As India’s first Chief Innovation Officer, Ministry of Education, Dr Abhay Jere is striving hard to make a tectonic shift in our educational system. Since he took over the post in the Ministry of Education, Dr Jere has been striving for a holistic approach while deciding on what kind of policy intervention, handholding support, and national platforms are needed to make India march ahead. In conversation with Organiser’s representative Deepti Verma, Dr Abhay Jere comprehensively explains how the Government intends to use innovation in a fast forward way to make the New Education Policy a roaring success that meets the expectations of the 21st century. He is optimistic that this policy will make teachers encourage students to stress on exploring ideas rather than aggregates. Excerpts
Though India has had a rich history of universities like Takshila and Nalanda; our educational system today, given to us by the British, is considered seriously flawed and lacking especially when it comes to ‘innovation’. How are you, as India’s first Chief Innovation Officer, trying to introduce this concept again?
As you rightly pointed out, India was the epicentre of education once upon a time. But after a series of invasions and the subsequent British period, we lost that pole position. The British eventually instituted a system that would generate clerks. And this meant, we somewhere lost our ethos and cultural heritage. After Independence also, we carried on the same education system, with only a few tweaks, but basic fundamentals remaining unchanged. Now, we believe, with the New Education Policy, which the Government of India has launched in 2020, there will be a tectonic shift. We believe this policy, though seeped in the Indian ethos, has all the makings to take on the 21st Century. That’s where innovation comes into play. In our current educational system, everyone including students and teachers are chasing marks or grades. We have to ensure they go from chasing marks to exploring ideas. This eventually will lead to IP creation, startups, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation. But the shift has to take place in the mindset first. As Education Chief Innovation Officer, that shift is my main focus.
As the entire generation has been bred on a completely different way of looking at things, this kind of shift requires a great amount of unlearning. Will this shift start from training the teachers?
So we are doing interventions at multiple points. If we ask a simple question—where does creativity get killed—it’s either at home or school. So we have to address both parents and teachers. Most good questions are shut down by being asked how much did you score or what were your grades. That has to change. We have to start celebrating ideas and out-of-box thinking more than school scores. We have to train teachers and parents to celebrate creativity. At the same time, we have to train educational institutions to create that atmosphere where more than quantifying their pass percentage or topper scores, they talk of how many startups came from their campuses.
Will the new ranking system for educational institutions, Atal Ranking of Institutions on Innovation Achievements (ARIIA) — that you have come up with help in promoting this?
ARIIA is a systematic effort to rank higher educational institutes on parameters related to innovation and entrepreneurship. We are asking them for data like how many of their Professors are on boards of startups, or how many patents have they filed, how many patents are granted, how many are taken for commercialisation and technology transfer. If that has happened then what kind of revenue are they generating, what kind of courses especially related to innovation and entrepreneurship are running in the institutions, what kind of engagement do they have with angel investors and venture capitalists, what is the overall TRL (Technology readiness level)? Also, how many startups are they currently incubating, what is their net worth. These are the parameters that we are focusing on. There is no such ranking anywhere in the world. It is completely indigenous and I’m told other countries are looking at emulating this model. I believe through this ranking, we will be able to push the culture and ecosystem of innovation in these higher institutions. When we started this ranking system three years ago, even the most premium institutions like IITs and NIITs didn’t have this data, and they took four to five months to collect this data. But now the majority of them have institutionalised this process and are focusing on these parameters. This year, we had more than 400 institutions taking part, which is almost a three-fold jump. We think more and more universities and institutions are going to try to be a part of these rankings, as they need to survive in the market, and going forward innovation and entrepreneurship are the buzzwords.
How did this kind of paradigm shift, spearheaded by you, come about?
After coming from the US in 2010, I started working in this field of innovation and entrepreneurship, along with my job in Persistent Systems. In 2015, when the Modi Government came to power, it announced the smart city mission. Pune was bidding on this mission, and while brainstorming we came up with our first hackathon there. This was a huge hit. For the first time, students were part of something where they could solve real-life problems and work with actual civic bodies like Municipal Corporation and Police, which led to a huge excitement on both sides. We wanted to capitalise on this. India has a lot of students who wish to contribute to change, and at the same time, we have a lot of challenges that require new ideas and solutions. All they need is the same platform to come together. In 2016, I approached the Union Minister for HRD, Prakash Javdekar, and told him how I’d like to host these hackathons on a pan-national scale. He gave me his complete support that led to India’s first hackathon becoming the world’s largest, and a huge success. We had 40,000 students participating, and got problem statements from more than five Ministries. The central agencies suddenly realised how they should ask youngsters to offer solutions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was aware of India’s first Smart Hackathon and he gave a huge push, and after a couple of hackathons, today we have a dedicated cell in the Ministry of Education. This is where I came in as Chief Innovation Officer and started looking at everything holistically, which meant, what kind of policy intervention, handholding support, and national platforms we need, and how to measure the outcome of these efforts.
The one complaint that people usually have about India is how there’s too much red tape. But in this case, it seems, a good idea was followed by everything falling into place. Do you think it’s because the Government saw merit in it and supported it or do you think it’s the need of the hour globally?
