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March 12, 2014

Why Social Innovators Know No Limits

Posted by Soundararajan S (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:04 AM

Aurolab, Jaipur Foot - Infosys presents Innovating for a Better Tomorrow [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxboOIgTKb8]

During the filming of "Innovating for a Better Tomorrow," an influential television series that debuted in India in February this year, the deputy editor of CNN-IBN asked Mr. Murthy if he saw any difference in the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship between now and 30 years ago. His answer was motivational: Today there are more fresh ideas and budding entrepreneurs in India than there were three decades ago. And their commitment to social progress is more resolute as well.

Economists have argued for centuries about the limits of private investment and entrepreneurship. Is it the responsibility of governments to provide all of the funding and infrastructure by which economies run, or can private entities fuel these engines of progress as well? If recent history is any judge, then it would certainly appear that it would be the latter.

So what is it about the innovations that rise up out of companies and entrepreneurs that are so potent? Clearly it involves the culture of risk-taking. In fact, the theme behind the nine-part "Innovating for a Better Tomorrow" series was to showcase what happens when individuals go out on a limb, risk their own capital, and attempt to build businesses that result in progress and job creation.

The reason a city like Bangalore has boomed over the past decades is because of its culture, according to Mr. Murthy. In other area of the world, if an entrepreneur's business doesn't get off the ground, onlookers might classify the project as a failure. But in a place where innovation is cherished, failure is not a word that people toss around. If someone has enough aspirations to do good by doing well, then a setback is just that: a temporary glitch in the road to progress.

Great social innovators begin their journeys by solving problems. During the interview with Mr. Murthy, the journalist pointed out that sanitation had become a big issue in India. They chatted about how some of the most promising innovations coming out of the private sector today are addressing basic problems like clean water and sanitation. These aren't areas that are glamorous like software, but they're nonetheless needed around the world. And because they're needed, the market has a pent-up demand for the right solutions.

When innovators work towards creating a market for their goods and services, they're ensuring that society around them improves - whether they are doing it consciously or not. The activity itself, whether creating ways to educate rural children or develop method to bring electrification to the masses, allows others to begin taking business risks as well.

Business risks are a positive force. Have you ever heard of the term that venture capitalists like to use? They like to talk about "dry powder" - a reference to gunpowder. The funds that these financiers set aside to make their next big investments are not unlike dry gunpowder that, when put into the barrel of a gun, creates the spark that fires the ammunition. Every innovation needs a financial spark to move it forward at a fast speed as well.

That's why innovation hubs like Bangalore and Silicon Valley need venture capital. That's the money that fuels the ideas and makes them come to life. It also allows risk-takers to be more unafraid of their own aspirations.

Risk-taking isn't just for start-ups. When a large organization has many areas of expertise, risk-taking is what binds everything together. A culture of innovation allows that company to improve upon everything it does. It helps enterprises overcome some tough challenges and meet the demands of tomorrow's marketplace.

We can't help but think that Mr. Murthy has, in a way, re-fashioned the same atmosphere he had back in Pune more than 30 years ago when he was building Infosys from the ground up. That is to say, he has surrounded himself with an ambitious young team that isn't bound by conventional standards. This team isn't scared to ask why. It's unfettered by department heads and long meetings. Which might just be the spark for which Mr. Murthy is looking.

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