Monday, January 30, 2012

Dr. Gururaj Desh Deshpande’s insights on entrepreneurship and innovation

I got an opportunity to listen to Dr. Gururaj Desh Deshpande on “Can Social innovations and Technology innovations leverage off one another?” at the IIT Alumni Club Bangalore event held at Bangalore International Centre, Domlur, last morning. It was a fantastic talk. Here are a few of the insights Desh mentioned in his talk and during Q&A:

· Concurrent innovation: In a place like MIT where Desh is a Board member, there is no dearth of technology innovations. However, for the researcher or the faculty member working on the innovation, the primary interest could be elegance and publishability – criteria that matter for tenure and impressing peer group. The challenge is to create an atmosphere where innovations get connected with relevance to create an impact. This is what Desh calls concurrent innovation where innovators get connected to the real world up front as opposed to much later in the life cycle. Over the last 10 years MIT has funded 80 projects and a third of them have generated $100 M or more.

· The sandbox for social innovations: In social sector, the equation (innovation + relevance = impact) needs to be turned around. The real challenge is in understanding the problem. Then you bring in the ideas to solve the problem. We need to create an environment where this happens systematically. 6 years ago Deshpande Foundation created a sandbox in Hubli to do that. What is this sandbox? It encompasses 5 districts: Belgaum, Dharwad, Gadag, Haveri, and Uttar Kannada, and is home to about 10 million people. Ideas / interventions that need to be proven get experimented within this sandbox first and successful ones get scaled. Help is provided in the form of access to advisory network, teaching, additional resources from corporate / NGOs and of course, grants. Akshayapatra (mid-day meals), Karadi Path (learning through Karadi Tales), Agasthya Foundation (sparking creativity in rural India), Sikshana Foundation (improves quality of teaching in Govt schools) are some of the organizations that were incubated in the Hubli sandbox.

· Sustainability of social ventures: In many social ventures, the beneficiary does not have buying power (e.g. mid-day meal in state schools). Hence, there is a donor. Every time the donor wants to add value to the organization, he projects his risk tolerance on the project. Unfortunately, from his standard of living, he finds everything risky. Very quickly the product does not cater to the requirements. The idea is to take the performing assets, scale them and make them sustainable. i.e. find those interventions that are already working and scale them.

There are three ways a social venture becomes sustainable: (1) By becoming part of free market economy (2) By becoming part of Govt & (3) By supported through broad based charity as opposed to funded by a few rich people. Sometimes it is a combination of the three. For example, Akshaypatra combines (2) and (3).

· Role of value system in innovation: Entrepreneurship or innovation is just a tool. It allows you to do something faster and better. It quite doesn’t say whether it is for the good of the world or for the bad of the world. So you need a value system on top of it. That is a bigger issue we need to resolve. World economy is based on consumption. In the 70s there used to be a debate between capitalism and socialism. About 10 years ago, it looked like capitalism all the way. But now we are beginning to see cracks within capitalism. Consumption based economy means everybody has to consume more and more and more which will just rip apart this whole world. There will be nothing left. So the bigger challenge is to re-think on what winning means. Does winning include sustainability, goodness? Etc. In some area where we see this happening. For example, in energy, 10 years ago it was all about producing more energy. Now, people are realizing that the low-hanging fruits in energy are efficiency and savings and you could save up to 40-50%. Now there are 50 startups in Boston area and another 50 in Silicon Valley who are trying to figure out how they can get access to the low-hanging fruit – efficiency. People are building huge database of every building and then you do audit on a building and show what you can do to achieve how much saving.

· Role of technology in education: Majority of school going kids in India still don’t have access to computers and Internet. In fact, a lot of little things like eraser, pencil, 5-10 pieces of paper, old newspaper (acts as a reading material) have much bigger impact than the computers (For example, see “spot prizes” intervention of Sikshana Foundation – it is the oldest and most popular activity). This is not to say computers are not useful. It is just that getting tablets to villages and putting them to use is a little unrealistic at this point. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to experiment on these things. One of the best experiments Desh has seen being carried out in a few California schools is as follows: Suppose you want to teach Pythagoras theorem, then the students will be asked see Khan Academy video in the evening at home and come and do the homework in the school the next day. It is changing the whole paradigm. You need a lot of interaction / debate / discussion during the homework. There are going to be a lot of innovative ways of educating each other. In Desh’s opinion, the biggest problem in education is always inspiring kids to want to learn. So any intervention that inspires kids to want to learn is going to create significant value. Technology has been trying to intervene in education for a long time. But it hasn’t. Next 10 years are going to be exciting. MIT just announced a new initiative – MITx - which will offer certification through free online courseware.


