Ideas and ivory towers

The knowledge economy demands seamless interaction between government, academia, industry

Written by Dinesh Singh | Published: June 20, 2017 12:20 am
Export, Garment export, China, India labour, cheap labour in India, Nike, IT sector, Google, Indian Express The Indian readymade garments industry has been a vital enabler of our export trade. Each year it exports to the West, ready-to-wear apparel worth several billion dollars. (Reuters Photo, File)

The Indian readymade garments industry has been a vital enabler of our export trade. Each year it exports to the West, ready-to-wear apparel worth several billion dollars. Trade analysts, in the recent past, have been quite gung-ho about this sector’s prospects. Where do countries like India, China and others in the region derive the strength that adds so much value to their economies? It is not as if nimble fingers and skilled tailoring hands do not exist in developed nations. The answer lies is in the availability of cheap labour. Unfortunately, this advantage is likely to disappear in the near future. Just as worrying is the obliviousness of this looming danger on the part of our policy and decision-makers.

We simply need to delve into the realm of robotics and artificial intelligence to gauge the situation. A former professor of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology has helped create a robotic tailor that can stitch a perfect circle: If you can stitch a perfect circle, then you can perform almost any complicated sewing task that, in the past, could only have been undertaken by skilled and experienced hands. The only seemingly viable option for the garments industry in the Asian region is to seek to import such machines. There goes a part of our plan to keep unemployment figures down.

There are many lessons that need to be imbibed by us in India from this troubling future of the garments industry. These lessons transcend the garments industry and need to be brought to the attention of educationists, policymakers and several arms of the government. The success of this robotic stitching device provides us with a near-perfect example of the power of a knowledge-based economy. A seamless chain linking a knowledge centre, a private company and an arm of the US government helped bring about this transformation that does not bode well for India and China. This transformational idea emanated from a knowledge institution and was put to practical use by a for-profit company. The catalyst that transformed the idea from a patent into the actual robotic device was the Department of Defense of the United States. It supported the research through a contractual grant.

As another illustration, we need to wake up to the fact that Nike has been experimenting with the use of 3D printers to manufacture shoes. These areas of high-end technology have a rapid rate of convergence. It is well nigh possible that our shoe manufacturing industry could be hard-hit in no time. My final example also relies on the IT world; a few years ago, I compared the quarterly earnings of the IT company Google and a major Indian IT company. The Indian IT company, at that point in time, was much older than Google and had almost 10 times the number of employees working at Google. Yet, Google had earned more than three times what the Indian IT company had earned in that single quarter.

A year ago, I looked at the two entities again. Google is still very much smaller than the Indian IT company in terms of employees, but it earns much more in one quarter than what the Indian IT company earns in a whole year. This is simply because Google is based on a knowledge idea that has connections to Stanford. The Indian IT company, alas, is dependent on brawn as opposed to brains.

A little reflection on our own great and ancient heritage shall also convince us that Nalanda, Takhshila, Vallabhi, Vikramshila and many other great institutions were not the outcomes of some grand central strategy laid down in great detail that could have spawned micromanagement of these institutions. The lessons can be easily inferred and are not too many, nor too tedious. Policy — if at all — must simply be more in the realm of enlightened inducement that encourages and engenders good practices. It must nurture and encourage initiative and out-of-the-box thinking and should be, to an extent, ready to accommodate risk taking and have room for failure.

Institutions have to move out of traditional modes of thinking and must recognise that knowledge can exist in all realms, not just in formal systems around academia.

Witness the dabbawalas of Mumbai or the achievements of Craig Venter or the great insights of G.J. Mendel or even the fact that Albert Einstein was really working as a patent clerk when he made his tremendous discoveries. C.V. Raman was in the office of the accountant general while making his discovery. In ancient India, much before Christ and the Greeks, some outstanding mathematics was discovered and driven by societal needs. Knowledge systems in India invented cataract surgery and plastic surgery much before Christ; the invention of the so-called Wootz steel allowed us to export the knowledge and the steel implements of surgery. The invention and use of the rapalgai — a rope-based device also called kamal — enabled our merchant ships to calculate positions at sea at a time when Europe was clueless — the great Issac Newton had admitted defeat in this respect. Enormous economic benefits thus accrued to India for centuries.

So the learning that stares us in the face is the need to develop and nurture educational institutions in a manner that ensures their linkages to the needs and challenges of the nation — including its economic needs. This requires inducing young minds to grapple with the challenges of the nation and society. The other learning that also mocks us is the fact that no red alerts seem to have been issued in this context by any economic agency, think tank or any institution of knowledge. Knowledge without action is meaningless, as stated by the Mimansa school of philosophy long ago.

The writer is former vice chancellor, University of Delhi and Distinguished Senior Hackspace Fellow, Imperial College

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. Seshubabu Kilambi
    Jun 20, 2017 at 7:43 pm
    The world is becoming ' senseless' by the day with academicians turned politicians
    1. A
      Jun 20, 2017 at 3:24 pm
      Indian industries are not R D intensive industries and also our Universities and tech ins utes are no where near US and European ones. So comparison is of no use. We get work on the basis of cost arbitrage only. We will not be able to catch them in near future and till then all tech will come from there. In short term we are there to manufacture/provide services for them. Later on, depending upon technological development and our own growth in science and technology, we may have to find new ways to deal with future uncertainties where automation and robotics may render people redundant. But in future with young population declining, world may have less men power.
      1. K
        Jun 20, 2017 at 2:20 pm
        Yes a very rich article coming from Dinesh Singh Ex VC who tried to destroy Delhi University. He first Fronted for the Congress then tried to pimp for the BJP . A mediocre mathematician and typical of his class, got his promotions based on who he knew. Carted his kids to the US while smashing what little good there was for the under funded and poorly staffed DU colleges. These are words By Dinesh Singh that smack of hypocrisy not wisdom.
        1. Boray Sudhindra
          Jun 20, 2017 at 10:20 am
          Inspiring analysis EVERY NxtGen Teachers at all levels to READ. Prof.Singh introduced the FYUP course and eventually buried due to protest by Teachers and other stake holders!... whole country lost a great "break-through" step in stagnant disarray Edu set-up. We need to do introspection and see " Be Truthful to Yourself FIRST" rest of remedies follow automatically!
          1. Tushar Mishra
            Jun 20, 2017 at 10:02 am
            Indeed a thoughtful article. But we need to know as to why the trinity do not interact. Industry, education and government have different and exclusive objectives to fulfil. If industry is for profit, education is for knowledge and government is for power. Education has failed in its duty to authenticate and tell industry that through adhering to values only they can grow sustainably. Education has failed in its prime duty to create wisdom-based knowledge for itself, and for the society. Likewise, if education wants to interact with government, it has to showcase solutions to various problems facing society and also the way how government can secure long-term vote and support of the people. Let education serve the purpose of industry and government in robust and meaningful way to create conditions for seamless interaction. The adage, ‘First deserve, then desire’ goes well with education.
            1. Load More Comments