Innovation is rarely about top science or high technology; scientific breakthroughs don’t come about every day. It is more about the power of ideas and their creative application. Often it is about leveraging existing resources, technology or science to useful purposes in an innovative way.
Few would dispute that Steve Jobs of Apple is one of the greatest innovators of our time. Coming from humble beginnings and raised by adoptive parents who could not afford much, Jobs barely completed one year of college. But he was free to do what he liked most – attending lecturers given by scientists and innovators on subjects like calligraphy. He even went to India and returned as a Buddhist. His short employment at Atari Video Game gave birth to his own idea for mouse-driven graphic interface. All the innovations that followed at Apple were not new technology in the sense of basic science or research, but application of existing technology to new ideas. It was a result of his free spirit – the ability to decide for himself without confining to prevailing conventions and rules. It is about independent thinking and originality, and the courage to plunge ahead to create products and services that even more established companies could not innovate.
What we have tried to do at Shanti Bhavan is a little bit of imparting these strengths. When I started out creating Shanti Bhavan in 1995, most people, including some who had held high positions in government, told me that excellence among the poorest is not possible. I was told that they do not have the capacity to accomplish greatness. My contention, on the other hand, was that those who don’t have sufficient means are the ones who have that fire in the belly to succeed, if given the opportunity. After all, the past half a century of educational programs focusing on literacy and primary schooling to uplift the poor have not motivated many children from those families to even complete high school.
Today, we all can be proud of the children we have at Shanti Bhavan. They came from among the poorest families, and made academic history in India. The first two batches of children, entire classes – practically all from dalit families –scored first class in ICSE examination. Further, half of both classes passed with distinction.
Even more compelling is what these children are today – confident, creative, and bright, and yet humble and polite. They have the right values. It is the result of an academic program that encourages originality, and an environment that values open discourse and differing opinions. They may not fit the mold of young geniuses, but they have the capacity to think for themselves and the courage to act on it. I am confident they will be very successful in their lives.
The point I am making is this. If children are brought up with the spirit of freedom to go beyond what the books tell, and experiment with their own ideas, they will become the true innovators of tomorrow. Imagine what India would be like if it can unleash the potential among the hundreds of millions of people whose children presently go through a rote-learning system of education that curtails creativity and originality. If the required resources are put into creating institutions like Shanti Bhavan in every country, there will soon be many more innovative minds to make the world a better place. And what great contribution and tribute to social justice that would be!
Sure, today Shanti Bhavan is facing financial constraints that limit its ability to scale-up to achieve the original goal. But based on the accomplishments of the past 13 years, I am more convinced than ever before that this is a model that could transform India in a significant way. The lofty goal of one hundred such schools is not that distant if the already successful innovators of the country join forces to offer the opportunity for the next generation of young minds to become the innovators of tomorrow.
Abraham M. George