Photo from

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The marvels and the flaws of expert intuition: story of Ramanujan’s first letter to Hardy

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” presents the marvels of expert intuition and Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan” highlights the flaws of expert intuition. Well, Srinivas Ramanujan’s first letter to Hardy exemplifies both – the marvels and the flaws of expert intuition. Let’s see how.

Genius or fraud? “I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only Rs. 20 per annum.” Thus began the letter sent by 25 year old Srinivasa Ramanujan to Hardy, the then renowned Cambridge professor of mathematics. It was dated 16th January 1913. The nine page letter contained around fifty mathematical results claimed by the Indian clerk. Ramanujan had explained in the letter “I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course.” What struck Hardy at the first glance was the strangeness of the theorems, not their brilliance. His first reaction was: is he a genius or a fraud?

The letter: The letter contained theorems in number theory, calculus, infinite series etc. Some of the formulae were familiar to Hardy, while others “seemed scarcely possible to believe”. For some reason, Hardy decided to consult his fellow mathematician Littlewood to reach a verdict on whether the author is a genius or a fraud. The duo spent three hours – from 9pm till midnight – going through the manuscript. At the end they concluded that its author is “a mathematician of the highest quality, a man altogether exceptional originality and power”. Some of the results Ramanujan sent to Hardy in his letter belonged to breakthrough category – Hardy was to conclude later. Hardy persuaded Ramanujan and the government to bring him to Cambridge.

The marvel of intuition: Ramanujan’s Indian friend in Cambridge, Mahalonobis who later went on to found the Indian Statistical Institute once asked him how he got a startling result. Ramanujan said, “Immediately [after] I heard the problem it was clear that the solution should obviously be a continued fraction; I then thought, which continued fraction? And the answer came to my mind.” The answer came to my mind sums up how Ramanujan got many of his results. Question is: How did answers come to Ramanujan? Did they get handed down by the goddess Namagiri of Namakkal in his dreams as some believed?

Ask yourself “What is 2 x 2 = “ and now ask yourself “What is 19 x 37 =” An answer would come to your mind immediately in the former case while nothing comes to your mind immediately in the latter case. Daniel Kahneman explains in “Thinking, fast & slow” that there are two different modes of thinking: a fast mode and a slow mode. The fast mode (called system-1) is intuitive, effortless and automatic while the slower mode (called system-2) is rule-based, effortful and controlled. You could choose to start the computation of “19 x 37” using the rules of multiplication learnt in school and also stop in between if you wish to do so (slow mode). You had no such control for “2 x 2”. The answer came to mind automatically (fast mode).

For an expert, such as a chess master, when he looks at a board position, several patterns and associated offensive and defensive moves come to mind immediately (like “2 x 2”). They come from a vocabulary of 50,000 to 100,000 patterns stored in memory. Psychologists believe that it takes 10,000 hours (about 6 years of playing chess 5 hours a day) to reach this level of expertise (or active vocabulary). Had Ramanujan done this kind of practice?

By 1900 (age 12) Ramanujan had mastered S. L. Loney’s Trigonometry. However, the year 1903 was a turning point when he found a book written by Carr containing 5000 equations related to algebra, trigonometry, calculus, analytical geometry, differential equations. From this point, life of Ramanujan who graduated from school that year with a reputation of being “off-scale” went off-balance. He didn’t do anything other than mathematics. He failed four attempts to pass in college in 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907, lost scholarship and didn’t do well even as a math tutor. And yet, this five year period of 1904 to 1909 was the most productive time in his life because, in all likelihood, he was at home manipulating equations in all of his waking hours – on a slate, on a paper and in the mind. It is also quite possible that his fast mode of thinking was so active that during sleep it continued to work on the half-solved problems. The fast mode is known to be working even when we are not conscious. Ramanujan had easily finished his quota of 10,000 hours well before 1909.

