Optimism has been considered on the one hand as a “delusional, starry-eyed” attitude and on the other as “rather the simple, clear, energetic belief in the potential success of an idea”. It has also been considered in its version as tough minded optimism but not yet as well-grounded optimism when it can function as a creative source and strategy for innovation. Well grounded optimism should be able to relate itself well with the ground reality and yet not get stuck in it and be able to look beyond and chart its course into probable futures.
My close tête-à-tête with a prominent Indian visionary scientist and innovation leader, Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, (http://www.mashelkar.com/) prompted me to get to the heart of true optimism which serves as the creative source and strategy for innovation.
From his inspiring message, ” Dare to learn and learn to dare” to his clarion call “More from Less for More” which is the essential spirit behind inclusive innovation one could sense an actionable philosophy of optimism. Bridging the gap between simply being positive and being positively successful, optimism can be set into force as the creative source and strategy for innovation.
As negativity is not just being negative, it’s a sure course to complications, similarly positivity or optimism is not simply being positive it’s also being positively simple as a creative way to see, live and build up through the challenging and therefore appealing and inviting pathways of life. It implies a vision that can see opportunity in adversity and can hew a simple pathway through a complex course. Being negative is in fact to display an inadequacy of outlook to see things, situations, circumstances as a whole, to see complexity as a system, as an interaction and interplay of varied factors and forces. Positivity comes in as we distance ourselves from the intricacies and see them as a complex system applying the force of optimism.
That’s why optimism is not simply a high attitude it’s also a high altitude which enables one to see things from a height which gives one a bird’s eye view and hence a perspective. In fact, we need to fully explore and exploit the deep human capacity of seeing things as a whole, complexity as a system and thus ‘seeing the world anew’ as Peter Senge elaborates on in his pathbreaking book, ‘The Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization’.
Optimism is not simply to see the good in people but to see people in the light of goodness that is to relate with them in novel and creative ways and thus to bring out innovative relationships beyond old patterns of mutual behavior and relationships. Thus to see India’s populace as not 1.25 billion mouths but 1.25 billion minds a vision that India’s brilliant ambassador for innovation, Prof. R. A. Mashelkar, propagates and promotes, helps us see our large populace as an immensely large reservoir for creativity and innovation rather than a mind boggling liability to meet the basic needs of. Such an optimistic vision is most surely a creative source and strategy for innovation. As world-renowned educationist, Sir Ken Robinson, pleads for creativity for all as the basic goal of education rather than literacy, Dr. R. A. Mashelkar reposes confidence in all humans for being innovative and pleads for the propagation and promotion of the idea and the virtue of being human as being innovative and therefore a value addition to the society and world at large. Such a vision cherished by Dr. Mashelkar and Prof. Anil Kumar Gupta has given rise to institutions like National Innovation Foundation of India. Prof. Gupta’s Honey bee network provides a beautiful conceptual base and framework to this institution and its varied and vivid innovation leadership at grassroots level.
Optimism is not simply to see the good side of things but to see things in new light in our relationship with them which opens the way to connect with them in novel ways and hence open out novel avenues for innovation. The message from an ad for the Microsoft Cloud beautifully brings out the point: “We live in a world of mobile technology, but it is not the device that is mobile. It is you.”
Optimism is not just being exuberant or being full of positive energy it’s also creating novel pathways of flow for that positive energy where others may join to a common innovation. Thus Dr. Mashelkar visualizes customers as enlightened citizens and knowledge workers who can change the market dynamics completely:
“Enlightened citizens, who are knowledge workers, will not stop projects that lead to economic development, but they will stop those, which lead to destruction. Knowledge will not be a mere tool in development, knowledge itself will be development.” 1
Optimism is not just to see good scattered here and there in all things and people and circumstances but the capacity to connect all things, people and circumstances in your access and ambience in some common good and high goal. This I found wonderfully illustrated in a visionary innovation leader and a close aide of Dr. Mashelkar, Prof. Anil Gupta who propounded the concept and founded what is widely praised and practiced as the Honey bee Network. “Honey Bee, true to its metaphor, has been the source of pollination and cross-pollination of ideas, creativity and grassroots genius, without taking away the nectar from the flower for ever.” (www.sristi.org)
Optimism is not simply to be positive as opposed to being negative it’s the capability to see how the positive loses its course and capacity to be positive and meanders into the marsh of negativity. Because optimism means the capacity to rise and help rise from the dark pit of negativity to the positive line of the horizon from where the Sun is visible round the clock. Thus at one of his public addresses at the University of Delhi when the institution found itself at a critical juncture Dr. Mashelkar was invited to address the audience with the words, “Thus we are in a state of coma and Dr. Mashelkar would show us the way out.” Very eloquently Dr. Mashelkar said, “Probably I heard him wrong. He didn’t say we’re in a coma, he said, we’re at a comma.” And “being at a comma is not bad news”.2 It means taking a pause at a critical turn of events and making a new start.
