AlumniWatch: Innovating India from the Inside

In the first of a new series featuring illustrious alumni, we ask Dr. Lina Sonne to share her insights and impressions of the working world. Now based in Mumbai, she speaks of the city’s energy and optimism, as well as the challenges of breaking through years of patriarchy and bureaucracy.

It’s an exciting time to be living and working in India, not only to witness the massive social transformation but also to play a role in the whirlwind of top-down and bottom-up development. Change is now being spurred on several fronts, and academia is no exception. In particular, the setting up of new universities allows more students to follow tertiary education while improving home-grown research.

There are new publicly funded universities, like the eight additional elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and six Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) set up across India, and a number of credible private universities founded by some of India’s richest men (Azim Premji University, Shiv Nadar University and OP Jindal Global University). On the other hand, we’ve seen a mushrooming of less credible private colleges, mostly motivated by business interests. In the southern state of Karnataka, this has led to a large number of unchecked professional engineering colleges of suspect quality failing to attract students.

Yet, in spite of the increase in universities, competition for places at the best institutions remains cut-throat, and the number of students keen to attend university considerably outnumbers the places available. Despite such intense competition, universities don’t seem to be able to convert this into knowledge, innovation or research advantage; India was the only BRICS country that did not feature among the recent top 200 universities in either the Times Higher Education or Quacquarelli Symonds rankings.

Meanwhile, in a positive step, the Indian Government has released a new STI policy, focusing on the need for high quality research to improve knowledge accumulation and innovation. The policy aims to double R&D expenditure to two per cent of GDP and to increase the total workforce engaged in R&D by two thirds within five years.

However, at universities this requires increased BlockQuoteLS1Feb13research grants and better pay, which for scholars (especially junior ones) remains very low in most top universities compared to both universities abroad and the Indian private sector, which has come much further in closing the gap between foreign and national pay packages.

So while Indian academia sees many of its brightest move abroad and stay at foreign research institutions and universities, we are seeing a change in the private sector, which is making working in India much more attractive to talent based in India as well as to talent working and studying abroad but returning home.

In major cities like Bangalore and Mumbai this is particularly evident in technology and social start-ups, with a lot of Indians returning home or first-generation nationals of Western countries moving to India to try their luck as entrepreneurs. If you are part of the start-up bubbles, such as the tech scene in Bangalore or the social enterprise scene in Mumbai, it certainly is buzzing with excitement, activity and hope for the future. Bleak EU and US reports on the economy seem distant indeed.

Flickr DShankbone

However, we are not seeing many Indian scholars returning to India; nor are many foreign scholars working full-time in the university system. It can be tough for Indians because of the hierarchical and bureaucratic systems that tend to focus more on age and years in service than on performance and ability. This makes it hard to be new, young and entrepreneurial.

Meanwhile foreign scholars are mostly not eligible to work in a university or research institute before reaching Associate Professor level, for the simple reason that the standardized salaries for more junior academic positions do not meet the minimum criteria set for employment visas; and even if they do, unlike universities in many other countries, publicly funded universities are generally not allowed to appoint foreign scholars for longer than five years. Elite IITs have been up in arms about this, but hopefully these policies can be adjusted so that Indian universities can benefit from a cosmopolitan mixture of academics that makes, for example, UNU-MERIT such a unique place to work and study.

The personal perspective
For me, the cosmopolitan mixture at UNU-MERIT has had two main benefits: one is that I now have a worldwide academic network, with one or more alumni in most countries around the world. The second is cultural: having spent five years on a PhD programme with fellows from around the world, cultural differences and prejudices, or expectations, have really melted away.

So with my worldview altered for the better, two years ago I turned down the opportunity to join a promising research project in the UK. I was stuck on the idea that if I wanted to continue studying innovation and entrepreneurship in developing countries I should not be sitting in Europe. I simply wanted to be in India if I was going to study inclusive innovation in India. So with broadly positive reactions from colleagues, I accepted an Assistant Professor position at the newly started Azim Premji University in Bangalore, packed my bags and moved continents within a week of defending my PhD in Maastricht.

