08 May Low Cost Innovation
A guest post by Adhirath Sethi, Author and Director of Poly Fluoro Ltd, first of a series by him that will touch on a number of topics that are relevant to education and reflect on Agastya’s place in the current educational system.
Over the past couple of decades, low cost innovation has become a tagline that organisations use to advertise that they are able to generate high impact outcomes with very few inputs. In India, the term has given bragging rights to companies like Mahindra & Mahindra – whose Scorpio SUV was a case study in low cost R&D benchmarking. It has also brought a great deal of pride for organisations like ISRO – whose various space initiatives are consistently done at a fraction of what it costs developed nations to do.
However, the idea of innovation is nothing new. Great empires have been built on the backs of developing novel ways to do existing things. The Mongols ruled much of the world by learning how to ride on horseback, whilst wielding their short, powerful bows. Later, the Britons would remain undefeated on the battlefield for many years by using the famous Longbow, which offered them greater range than their enemies. Even the term ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ is an appreciation for a process improvement. Someone took two things that already existed – bread and slicing – and combined them to make something for which the praise still echoes around the world.
In this sense, some of the greatest innovations – be it process or product – have stood the test of time. While some innovations may be merely quick fixes that solve a specific problem, the truest improvements aim to be sustainable and applicable across a range of applications, because only then can their scope be far reaching enough to deliver true impact.
In a country like India, low cost innovation is not just something we can do, but an absolute imperative, if we are to disseminate learning across our nation. A low GDP per capita dictates that the resources needed to engage in high-cost learning methods are simply not available. In addition to this, poor infrastructure at the government school level ensures that for the most part, children must accept the theories presented to them in textbooks rather than step out and see the science in action.
However, if children are taught – from a young age – the importance of hands-on experimentation, then we start to build a nation of questioners. And, once we establish that they will not be satisfied until they see the theory in action, we can use low cost innovation to satisfy their curiosities.
This method has formed a cornerstone of the Agastya Foundation’s efforts to bring hands-on experiential learning to the underprivileged. Indeed, many of Agastya’s methods of transmitting knowledge are in themselves low-cost innovations. The mobile van, the Lab on a Bike, and the Lab in a Box are all examples of high-impact efforts, which have been achieved at a relatively low cost. In addition to this, the experiments that Agastya takes to schools are not expensive yet serve to illustrate the science they contain in a very succinct manner. In this way, the child is able to appreciate the practical side of science, and in doing so, may even think beyond the experiment itself and ask what other areas the theory may apply to.
It is important for Agastya to use low cost models for a number of reasons. For one, it is financially prudent. The extensive wear and tear from being passed from child to child means that high replacement costs are infeasible. However, the fortunate side effect of this is that by using everyday objects, we open the child to the idea that science is indeed everywhere. Once a child is no longer bound by the limitation of thinking that theories can be tested only within a lab, then they can step out and grab science wherever they see possibility. It is for this reason that Agastya places a specific emphasis on upcycling, recycling, and repurposing everyday objects for its experiments.
In April 1970, when the Apollo 13 disaster took place, the ground crew were given a box of scraps and told that this was all that was available in the space shuttle for the astronauts to use to get home. Using the scraps, the crew were able to devise a method by which the space shuttle could be returned safely to earth. This extreme example shows us that even rocket science can be sometimes explored using simple, seemingly inconsequential objects. The innovation comes from how we choose to make these objects interact with one another and the synergies we develop in the process. In many ways, this is Agastya’s aim. To use limited resources to catalyse creativity so that even the moon is not something that our children feel may be out of reach.