Optimism essentially and ultimately involves a value commitment. It involves an urge to bring the same benefits to all which are limited to a select few. We see this urge in its essential and ultimate sense in leaders like Gandhi who would want the benefit of innovation for all and that too on a sustainable basis. This is what truly defines the spirit of “inclusive innovation”. Thus Mahatma’s twin tenets: “I would prize every invention of science made for the benefit of all,” and “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” are the twin valves of the heart of Gandhian innovation. These twin tenets have been systematically incorporated by Dr. R. A. Mashelkar in the official definition of inclusive innovation at the Global Research Alliance comprising some 60,000 scientists from all over the world and chaired by Dr. Mashelkar: “Inclusive innovation is any innovation that leads to affordable access of quality goods and services creating livelihood opportunities for the excluded population, primarily at the base of the pyramid, and on a long term sustainable basis with a significant outreach.” 3
‘More from Less for More’ stated as a strategy by Dr. Mashelkar at Canberra, Australia during his talk on ‘Indian Innovation, From Gandhi to Gandhian Engineering’ was elaborated later in an HBR paper, ‘Innovation’s Holy Grail’, coauthored by Dr. Mashelkar along with Prof. C. K. Prahlad from a business perspective of not just doing well and doing good but doing well by doing good. He succinctly asks, “How can we create that unique brand of Indian innovation, maybe we can call it ‘indovation’, which will not make firms look just for more from less for more ‘profits’ but also for more ‘people’?”
Thus inexpensiveness and environment friendliness or affordability and sustainability are the twin wheels which drive the Gandhian cart on the road to innovation and what provides it positive motive force and adds wings to its speed is the billions of first-time consumers joining the middle classes.
But we should observe a note of caution here which would determine whether our passionate pursuits in innovation would reach their pinnacle of performance or not. Affordability should not be equated with cheapness nor should abundance be equated with profligacy. The spirit of abundance is radically different from the spirit of profligacy. Thus Gandhi’s charkha and specs are values rich symbols and can as well be equated with affordability but never with cheapness. We should clearly realize that the epithet ‘Gandhian’ involves both material frugality as well as ethical and spiritual abundance. Gandhian humility is inseparable from essential human sense of dignity and pride. Gandhian frugality is values rich and inseparable from abundance of life force and vitality. His neem chutney carries a greater value, even as a symbol, of life sustenance than any expensive antibiotics can command. On the same parameters, Gandhian inclusiveness is far more inclusive than mere economic inclusiveness.
In Tata Nano we messed up affordability with cheapness thus depriving its ownership of sense of dignity and pride. Also in mistaking its affordability with cheapness we fatally cut down upon its values richness which it genuinely possessed and could have rightfully claimed.
Thus optimism as a creative source and strategy for innovation reaches consummation only as it ensures a far greater ideal than affordability and sustainability. It should ensure a real spirit of abundance which involves an abundance of life force or vitality, an abundance of values (or values richness), or more aptly, an abundance of potential for value creation and an essential human sense of dignity and pride. It implies not only economic inclusiveness but mutual growth in peace and prosperity. Gandhi imbibed all of them deeply in his spirit, approach and personality very well with his frugality, humility and simplicity.
DR. SURENDRA SONI
1. Raghunath Mashelkar, Reinventing India, (Pune, India: Sahayadri), 2011, 32
2. Ibid, 42.