It has been an exciting two years with many BlockQuoteLS2Feb13positives, but also some challenges. Year one was a fascinating and intensive practical course on how a university is set up: everything from employing faculty to setting up (and arguing over) the curriculum of an MA in Development, to operational matters such as websites and IT systems, to library priorities and the tension between theoretical and practical research and teaching.

The first year also taught me something more subtle and intangible about behaviour: about getting on and getting things done. As a relatively young and junior scholar – and of course a woman – in a deep rooted culture of hierarchy and bureaucracy which often hinders performance and creativity, it can be complicated to get things done. It then doesn’t add to your plus-points to work on a relatively ‘new’ research area (inclusive innovation) that is empirically focused in a university system that values tradition and theory.

aIMG_8997This is especially true if you are not culturally attuned to the way things get done. Being from Sweden, one of the most egalitarian, gender-neutral, meritocratic (and, along with the Dutch,- straight-talking!) societies in the world, and having just spent half a decade at UNU-MERIT which is the opposite of hierarchical, traditional and opaque, I simply didn’t understand a lot of the institutional quirks (which I had, by the way, written about extensively in my PhD). So along with great experiences, I also made mistakes in the way I interacted with people or tried to get things done. I would call it a year of learning by doing, by making mistakes and by unlearning some of the habits and practices I had been brought up with.

For year two, driven by a desire to get closer to the on-the-ground action I was researching, I decided to try something different, and moved to Mumbai and Intellecap, a social investment bank and consultancy working in the social enterprise sector in India. The work was a lot more applied, as I would help set up a stand-alone research unit and be the editor of a monthly newsletter on urban poverty in South Asia, Searchlight South Asia. It was a great opportunity to learn how the social enterprise ecosystem is evolving from a practical point of view – five years after I did fieldwork on some of its key organizations for my PhD.

Staying true to the calling
Despite the benefits, working in the private sector drove home one point very clearly. I am a geek, and I am into academia. Having stepped outside for a year, I can say very clearly that the grass is greener on the UNU-MERIT side of the fence. While I love my cocktails and handbags, creating new knowledge is far more exciting than vying for a bonus. I get more excited about new knowledge than I do about the commercial return; I want to dig deeper into a research piece because I am curious about what else I can find out, and how new knowledge can be put to good use.

So where does that leave me for year three? BlockQuoteLS3Feb13Well, I have learned a lot about India, about social enterprises, about inclusive innovation and urban poverty, about how to get on with people and how to get things done. With lessons well learned, and a nagging feeling that if I am teaching and telling others about entrepreneurship and start-ups, I should have that experience myself, I have recently changed course again and joined a start-up called Okapi.

As a collective of scholars interested in development issues, we’re seeking a third way to match academic excitement about new knowledge and quality of research with the private and third sector’s ability to undertake practice and policy relevant research, and to do so in a collaborative and multi-disciplinary manner. It also gives me the chance to continue working on innovation, entrepreneurship and urbanization.

I’m doing this while living in one of the most fascinating megacities in the world. Mumbai is mesmerizing and buzzing with traffic, people, and creativity. It has a clear underbelly, with a shameful level of poverty and frustrating lack of infrastructure, but it is also full of hope for the future, with innovative social enterprises and NGOs doing remarkable work, with scholars undertaking interesting research and capacity building to fight poverty, with artists trying to exist between cosmopolitanism and tradition, and a budding music scene mixing Western and Indian genres. Doors are open, and as a newcomer I’ve been able to access all these scenes, get to know colleagues and make friends from across the spectrum. It’s a great place to be and a great time to be here.

Dr. Lina Sonne graduated from UNU-MERIT in 2011 with the PhD thesis ‘Innovation in Finance to Finance Innovation: Supporting pro-poor entrepreneur-based innovation’. Images: UN Photo / J.P.Lafonte, Flickr / R.Hutch

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