Innovation / Lectures & Meetings

Learning a Living interview with Professor Anil Gupta: Giving ‘faceless innovators’ a voice


Reposted from :

Richard Miranda

In partnership with the World Innovation Summit for Education we have written ‘Learning a Living,’ a new book that focuses on radical innovation at the education/work interface. In anticipation of its release in mid-November, we are launching a month-long campaign to celebrate and bring attention to some of the most powerful thinking on, and examples of, initiatives which hold out the hope of radically new approaches better fitted to the conditions of the 21st century. Read more about the book here.

For the book we conducted a large number of extensive interviews with a wide-range of educational experts. This week we will be sharing some of their unique insights about preparing students for the working world.

Professor Anil Gupta has been a professor in the Centre for Management in Agriculture at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad since 1981. He is the founder of the Honey Bee Network, a fellow of WAAS and the Executive Vice Chair of the National Innovation Foundation. In May 2012 he gave an interview to the WISE team exploring his take on the future of education and work.

According to Professor Gupta, one of the most significant challenges facing education and learning, both in India and beyond, is ‘a lack of authenticity’ (defined as the connection – or lack thereof – between one’s experience of the real world and what one learns in the classroom). He felt that classroom teaching was now so focused on instruction and curriculums that teachers had forgotten the importance of observation as a learning tool.

As part of his work with the Honey Bee Network and the National Innovation Foundation, Professor Gupta takes groups of international and local people on learning walks (shodhyatras) around different regions of India. These walks are designed to demonstrate the importance of learning through observation, interaction and empathetic assimilation.

Professor Gupta felt that only by walking through the slums and rural villages of India can you observe the potential for innovation and creativity among the poorest people in society. Only by giving students an opportunity to interact with their subject matter through real world experience can you encourage them to ‘authentically’ value learning.

Professor Gupta also argued that once you have encouraged students to observe and reflect on what is going on around them, you must encourage them to take responsibility for what they see. Students should be encouraged to ask how they should use their learning, or to question whether or not they are accountable for what they learn about. He used Chris Argyris’ theory of double loop learning (in which an individual, organisation or entity is able, having attempted to achieve a goal, to modify or reject the goal in the light of experience) to demonstrate the limitations of our own system.

Feedback on past mistakes is not affecting the way we organise society or the way we teach our students. Students are rarely encouraged to change the way they live their own lives based on the mistakes of their predecessors. They are not being taught to take accountability for societal problems, but are instead taught that they are separate from them. As a result, the potential for social feedback to affect how we make decisions is lost and the mistakes of the past are repeated – a single loop system of learning.

Professor Gupta suggests that as well as reflecting on our own experiences in the pursuit of a particular goal (double-loop learning), we should reflect on the criteria for how we define valid knowledge by questioning the assumptions we made when choosing to pursue the original goal. Only then will we start to recognise the value of other knowledge produced on the margins of society (in this case by innovators among poor communities).

As well as a lack of accountability, Professor Gupta felt there was a lack of deviance in the educational system. In other words, students should be encouraged to question what they are being taught and teachers should be encouraged to learn from their students. If teachers can acknowledge the fallibility of their own knowledge, learning becomes shared and students become active contributors to the knowledge system. He observed that the popularity of social networks (with obvious limitations) is partly indicative of this desire for shared and communal learning, so ignored by the mainstream education system.

The Honey Bee Network was founded as a direct response to what Professor Gupta saw as a system of education and innovation that lacked authenticity, self-reflection and deviance by completely ignoring knowledge produced at the margins. The network looks for grass-roots innovators and connects them with each other and the wider world, giving them both a voice and an identity. It scopes, documents, and assesses grassroots innovators and their innovations in a number of different countries globally (including China, Malaysia, Spain and Brazil). It then connects the innovator with industry experts (such as fabricators, medical labs, service designers etc.), who can help them to develop their innovations. Finally, it provides access to funding through a micro-venture finance mechanism.

The Honey Bee Network is founded on the premise that the best innovations come from a cross-pollination of ideas, in which knowledge is shared between people from all sections of society. This can only be achieved by making knowledge available in local languages and in multiple formats. Our knowledge system is dominated by ‘asymmetry’; the creation and affirmation of knowledge is controlled by a small section of the global population, often with a vested interest in the preservation of the status quo.

By giving the ‘faceless innovator’ a voice in the national innovation system (it is now included within India’s National Innovation Foundation), the Honey Bee Network has made a significant contribution to the creation of a new knowledge system, one in which traditional knowledge producers at the top of society recognise the potential contribution of those at the bottom.

Professor Gupta felt that in the future we will need to completely reclassify the knowledge system. We will question the kind of knowledge we want and need, and what we currently see as important (the additional loop). The kind of knowledge system Professor Gupta envisages is one in which we create new connections that break down existing knowledge silos between nature and technology, nature and medicine, medicine and social policy. But the inertia in the system and the control exerted over knowledge by large vested interests means this transformation will be slow.

Alongside the transformation of the knowledge system will come a transformation in the way we work. Professor Gupta suggested that in the future only 25%-40% of our time will be spent working in a fixed place along traditional lines. The rest of the time will be split between ‘walking’; observing the world and asking questions about what we are doing. We are going to spend “less time doing things and more time deciding what to do and how to do it efficiently.” From this perspective learning is very much built in to the fabric of work.

Professor Gupta summarised by arguing that the current education system was without sensitivity or empathy; “we know a lot, we feel very little, and we do even less.”

The book was released at the WISE annual event on the 13-15 of November. You can read the first chapter here. Click here to order a copy. 

Reproduced/adapted from Living A Learning: Radical Innovation in Education for Work, published by WISE Qatar and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing 2013.

6 thoughts on “Learning a Living interview with Professor Anil Gupta: Giving ‘faceless innovators’ a voice

  1. We need some degree to get a good job. So our education system goes through a formative way. In this situation where is the space to feel something and to implement our ideas?

  2. I realize that every man develop an enterprise by using their own idea to fulfill their expectation. We also know that every entrepreneurial activity has some threats. Without measuring those threats any one may fail. If our education curriculum have distinct department for entrepreneur development along with government support then those type of threats may be optimize significantly. Is it possible?

  3. If one prefers sitting on the fence, then certainly wheels won’t move forward!

    In my view, take risks (preferably, “best-possible calculated” risks), and, move on!

    There is no fun in life without risky ventures!

    I wont wait for the government support, really, if I have a strong idea in my mind. I would, rather, seek support from like-minded individuals, and, kick-start with my enterprise.

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