Innovation isn’t incremental – it can leap-frog existing technology or come from an unexpected angle.
One of the conclusions of our report launched at the House of Lords this month is that putting people together from different world’s can spark ideas that solve problems. But this needs an openness on both sides to new thinking and also the ability of a facilitator to frame the questions appropriately.
People from other geographies can also bring fresh insights. The Indian sub-continent never had widespread fixed land-lines so a generation of technologists have grown up not knowing the limitations of copper wires. Instead, they have embraced both the modern digital world and the older tradition of pragmatism by solving real world problems with simple innovation.
This has enabled mobile communications and internet banking to revolutionise the lives of rural farmers in India in ways that are not yet possible in parts of Cambridgeshire!
The Silicon Valley of India
I saw this for myself at the Agritex 2017 conference in Hyderabad earlier this month – the city nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of India” – when thousands of farmers, technology developers and researchers converged to discuss ways of making farming more profitable and sustainable.
Watched over by Cyber Towers, the landmark building in the high-tech city part of Hyderabad, the talk was of precision and smart agriculture, and the huge explosion of farm-decision support based on apps and algorithms.
Now that most phones boast a high quality camera, the pictures they take can be used to diagnose tool pests and diseases or to provide images for crop growth modelling to benchmark the crop maturation. The vast geography of India means a strong market pull for remote analysis.
Unpredictable weather also creates demand for systems that link farmers to weather data and can control irrigators remotely.
Enabler and pinch-point
While innovation in one area can act as an enabler, it can also be a pinch-point. Anyone whose mobile phone battery has failed at an awkward moment or who has areas on their land without signal will understand that more investment in other sectors of industry is needed to deliver much of the promise of digital communication.
Now, as never before, we need to recognise that innovation is a global, shared, inter-dependent activity; advances in one area open up opportunities for others.
It is not sufficient to try and solve ‘old’ problems with technology, we should also be looking to re-frame the challenges and encourage insights from different perspectives.