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Global Innovation Rankings: Onwards and upwards for India?

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Increasingly, innovation is the lifeblood of economic and social prosperity, through new and improved products, services and business models, employment in higher value, satisfying jobs, and to address national and global challenges in areas such as natural resource management, health care and urban renewal. It is also a key way of promoting an inclusive society. Ideas come from all walks of life. Nurturing the free flow of ideas, and connecting idea generators with idea users is vital.

How does India fare on innovation? The 2019 Global Innovation Rankings, by Cornell, INSEAD and WIPO, confirms the continued rise of India. Out of 129 countries, India is ranked overall 52nd, climbing from 57th position in 2018. The Global Innovation Rankings measures both input (such as human capital and research, institutions, infrastructure and market and business sophistication) and output domains (knowledge and technology outputs and creative outputs). India is ranked an even more impressive 26th on the quality of innovation, which encompasses globally ranked institutions, overseas patent performance and publications. Moreover, India “punches above its weight”, achieving an overall innovation ranking above what might be expected given its level of economic development ie GDP per capita.

Yet for all these apparently impressive outcomes, there is still room for improvement. Investing in the building blocks of innovation, including the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of India’s institutions and overall business environment (e.g ease of starting a business) will bring further dividends. India continues to lag in many of these aspects in the rankings. It is true that the Modi Government has placed significant emphasis on an “investor friendly” environment, which has seen improvement in the World Bank Doing Business Index, and progress in access to credit for business, support for investors, and in reducing red tape where possible. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the fruits of the overall improved competitiveness is better distributed and shared. India suffers from one of the highest inequality levels in the world, including by wealth, gender, labour market access, education and spatially.

It is in the arenas of pre-tertiary education and the natural environment in the Global Innovation Rankings that the magnitude of the challenges confronting India really hit home. Despite improvements in access and opportunity for secondary and primary level students, India is still rated at the lower end of the spectrum (110th) when considering education expenditure, performance in reading, mathematics and science on an international scale, and pupil-teacher ratios. Higher levels of investment in foundational education with an outcome and performance oriented ethos are paramount. The other key input metric where India performs poorly is in ecological sustainability (117th). A comprehensive and collective approach to environmental management planning is required by Government, industry and the community, which fosters and draws on research (India is a very creditable 35th on research and development in the rankings), technology and innovation to address climate change through mitigation and adaptation measures, preserves scarce natural resources and ensures energy access in a sustainable manner.

Another key area for improvement is in knowledge workers (India is ranked 99th) which comprises employment in knowledge intensive industries, formal training by firms, research funded by business and employment of females who possess advanced degrees. It is well documented that India has a parlous jobs situation, but perhaps what is less well known is that difficulties extend to skilled labour. India’s relatively weak manufacturing sector is a concern in this light. Industry development on a large scale is a pressing priority. In addition, the gender imbalance in the labour market, which favours males, requires urgent attention.

On a related note, India’s tertiary education is ranked 40th in the world, and within that an impressive 7th globally for graduates in science and engineering. However, quantity does not equate to quality. A plethora of reports have bemoaned the challenges of employability of graduates, the absence of 21st century skills in curricula, quality concerns in institutions of higher learning and the lack of interface between higher education and labour market needs. So while India does rate well on the performance of its most highly ranked Institutions (as mentioned before in respect of the Innovation quality rankings), it is the tiers of higher education below the very best that needs overhaul, including to promote wide access to education in society. India’s gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education lags a number of overseas counterparts. To be fair, recent policy directions and announcements are promising with their emphasis on performance, accountability, institutional autonomy, strengthened governance, quality standards and frameworks, and enhanced investment in teaching and research. The proof will lie in the ability to implement reform.

India’s improvement needs to be seen relative to the performance of others. It is interesting and instructive that India outranks Brazil (66th) and South Africa (63rd) and is narrowing the gap with Russia (46th) among the BRICS nations with whom India is often compared with. However, China, the other BRICS nation, is making major inroads in the innovation rankings, reaching 14th place in 2019 climbing from 17th place in 2018. China exhibits many broad based strengths in both input and output domains which facilitate its strong ranking, including in education at all levels, leading edge manufacturing capabilities in medium and high technology sectors, strong patent performance (nothwithstanding the disquiet about the country’s intellectual property laws), and globally prominent corporations.

Moreover, it should be noted that India’s pattern of innovation, reliant in large measure, on grass roots innovation, is not necessarily captured by the Global Innovation Index. It is this author’s contention that for India to move forward and address its myriad of wicked problems, will require all forms of innovation to be nurtured and integrated.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is Associate Director, Planning, Performance and Risk at Victoria University, Australia. The views expressed here are those of the author. His book India and the Knowledge Economy has just been published by Springer.

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