By Chanuka Wattegama
I was surprised to see Steve Jobs being called an ‘inventor’ by many obituarists. Not the fitting tag. Jobs wasn’t exactly a Caractacus Pott, the crazy inventor of the popular children’s movie ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. I doubt he ever had the technical ability to ‘invent’ any product that was linked with his name. He was an ‘innovator’ – far superior to a typical inventor. He identified the true value of a new idea, braved the risks of commercialisation of it, failed often, but ultimately transformed the way we work, think and entertain ourselves.
Switch to home. In a blog post that has later been reproduced in newspapers, economist Anushka Wijesinha raises some relevant questions: Can Sri Lanka ever produce anybody like Steve Jobs? If it cannot, what are the changes to be introduced in our ‘innovation policy’ to achieve this?
Wijesinha proposes spending more money on R&D and creating networks among academia, researchers, public and private sectors – more generally producers and users of the knowledge. He appears to believe the popular misconception that innovations happen only at universities, research centres and think tanks. Innovations do happen at these places, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. More innovations happen outside universities than inside. Most innovators didn’t even have a basic degree. Two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg completed only high school. Jerry Yang and David Filo created Yahoo! when they were undergraduates. So did You Tube creators Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim. None of these were funded by either government or private sector.
Lack of focus on R&D slows down development, but that cannot be the only or even key reason that blocks innovation. It has more to do with the culture – that does not encourage and nurture new ideas.
Here is my own saga. As a fresh electronics engineering graduate, eighteen years back, I was full of new ideas. I was to turn Sri Lanka upside down - only till I went to my first job interview at a multinational firm. I was asked what I could bring in. Taking it foolishly as an opportunity to show my creativity I shared my ideas about a few electronic gadgets.
The response was harsh. “You have come to the wrong place son. Even if they are 100% profitable we will not manufacture these gadgets. We have our products. We just need somebody to sell them…”
I wasn’t suggesting that they manufacture the gadgets. I was just demonstrating my ability to innovate. A more intelligent evaluator would have realized that an innovator in one field can do the same in another, given the opportunity. They haven’t and I didn’t get the job, as you can guess.
I was more careful in my succeeding interviews. I just gave up my ‘crazy ideas’ to be a good boy. For the rest of my career, I was promptly recruited and promoted. Innovation was rarely a part in any fixed job I did. My bosses loved a hard worker, who implemented their ideas, than an innovator who ‘calls for trouble’. The innovator in me died young.
I would have met success, you might say, if I had quit my regular job to start a business of my own. Why should I do that? I didn’t grow up in a vacuum. I was brought up in a culture that venerated professionals – doctors, engineers, bankers, academics, accountants, lawyers – and was always skeptic about entrepreneurship. We were trained to avert risks, not to take more. We were told to pursue knowledge, not wealth. In a traditional Sri Lankan village, ‘mudalali’ perhaps the only person to link it with the outside world was typically treated with detestation – while the school master or the ayurvedic physician earned respect. I was just following those cultural norms. It was easier to walk along a paved way than to build your own. I guess I wasn’t alone.
If we really need a Steve Jobs, we will not have him till we clear these cultural barriers. If we were to tame our children too, with the same set of rules we are not going to see him for few more generations.