Monday, 19 June 2017

Re-thinking the ‘Ethics’ in ‘Innovation’

Towards a More Inclusive and Culture-sensitive Definition of ‘Innovation’!

How do laws and policies aimed at promoting and disseminating beneficial innovations define the terms ‘beneficial’ and ‘innovation’? Do these definitions ensure equitable socio-economic development of all countries based on their culture-specific innovations? In other words, are these definitions themselves fundamentally ‘ethical’? These are some of the questions that the selected top 60 students from over 20 different countries across the globe will discuss in the forthcoming World Youth Forum for Ethics in Innovation (WYF 2017). The intensive three day workshop will see these top 60 students and young professionals go through a state of the art self-management and leadership training, and discuss some of the most pressing issues relating to ethics and innovation that affect the 21st century global village. The students will discuss case studies from their own countries/cultures and arrive at high level recommendations for academics, industry and top governmental representatives in the form of the 'Call of the Youth' that will be presented by three groups of students during the 1st Munich Conference Series on Ethics in Innovation (EII Conference) at the DPMAforum, German Patent and Trade Mark Office, Munich on 26-27 June 2017. Those who couldn't make it to the World Youth Forum, are invited to register for the EII conference at this link.

Here are some of my thoughts on the issue of 'ethics', 'innovation', 'ethical innovations', and most importantly, the 'ethics in innovation'. These thoughts are part of the research project of the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition (MPI) linked to the WYF 2017. WYF 2017 participants, as well as anyone else interested in the issue of ethics in innovation, are encouraged to read these and provide comments so as to facilitate in-depth discussion of topics during the WYF and the EII conference.

What is considered ‘ethical’ and ‘innovative’ varies from person to person, culture to culture, and even from industry to industry. This difference in perception may, at first glance, seem to be of interest only from a purely academic perspective. In reality, however, it plays a crucial and practical role in ensuring a healthy and balanced public debate, which, in the end, can influence all segments of human life, including the approach to education, the focus of scientific research efforts, the availability of funds for such research, the framework of laws and policies, and even the flow of capital at the level of societies, communities, countries and regions.

In fact, despite widespread globalization, even in the 21st century, it is not corporate profits alone that drive the direction and success of any socio-economic activity, including ‘innovation’. Diverse ethical views, including socio-cultural norms, social or individual history and the historical evolution of world views predominant in various regions of the world, all play a significant role in determining the direction and goals of such activities/innovations within the societies or communities where they emerge on the one hand, and the manner in which they are viewed, disseminated and adopted around the globe, on the other.

In this situation, it is relevant to examine whether all types of socio-economic activities and linked material and immaterial products and processes, emerging from diverse socio-cultural and socio-economic contexts, are all equitably recognized as ‘innovation’ at all. Whether it is by common people or by international agencies engaged either in law making or in ranking countries and societies (for example, on an innovation index), such recognition (or its absence) can have far reaching consequences. These consequences may include an impact (positive or negative) on the economic growth of nations where these products/processes emerge, availability of venture or seed capital for their promotion, dissemination and widespread adoption, availability of funds to conduct scientific research on such products/processes, as well as on the overall morale of people engaged in creation of beneficial products/processes that are historically unique to their societies and cultures. Put together, such consequences can either expand or limit the diversity of choices available for people in the global marketplace.
Furthermore, if ethical issues and dominant world views emerging therefrom, broadly speaking, guide the formulation of laws and policies associated, inter alia, with testing, adopting, disseminating, using and even patenting of certain types of innovations, to the exclusion of others, it also becomes necessary to re-think what is ‘ethical’ from a multi-cultural and fundamentally ‘human’ perspective.

With the increasing confluence of diverse cultures through immigration, job hunts and growing frequency of inter-cultural marriages, it is necessary to re-think the fundamental understanding that we as a human society have of the terms ‘innovation’ and ‘ethics’ as such, and of their relationship with one another in narratives employed at national and international debates linked with the term ‘innovation’.

Research Goals: (i) Re-thinking the definition of ‘innovation’ and ‘ethical innovations’ in the present day multi-cultural global village. (ii) Identifying means of promoting inclusive, sustainable and ethical innovations among all sections and segments of society worldwide by examining (through case studies, surveys and empirical research) means by which products, services and processes that are beneficial to humankind have (historically and contemporarily) been created and disseminated in diverse cultural and socio-economic contexts. (iii) Investigating whether all such products/processes/services are recognized as ‘innovation’ by the societies in which they emerge on the one hand, and by the world in general on the other.

Comments, current research, news links, blog articles and anything else that helps add to, contradict or enrich the above research goals would be much appreciated - please use the comments segment below.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Natural Farming Summit 1.0

In July last year, Prof. Gregory Radick of the University of Leeds and I designed a research project to study the innovativeness among Indian farmers engaged in natural/organic farming and the role that intellectual property (broadly and narrowly defined, as per Prof. Radick's theoretical framework on IP-Broad and IP-Narrow) plays in this process. The research was designed to take forward Prof. Radick's work, as well as my work in the field of promoting sustainable innovations in plant varieties (see my research on the topic, available here). The project named the International Art of Living Foundation as its NGO partner and sought to hire a post-doctoral research fellow, to be jointly supervised by Prof. Radick (at the University of Leeds) and me (at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition) who would conduct the necessary study, including field work, in India over the course of approximately one year. The project received funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council in November last year. The research has started since January this year after we were fortunate enough to find a brilliant young post-doctoral researcher - Dr. Natalie Kopytko, for the study. Natalie is currently in India and is conducting field studies with support from the Art of Living Foundation in several remote areas on India. We are all looking forward to her research findings.

