to innovation in classrooms and even boardrooms.
Adam’s insights, when placed in the Indian context, help to explain why the education system there has consistently failed to inspire students to learn and innovate. To get the complete picture, one has to go back to 1835 when the British historian T.B. Macaulay, writing in his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
In simple words, Macaulay’s vision was to create a nation of obedient, efficient and polite clerks - and his hangover has lingered long after his death. Even after independence, the new Indian Government’s first five-year plan grossly ignored the importance of school education by allocating less than $2 million for the entire duration. Macaulay’s hangover was so profound that even as recently as a few years ago, around half the questions in school examinations required students to commit facts to memory. For example: “What is the speed of light to eight significant figures?” I am not sure what such a question is meant to accomplish but it surely isn’t innovation, originality or entrepreneurship.
Thankfully, the government has recognized the grave nature of this challenge and launched Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) under the aegis of NITI Aayog (the erstwhile Planning Commission of India). AIM’s goal is to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in educational institutions.
I am particularly enthused by the setting up of Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) in schools. ATLs are do-it-yourself workspaces where students can give shape to their innovative ideas. Such tinkering labs have sparked innovation at scale in countries like Singapore, Finland and Hong Kong. It is no surprise that they rank among the world’s most innovative countries today. In Hong Kong, for instance, students under 15 years of age used spectrometry and sensors to overcome the challenge of oil spills in Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest in Bangladesh. It all began with with these students understanding the power of technology and empathy to solve local challenges. With encouragement, experimentation and rapid prototyping, the students were inspired to take ownership of societal challenges and to develop innovative, cost-effective solutions with global applicability. I hope to see ATLs sparking such a wave of innovation in India.
In the first phase, after a comprehensive selection process, 484 schools across the country were chosen to set up ATLs. These schools get partial grants from AIM but need to take ownership of their financial sustainability and ensure the highest standards of excellence. This mechanism is a pioneering intervention by NITI Aayog that ensures accountability, rewards innovation, enables transparency and inspires competition to overachieve on student outcomes.
Recently Microsoft organised a three-day innovation bootcamp for 25 teachers from Atal Innovation Mission schools. We had external experts and mentors introduce these teachers to nuances of IOT, big data, design thinking and 3D printing. The goal was not to make them experts on these technologies, but to empower them with tools they can share with students to unleash their creativity. The final deliverable of the bootcamp was a project where teachers worked in teams and developed functional prototypes, one of which was probably the most innovative traffic solution I have come across. I was inspired by their hunger to learn and their willingness to take these lessons to their classrooms.
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What made the innovation bootcamp even more special was the presence of senior industry mentors who took time out of their busy schedules to share their insights with the school teachers. After the bootcamp, I asked one of the mentors how she managed to find time in the middle of a working day. She said, “I come from a family of doctors and always felt the pressure of following the family tradition even though design was my passion, not medical science. My mentor made me realise that success didn’t come with a prescription and it was ok not to become a doctor if my passion was elsewhere. She nudged me to start taking up mini-projects in school. I finally took the national design entrance exam and came out with flying colors. I owe my success as a designer and happiness as a human to my mentor.”
Network Capital has partnered with NTI Aayog to identify and train top talent from colleges, corporates, non-profits, cultural movements and startups for Mentor India, which is a nationwide movement to inspire bright, motivated professionals to volunteer their time in Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs). Mentor India is arguably one of the world’s most ambitious mentoring interventions. Although it is premature to celebrate success, the response from industry leaders, CEOs, cultural entrepreneurs and leading change makers has been encouraging.
Atal Innovation Mission, Atal Tinkering Labs and Mentor India together have the potential to cultivate young entrepreneurs who will not only create incalculable stakeholder value but also develop pathbreaking solutions to global challenges, possibly positioning India to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The industrialist Narayana Murthy once said, “What India can’t, Indians will.” To me, this eloquently expresses both hope and hopelessness about the nation. With the launch of these national missions and support of all stakeholders, I believe that India and Indians will empower each other democratizing inspiration along the way.