It’s because of multiple factors coming together. Undoubtedly, the Government’s role, especially the Prime Minister’s, in pushing these concepts is a major factor. When Modiji was in Kashi, one of the three vows he took was for innovation. The other two are AatmaNirbhar Bharat and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Innovation is very close to his heart. Simultaneously, the startup culture really picked up after 2014. So a lot of it is being at the right place and at the right time. When we gave an actual push, the system also started responding quite aggressively.
How will we use these hackathons to increase patenting from India and push these efforts towards helping our performance on the Global Innovation Index?
The Global Innovation Index is published by WIPO; and our rank has gone up from 81 in 2014, to 46 currently. There are multiple parameters that lead to this ranking—patent filing, startups, ease of doing business, availability of capital, innovative and creative technology developed. We have started doing better on most of these counts. But still looking at 1.3 billion people, most of whom are young, 46 rank doesn’t do justice. China is 12th. Countries that are ahead of us are small countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Malta. So we need to address that.
Is it because of brain drain or a laid back attitude?
Brain drain is being addressed and in the last few years there has been brain gain also. One of the reasons is that our data collection is still very poor. Some of the parameters are measured through percentage of the population, so in actual numbers, we may be higher, but because of our population density, our average falls. Now, coming to patents if we compare ourselves to industry leaders, there is a huge scope for improvement. For example, on an annual basis, China is filing 16 lakh patents, the US is half of China, and India is 50-55,000 only. And on top of it, 60-65 percent of these are by NRIs. The possible reason for this is that our educational institutes, despite being so many –we have 65,000 higher educational institutions—have never chased ideas. So that ecosystem was never created. Also, most of them don’t know how to take ideas forward logically and own them.
What is the process of filing an IP by a student?
That process was previously completely missing. How to write a paper, how to present a case, how to pay the fee of an attorney—were the usual concerns. We are streamlining and making this process easier. We are thankful to the Ministry of Commerce, which has created a special category for educational institutes and has reduced the IP filing fees for them by 80 per cent! This will help substantially. Earlier, educational institutions were treated at par with companies, which was unfair, and I’m glad that honourable Minister of Commerce, Piyush Goyalji took our proposal and passed it in 10-15 days.
You’ve helped design a new kind of MBA programme recently. Can you take us through that?
I’ve always emphasised four pillars to encourage an innovation ecosystem – policy intervention, handholding institutions, creating platforms to showcase innovation, and the fourth pillar being innovation courses. This MBA falls under that fourth pillar. We want students who have good ideas to systematically pursue them and convert them into an enterprise. Apart from Gujarat and Rajasthan, India doesn’t have an entrepreneurial bent of mind in society at large. The colonial mindset still prefers a service or job for their children. Also, when we spoke to a large number of youngsters, they said they want to follow their ideas, but their parents will not allow it. So we thought let’s build this incubator-based programme –where only 30 per cent of the programme will be classroom-based. Students should take admission in this programme in groups, where they can run their projects as startups in teams. So under the garb of an MBA, students are pursuing entrepreneurship with the right kind of mentoring. Currently, 20 universities have accepted this programme.
We have often been told that academia and business cannot co-exist.
Yes, academicians were always taught to pursue Saraswati –the goddess of learning, and not Lakshmi –the goddess of wealth. But we believe now that academicians are the best people to pursue and create wealth. For me, research and innovation are not different. I would define research as the conversion of wealth into new knowledge. And innovation is the conversion of that new knowledge back to wealth. Earlier, a research person wasn’t incentivised to convert his knowledge into an enterprise, now we are giving them the opportunity.
You also spoke about starting Toycathons in your last Ted Talk. Why do we need them and what is your vision here?
The Indian toy industry is about 1.5 billion dollars and about 85 per cent are imported. Besides the fact that we are losing foreign exchange on substandard toys, more importantly, it also becomes about propagating a foreign value system, as our children follow Marvel and Disney heroes and their stories. If we have to give them a value system based on our ethos and civilisation, we have to come up with state-of-art Indian toys. This is the reason why we started Toycathons to promote out-of-the-box thinking in young kids. We also introduced the winning concepts to the top toy manufacturers like Hamleys and Funskool and I’m told many MOU’s are already signed. It also helped us discover concepts that we had lost like Waagh Bakri, or a board game based on the Chakravyuh … See the kind of revolution that is taking place!
How are we going to bridge the rural areas or technology-challenged areas to this revolution?
The pandemic was a blessing in disguise as far as education in this country is concerned. There was a huge push for digitisation. Kids in the remotest parts of the country have some smart gadgets. Even teachers have created so much content in their native language, because of this push. Education is now always going to be in a hybrid mode. Now with 5G coming up, we believe every nook and corner of this country will be digitally connected.
As we celebrate Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, are there any other special initiatives that you are working on?
For the first time, we are training 50,000 teachers –across the board –to be innovation ambassadors. We have to really sensitise teachers to four or five important concepts –creative thinking, IPR management, handholding of a new idea, the different kinds of funding mechanisms, basic fundamentals of finance, etc. Another interesting endeavour is to come up with National Innovation and Entrepreneurship Policy for schools, which will help schools take an idea to the startup level with a stake in the entire process. This is surely going to change the way we look at creative thinking and shift the mindset from grades to ideas. We are also pushing to introduce a subject on design thinking and creativity, from the sixth standard, as part of the CBSE syllabus, making India the only country to introduce such an elective at that age. This will take our students from rote learning to critical thinking, and change the way they look at a problem. We have to encourage the youth to become problem solvers.