Deepmala 23 – Denial Driven Innovation

We have three types of technology innovations. There is a large system innovation (such as a man on the moon mission), incremental innovation (such as development of an improved fax machine) and finally radical breakthroughs (such as an accidental breakthrough leading to the antibiotic industry).

India has done well in many large system innovations. Just take our space research program as a classic example. Satellite design, fabrication and launching have been mastered by our space scientists. Our space program has been one of the most cost-effective programs in the world. The entire budget of our space program last year was less than 3000 crores, small when compared to the budget of a single leading company like Pfizer, which was over 20,000 crores! The interesting feature of such innovations is that they have survived, succeeded and delivered in spite of the technology denial regimes. In fact in some cases, the innovation movement has been boosted due to a denial regime. Let us take India’s forays into supercomputers as a classical example to draw some generic lessons about innovation in the face of denials. Pune was a proud city, which witnessed the emergence of C-DAC under the visionary leadership of my friend Vijay Bhatkar.

In 1998, C-DAC launched PARAM 10,000 demonstrating India’s capacity to build 100 Giga Flops machines, which has been now scaled further to teraflops, reaching the levels reached by advanced nations. The United States has continuously relaxed the export controls as we kept on reaching bigger milestones. In 2000, the same CRAY company decided to set up a subsidiary in India; interestingly the same company had denied the CRAY supercomputers in 1980s.

There are some interesting generic lessons in this supercomputer saga. The first is that it requires a driving force for innovation, no matter how able and competent you are. When the idea of building supercomputers through parallel processing was gaining ground in 1985, Germany launched a DM 100 million project called ‘Suprenum’ and gave its scientists five years to build parallel processing based supercomputers. However, this project was abandoned mid way because of several reasons including team management issues between the university and industry; but clearly this was due to the fact that there was no driving force, since Germany had other options. India went ahead, because India did not have any options.

In fact, I remember reading Washington Post, soon after India had exported its PARAM 8000 to Germany, UK & Russia. It said ‘Angry India Does It’, that is, India having been angered at the denial of supercomputers, developed its own. So this anger was the driving force for India and Germany had none, although they had a superior technical manpower to complete successfully the Suprenum project.

We do have a tendency to become relaxed, when the ban gets lifted or the export regulations become little lighter. For example, in 1991-93, when there was some relaxation from the United States, questions were being asked as to whether India should invest further in supercomputers at all. I remember a battle that was fought in Delhi, when we had to move from the first mission to the second mission; fortunately good sense prevailed, otherwise we could not have seen the birth of PARAM 10000!

When the sanctions again came back after Prokhran-II, the importance of a sustained long-range innovation policy and continuous investment is being realized again. To remain competitive, India has to be on a continuous alert.

Only strength respects strength. Let us continue to build our technological strength to build the new India of our dreams.