In the mean time, the Art of Living decided to organize its annual conference on organic farming (Natural Farming Summit) in early May this year. This proved to be perfect timing for our project as it coincided with Natalie's field work kick off. The Art of Living foundation, whose work I have been observing and following for over a decade now (and with whom I did a couple of yoga teacher training courses) also invited us to make presentations on our research during the summit. After the conference, I (and other speakers) were interviewed by the Art of Living Bureau of Communications (ABC). I reproduce the text of the interview hereunder:


From the Art of Living Bureau of Communications:

Agricultural Summit on Natural Farming:

The Natural Farming Summit 1.0, organized by the Art of Living Foundation was held on 9th and 10th May 2017 at the Art of Living International Centre, Bangalore. The summit brought together a diverse set of stakeholders engaged in natural and organic farming, and associated sectors of work at both practical and policy levels. The two day summit saw these stakeholders sharing their experiences, research findings and policy recommendations with a rich audience comprising of farmers, distributors, business houses, academic experts, policy makers and NGOs.
The conference participants re-emphasized the benefits of natural farming, including its impact on individual health, quality of soil, improved financial status of farmers and many more. World renowned activist Dr. Vandana Shiva ji, founder of the NGO “Navdanya” also shared her thoughts on how farming which is aligned to nature is the only means of maintaining biodiversity, which is the most urgent need of the hour.

Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai:


Forums like the Natural Farming Summit are an opportunity to bring together various stakeholders who share a common vision and goal, namely to make the agricultural sector sustainable and prosperous from an ecological, as well as economic perspective. One of our international speakers from Germany was Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai, who has a masters and doctoral degree in intellectual property law, with special focus on Indian plant variety protection law and policy. Currently, she is a Program Director as the Munich Intellectual Property Law Center (MIPLC) and a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation & Competition, Munich. According to Mrinalini ji, “practical solutions at the farm level need support at the research and policy level to ensure that socio-economic benefits flow to farmers.” She said that “the farmers of this country have always been innovators – it is unfortunate that following the Green Revolution, the role of farmers was reduced to mere technology takers who sow and harvest crops. In order to re-establish and re-define the role of farmers in the agricultural sector, it is necessary to remind farmers that traditionally, they have always been innovators on the farm – improving traditional seeds in situ and improvising means of maintaining soil health, while also managing pests in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner.” In relation to her current research, Mrinalini Ji said: “We feel that farmers who are engaged in natural farming using traditional varieties of seeds improved and preserved in situ, have always been innovators – but their work and role in maintaining and enhancing germplasm reserves while ensuring sustainable high yield and nutritive content in the food, has not been adequately recognized or even researched. A project, designed jointly by Prof. Gregory Radick of the University of Leeds and Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai of the Max Planck Institute, which recieved funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Government of UK in November last year, is perhaps the first qualitative, empirical study into:

(1)Seed exchange and seed saving culture among Indian farmers and how it affects innovation at farmer level;
(2) how the Indian government's seed replacement policy affects innovativeness among Indian farmers;
(3) the manner in which the Indian Plant Variety Protection law affects in situ agrobiodiversity conservation; and
(4) the relationship between the above and (a) the growing crisis in international agriculture, including (b) suicides by Indian farmers and (c) dwindling number of young people willing to take up a way of life seen as menial labour

Using the funds received, the University of Leeds has engaged a highly qualified post-doctoral research fellow, Dr. Natalie Kopytko, to study innovation among farmers in India, especially farmers who have received training in Zero Budget Farming from the Art of Living, farmers who have won the genome savior community recognition award by the Government of India, and farmers that are engaged in conventional farming using modern seeds.” Mrinalini ji‘s five year long empirical study on the Indian Plant Variety Protection Law and associated governmental policies, conducted as part of her Ph.D. research with MPI, established the basis for this joint research with the University of Leeds. Her research was published by Springer Nature in Max Planck’s Munich Studies on Innovation & Competition series.

