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The Indian Innovation Ecosystem : Myth or Reality?

Lately 'Innovation' has become a ubiquitous term. It is increasingly being discussed in policy making, in economic debates, in social welfare studies among others (European Commission, 2010). The growth debate, for example, has changed in recent years with innovation and innovation driven activity cited as central component of economic development and social welfare (Huggins and Izushi, 2009). Scholars and academicians are now increasingly recognizing that innovation happens through a complex set of interactions and relationships among institutional actors such as government, industry and university.

These innovation models posit that that networking between institutions play an important role in the development of an innovation ecosystem that facilitates an environment for productive knowledge exploitation. One key difference between the various theoretical models is the role attribution of different actors. University, for example, can be seen to play different roles in the different conceptual frameworks in the context of innovation ecosystem.

Innovation Models

  • NIS framework argues that university play a critical role in the innovation ecosystem by developing human resource, performing research and acts as source of new ideas for the economy. However, it gives industry the primary role in converting ideas and inventions to innovations.

  • On the other-hand in the ‘triple helix model (THM)’ university is placed in the forefront of innovation activities, envisaged to play a more direct role in the innovation process (Etkowitz and Leydesdorff, 2000). THM suggests three possible models of university-industry-government linkages: ‘statist model’, ‘laissez-faire model’ and ‘triple helix’.

Statist model is a highly regulated model with university and industry overwhelmingly under government control. In the laissez-faire model, there are strong boundaries between government, industry and university.

In the third model, ‘triple helix’, there are strong overlaps between university, industry and government with each taking the role of others in varying degrees. The last model is the one that proponents of this theory argue is most desirable in which universities become more entrepreneurial while industry also plays an important role in education, training, skill development.

The Indian Innovation Ecosystem?

In recent years, Indian government through various policy articulations, programs and creation of varied types of institutions including NITI Aayog and Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) have given a strong indication of its desire to undertake the path of innovation led economic growth. A distinct feature of its innovation approach is her intention to broad base the agenda of innovation towards more inclusiveness i.e. to bring in important stakeholders that have been ignored earlier (Bhattacharya, 2013). It also entails enhancing the competitiveness of the micro and macro small-scale industry by strengthening their capacity to innovate. It also argues that this path of innovation led development must address the role of universities in India and their role in the innovation system must be broadened. In other words it should not be restricted to supplying intellectual capital and skilled manpower to industry.

The attention towards strengthening Indian universities to broaden their role as key actor in economic and social welfare of the nation is plausibly the outcome of critical scholarly and public debates in the last few years. Recent papers and opinion pieces on the higher education system have stimulated discussion on the highest policy making platforms. The need for integrating higher education, innovation and research can be seen in this continuous dialogue.

The central government is focussing on short term and a long term approach for strengthening the education system. One immediate attention is to introduce grading system and choice-based credit programme in colleges and universities from the coming academic session . A long term approach is the proposal of a new education policy that the GoI argues is required for students to acquire the required skills and techniques so that they can be employable. In this regard we also see a announcement of the GoI to establish centers for skill development in universities and colleges and the flagship Skill India Mission.

There is also serious discussion on replacing the UGC with a new statutory agency that has wide ranging and quasi-judicial powers. Thus, these new set of proposals augurs well for strengthening the university ecosystem. However, there has been some recent concerns of scholars commenting on GoI interference disturbing the academic culture and autonomy of the universities. Thus, it is important that more participatory approach with different stakeholders be built so that new initiatives can be strengthened further and implemented.

Innovation Gap in India

One can observe mismatch in ambitions and planning inspite of GoI making some important policy interventions and some significant implementations. This can be seen, for example, in India’s aim to establish world class universities. The XII five year plan provided a miserly ‘3,000 crores for research and innovation initiatives. According to World Bank, establishment of a world-class university (WCU) in the late 19th century required an investment of over $50million (Salmi, 2009). It is estimated that the cost of establishing one world class university is close to $1,500 million (Rs. 6,750 crore). One can see how ambitious and costly creating WCU can be by looking at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia which wants it to be WCU and has made an investment of $3 billion. A huge investment goes towards creation of infrastructure; attract reputed scholars, among others.

India has taken on an ambitious programme that seeks to create new research and innovation driven universities. Establishment of new Institutes of National Importance (INIs) like Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management to achieve a world-class university system are appreciated but there is a greater need to integrate these together in an ecosystem (Ramprasad, 2011). Majority of the universities in India are under the direct control and supervision of state governments and the role of private sector in higher education is yet to be explored to its full potential.

Lack of coherence among the key policy instruments and implementation strategy is also impeding the process. For example, the ‘Universities for Research and Innovation Bill’ 2012 does promote academic entrepreneurship by provisioning the setting up of universities for research and innovation with greater autonomy but there is silence of this thesis in the ‘science technology innovation policy’ 2013 (STI, 2013). The XII plan paper by the former Planning Commission of India takes a more direct approach to innovation by focusing on providing frugal cost solutions for development and innovation. While it mentions strengthening of university-industry linkages and aggregation into clusters, it fails to provide any concrete steps for involvement of university in innovation process. The enabling institutions that would facilitate academia-industry linkages or the mechanism for funding new proof- of- concepts are missing. Some documents borrow from National Innovation System model whereas some aspects of THM are visible in Plan documents. However, well defined roadmap for developing institutions that can facilitate networking among different actors of the research and innovation ecosystem is not visible. This requires attention as it may impede translational research with good research from universities may remain unexploited.

STI 2013 suggested for re-adjustment of governance process in universities for rejuvenation of research in academic sector. Setting up of organizations and institutions for higher autonomous control to universities has been proposed in an effort to put universities in a position where they can proactively participate in the innovation process. While the proposals and suggestions are trying to push India’s university ecosystem towards a model where the private sector plays an active role and the universities have more autonomy, the initiatives taken so far fail to draw all the stakeholders to agree to the evolving ecosystem.

STI 2013 also urges the nation to follow a strong and viable ‘science, research and innovation system’ for high technology led path for India with inclusive innovation approach, but critiques argue that it fails to promote the role of research and innovation effectively (Abrol, 2013). Also policy document did not take into account important drawbacks of the system, for example, only 15% of our universities cater as teaching and research universities and the remaining 85% are just teaching institutions at different tiers of teaching standards and levels (Krishna, 2013).

The government in India is major stakeholder and is responsible for governance, education and as well as skill development. It overlaps the functions of university and private sector in great proportions in the present day. Targets set are too ambitious and more concrete plan of action is required to achieve the means to the end. However, on the positive side one can say that we see that government envisages universities to become more involved in research and link up with the industry. Government has also taken initiatives to create novel institutions and has also created institutions that can strengthen the networking among universities. But the major lesson one draws from this study is the need to bring the different stakeholders together for successful implement. This applies to the new policy initiatives of the central government. One can conclude that in spite of the limitations, the government intention to promote innovation driven growth with university as an important actor at least its role as the knowledge producer is visible from its various policy articulations but still a lot more needs to be done for effective overlap between institutional spheres to inculcate the culture of innovation in India.


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