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Weekly Blog

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What is your 1000-year plan?

Imagine a speaker who starts off with the question, "What is your 1000-year plan?" This was Prof. Anil Gupta, a man who has stretched the boundaries of intellectual property rights to bring it to rural innovators, who are normally ignored by mainstream society.

Speaking to a diverse group in the Summer Quarter (Aug 2, 2009), Prof. Gupta shared the story of Shankaracharya, a young monk who started four centers of dharma in the four corners of India with a 1000-year plan of providing a beacon of guidance to humanity. These institutions still exist, a thousand years after they were founded, and inspire society with its adherence to truth and service. A more recent manifestation of this service is in the Shankar Netralaya hospital, known for its excellence in eye-care service in South India. Prof. Gupta made the point that in modern society, we are able to take out a whole town or city with a bomb. In ancient society, wherever an enlightened teacher arrived, even if it was in a forest, a new township and direction for life would emerge.

Prof. Gupta encouraged the audience to think for humanity with a horizon that reaches far beyond our lifetimes. Such a mindset would help us give priority to long-term benefits over short-term benefits, and we will find ourselves invariably thinking about what we value at our core.

He then shared his hypothesis - that innovation happens in an environment of scarcity, not abundance. Therefore, there are many innovation stories waiting to be told in the poorest communities of society, and they have much to give us in terms of creativity. To prove this, Prof. Gupta embarked on a journey across South Asia, criss-crossing village communities and becoming an observer of innovation. He became an expert on such innovations and one day, he realized that he'd made money with the knowledge imparted to him by rural innovators, and yet, his income tax return did not show any money that had gone to them. Bothered by this inequity, he decided to create a mechanism to encourage and support rural innovators.

The result is the HoneyBee Network, a massive database of innovation that takes our breath away with its expanse and creativity. The name is significant - a honeybee takes nectar from every flower and supports the flower's interest by pollinating it. It is symbolic of the symbiotic relationship we have with all beings in the universe. The network aims at catalyzing such a relationship between innovators and entrepreneurs. Prof. Gupta is perhaps the first to focus on Microventure formation (different from Microfinance, which focuses on proven businesses). Microventures are about innovations which are not yet in the market.

Here are some inspiring videos that have been produced by the network for Discovery Channel.

It was fascinating to hear that the tree-climbing apparatus in the video above was used by an east-coast professor to facilitate research on birds (yes, such researchers do need to climb trees) and to learn that tree-climbing was an unsolved problem until Appachan came along. Prof. Gupta remarked that we normally exercise on cycling machines but don't produce anything useful. Remya, the innovator behind the cycling washing machine, had managed to connect an opportunity for exercise with the need to wash clothes.

Over the course of the evening, we saw several other innovations, like the bicycle with a spring which speeds up, instead of slowing down, when going over bumps (by converting the bump into useful energy). Then, there was the man who would grind wheat on his two-wheeler. We heard about the farmers of Bangladesh, which faces famine and flood in the same year. They plant banana crops surrounded by other crops. When there is a flood, the banana crop absorbs most of the water. Later, when there is a famine, it releases this water to surrounding crops. What an ingenious discovery!

We saw the picture of a house in Kashmir, where the walls still look fresh with paint, after more than a decade. It turns out that jute powder was mixed with the paint. Jute has the property of being antibacterial, and is much cheaper than other chemicals used in hospitals to kill germs. This could revolutionize the construction of hospitals in any developing country if it were known more widely.

Finally, Prof. Gupta opined that the farmer suicides in India were preventable if the farmers had access to the innovation network. They wouldn't need to go to the market to get fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and turn their farming process into the unsustainable endeavor that it has become today. Honeybee has documented several combinations of plants that support and protect each other naturally. All of Honeybee's database is freely available to all and many of the innovations are patented, so that innovators can share in the prosperity that comes from productizing their creation, which Prof. Gupta felt would happen in the traditional markets which had such mechanisms. It was an interesting observation that innovation happens in the fringes of society, far from the markets, but to bring it to regular people, we have to get back to the mainstream markets.

Prof. Gupta is on our mentor blog, and one of these days, we will hear from him. Here is a little group photograph with some of the attendees at the end of the event (thanks to Sachi for all the photographs).


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