Global scenario:

Mrinalini ji shared her thoughts on the scenario in India and the world regarding agricultural technologies, especially new and improved seeds. She said that since the Green Revolution, farmers in India are relying on Universities and large corporations to provide them improved seeds and improved agricultural technology. As a result, their status in society is reduced to that of a laborer that merely sows and harvests crops. “Our farmers have to go back to the times when they were technology makers, rather than mere technology takers.” She emphasized that “India doesn’t only have religious and cultural diversity – India also has incredible geographic, climatic, biotic and abiotic diversity. If we give this diversity the importance that it deserves, and make our research local, we can export agricultural technology (including seeds, and sustainable pest and soil management technology) to every agro-climatic zone in the world!” She insisted, however, that “India and Indian farmers must stop giving or expecting anything for free. If we are ourselves developing indigenous, ecologically sustainable high yielding seeds of a large number of diverse crops, we also need to be economically aware enough to charge a proper price for it. India’s economic development would then not be dependent on obtaining foreign technology as charity, but on exporting high quality, eco-friendly technology at fair and reasonable price to the rest of the world.” Mrinalini ji shared with our team that she is also inspired by Art of Living founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Ji's vision of "creating wealth" for all. She said that “we have to use our own traditional systems and traditional values of innovation to create wealth for our farmers and provide food security to the whole world. Any effort or emphasis placed in trying to bring us foreign, non-sustainable technology at cheap rates is not going to help India become economically strong in the long run. Only indigenous, high quality, appropriately priced innovation can bring back India’s lost prosperity. We have to create wealth for ourselves and for the world by using our own intellectual property. Then, those technologies that are developed (and patented) elsewhere, which complement and support our indigenous innovations (e.g. innovations in the digital age) can also be used more meaningfully by our farmer-innovators for further mutually beneficial wealth creation.

The larger project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council also seeks to determine the history of India’s ‘Seed Replacement Policy’ and whether farmer to farmer seed exchange was, is, or should be included within this policy. The research project takes forward Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai’s PhD research in the field of promoting sustainable innovations in plant varieties and Prof. Gregory Radick's theoretical and conceptual work on Intellectual Property over the long-run of the history of science, and seeks to learn from Art of Living’s vast practical and on-farm work with farmers across the length and breadth of India. Mrinalini ji shared that the innovative potential of the Indian farming community if already clear from the presentations made at the Natural Farming Summit. She said that she got a lot of interesting and insightful information about Indian methods of natural farming and the work of the farming community. “The work and what has been accomplished despite difficult and adverse legal/policy environments is commendable! A truly enriching and eye opening experience!” she said.

Sudarshan Kriya: It is not 'just Yoga’, it is innovation from India!

“It is a wonder that when 50% of the Indian population is engaged in agriculture or allied activities, agriculture and allied sectors are contributing less than 14% to the Indian GDP. To increase agriculture’s contribution to the Indian GDP, on the international level, Indian farmers can and must become technology makers & know-how suppliers,” remarked Mrinalini ji during her presentation at the Natural Farming Summit. Drawing a parallel with Sudarshan Kriya, she said that “I have seen that even teachers of the Art of Living don’t recognize that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji is an innovator! He has created, packaged and disseminated the highly beneficial traditional knowledge based innovation, Sudarshan Kriya, to more than 150 countries around the globe. ‘Sudarshan Kriya’ is not protected by patent, the name is protected by trade mark and the tapes are protected by copyright. Copyright is considered a relatively weak form of intellectual property protection. Yet, using incredible skill, together with what can be considered the highest form of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, Sri Sri has brought the economic benefits accruing from the dissemination of Sudarshan Kriya back to India and to other poor countries of the world – supporting important river rejuvenation projects, organic farming projects, projects for building homes for the poor and many other socially oriented projects. This is the goal that every Indian farmer-innovator should aspire to. We should stop adjudging profit making enterprises as greedy and stop glorifying poverty.” In relation to Sudarshan Kriya, Mrinalini ji shared a beautiful story of an Art of Living teacher in USA, who was deeply concerned about the trauma suffered by war veterans in the US. “With permission from Sri Sri, he designed a new trauma relief program just for heavily traumatized war veterans – with Indian yoga and meditation based techniques, including Sudarshan Kriya, at the heart of the program! This program has been covered in the international news by news agencies like CNN. It is amazing that our indigenous innovation has reached so many corners of the globe, benefited so many millions, and we still don’t realize how important our own indigenous technology and our innovators are.”

The Munich Conference Series on “Ethics in Innovation: Innovation 4.0


Mrinalini ji said that “in fact, not just India, but all nations across the world need to re-consider their own approach to identifying, promoting and beneficially disseminating innovations that are unique to their cultures. Encouraging culture specific innovations would not only bring equitable economic development to all nations, but would also increase the choice and diversity available for the citizens of the 21st century multi-cultural global village. This, in fact, is one of the aims with which we are organizing the World Youth Forum for Ethics in Innovation.” According to the write up provided to us by Mrinalini ji, “the fundamental research projects associated with the World Youth Forum for Ethics in Innovation is designed to engage the student participants of the World Youth Forum in multi-disciplinary & multi-cultural discussion to consider three questions that are of significant concern in our increasingly diverse, 21st century global village:

1. How individuals from different cultures, countries & educational background understand the terms ‘ethics’ & ‘innovation’
2. What in their opinion, constitutes an ‘ethical innovation’, including whether a re-assessment is necessary of the manner in which the term ‘innovation’ as currently defined & understood is culturally, socially & economically inclusive.
3. How existing laws, policies & practices can/should be modified to promote ‘ethical innovations’.”

Conferences like these add great value to global knowledge reserves and showcase innovations from different cultures, regions and sectors. We highly encourage everyone to participate in the 1st Ethics in Innovation Conference Series in Munich from 23-27th June 2017.