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Lessons from the Honey Bee Network

You are a drug developer selling into India; what would you do if you had to choose between developing a drug that would cure 80% of the people with a certain condition for $1/day or a drug that would cure 99% of the people for $200/day?

This was one of the questions posed by Dr. Anil Gupta, Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Executive Vice Chair of the National Innovation Foundation (India), and Founder of the Honey Bee Network, when he visited MaRS for an event co-hosted by SiG@MaRS, the Queen’s Business School Centre for Responsible Leadership in collaboration with TiE Toronto.

Dr. Anil Gupta speaking at MaRS

Dr. Gupta created the Honey Bee Network to support grassroots innovators after seeing how the rural poor of India were rich in knowledge and talent, developing a myriad of inventions out of necessity, but did not have the resources to scale up and convert these innovations into viable products.   The Honey Bee Network brings together innovators, farmers, scholars, academics, policy makers, entrepreneurs and non-governmental organizations and an ensuing cross-pollination of ideas, creativity and grassroots genius takes place.

Dr. Gupta describes the network as taking the nameless, faceless innovators of India (and beyond) and brings them into a network where they get an identity.

He calls his work “inclusive innovation”.  He sees inclusion as a concept that starts with the needs of the user but considers economics, the environment and animals. This concept may be best demonstrated through this example: drinking water through pumps often wastes water, so a grassroots innovator in India developed a two-sided pump – one for drinking, one for filling a bucket and a trough that catches the unused water for animals.

Another example; women carry very heavy baskets on their heads for miles.  They don’t put the baskets down for a much-needed rest because they would not have the ability to lift them up again to continue their journey.  An innovator, simply someone who cared, set up tall table-like entities along the way so that women can rest the basket during their journey.

Dr. Gupta describes the value of engaging everyone as innovators – particularly children who have not yet been told they must do things a certain way.  They know that “wrong answers” can be the driver of innovation.  His advice to parents:  simply get out of the way.

He also puts belief in self-correcting design and suggests we allow time for autopoiesis.  Autopoiesis is based on the way living systems address and engage with the domains in which they operate. This biologically based theory … defines life as the ability to self-produce, rather than as (conventionally) the ability to reproduce. Like complexity theory it is a systems perspective, and is applicable to brains and societies as well as to biology and artificial life. In its original form it was applied to cognition, and replaces an external objective view of this subject with an internal relativistic understanding, in terms of an embedded observer.

Dr. Gupta shared lots of examples of great innovations from the grassroots – a fridge that uses a heat exchange compressor to both heat and cool a room; a wheelchair that is able to climb stairs was a great example. The cost of an electric wheelchair is currently a bit out of reach of everyone, much less the less fortunate, and yet for some people it can be an absolute necessity. People need to consider innovation in technology, and as new things are invented, things that already exist that are not at a point where it can be affordable for everyone should have people working on them to get them there. Things like building can be streamlined, materials can be swapped for more common and economic ones while making sure performance is not altered. If these things are necessary to some people, but not accessible to all, then it is our responsibility as a society to assist, and ensure our efforts are aimed towards that direction so as to not leave people behind as we innovate.

Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

One idea that was definitely worth sharing is Techpedia – Dr. Gupta and his colleagues want this portal to be a holding space for great ideas so that we “don’t do what has been done before”.

He made it very clear that we can ignore grassroots innovators but by doing so we are missing terrific opportunities.  He explains the limits of seeing people through one lens – the bottom of the pyramid – a term that only categorizes people based on their economic status, not on the much more important dimensions that include creativity, values and the ability to innovate.

For more information on Dr. Gupta you can read his national and international publications, watch his TED talk, or visit his blog at www.sristi.org/anilg.  What a pleasure to meet Dr. Gupta as he actively works to promote technological and social innovation-based entrepreneurship, policies, institutions and networks, and support social change agents.

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Allyson Hewitt About Allyson Hewitt

Allyson Hewitt is the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation's Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at MaRS Discovery District

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