Did his intuition ever trick him? Yes, it did, occasionally and it showed in his first letter to Hardy as well.

The flaw of intuition: In his first letter, Ramanujan had written that he had found a function which exactly represents the number of prime numbers less than x. After Hardy demanded a proof, Ramanujan sent one. And Littlewood figured out that it was wrong. Well, Ramanujan’s formula wasn’t bad. It was off by only 53 for calculating primes up to first nine million (which are 602,489). However, the difference became bigger as numbers grew larger. And this is what Ramanujan failed to see.

Checking a sketchy proof rigorously, at least partly, is a responsibility of the slow thinking mode. As Kahneman observes that the slow thinking mode is inherently lazy. If an answer given by the fast mode looks fine, it just endorses the verdict. In Ramanujan’s case the slow mode was not just lazy, it was weak. Because he never formally learnt how to write a rigorous proof until he reached Cambridge. The upside of this characteristic was that the fast mode was freerer than usual in its meanderings – making him highly creative in his approach.

What was interesting about Ramanujan was not that his intuition was sometimes wrong. Even a great mathematician like Andrew Wiles also had a serious hole in his first proof of the Fermat’s Last Theorem. What was different about Ramanujan before coming to Cambridge was that he was equally confident when he was right and when he was wrong.

Two key learnings from this story: One, a rich vocabulary of several hundreds of thousands of patterns resulting from a prolonged practice and timely invocation of appropriate patterns by the fast mode of thinking creates expert intuition. Two, knowing when not to trust the instincts is an important characteristic of a true expert. Ask yourself, "Which are the possible situations in which my instincts could be on a slippery ground?"


The man who knew infinity by Robert Kanigel, Washington Square Press, 1991. (Thanks to my friend Ramprasad Moudgalya for recommending the book to me).

Conditions for intuitive expertise, Daniel Kahneman & Gary Klein, American Psychologist, Sept 2009.

Related articles:

My most favorite YouTube video and the marvels and the flaws of intuition, Sept 19, 2010 (On Kahneman's lecture at Berkeley on the same topic).

Impossible problems and successful approaches: story of Fermat's Last Theorem, Oct 28, 2008 (On Andrew Wile's successful attempt at solving 350 old most famous open problem).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Weighing scale, intelligent gossip and the culture of innovation

Gossip is an important element of every culture, be it in the café, corridor or conference room. In fact, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in the introduction of his new book “Thinking, fast & slow” that the primary objective of the book is to generate intelligent water cooler gossip. Which is the most powerful source of gossip? Perhaps there is no easy answer. However, “weighing scale” is certainly a good candidate. When ten of us, old school friends, met a couple of weeks back after a long time, the starting point of the conversation was invariably – how much weight one has gained or lost. What makes “weighing scale” such a remarkable gossip generator? Can we design “weighing scale” for measuring innovativeness? Let’s explore.

The first thing that strikes about any weighing scale is its simplicity. You don’t need a user manual. Have you seen 6-7 year olds weighing themselves? They don’t need any help. The second interesting property of weighing scale is its ease of access. As a kid I remember how weighing was performed as a ritual at the railway platforms every time we traveled by a local train in Mumbai. Anyone who is interested in weighing can find one – either free or at a low cost. The third property is very special and perhaps not understood by most as unique. Weighing scale is emotion-proof. It gives the same weight no matter how angry or anxious you are. Contrast this with blood pressure machine, voting machine and stock price – all are anxiety dependent.

Combination of the first two properties, simplicity & ease of access, creates what is sometimes called a self-test. It is like saying, “Go check it yourself”. Kahneman observes in “Thinking, fast & slow” that embedding “self-test” in the research papers helped he & his co-author Amos Tversky reach out to a wider audience outside psychology fraternity. Authors Chip & Dan Heath mention in “Made to stick” that self-test is a powerful way to build credibility for your idea. An ECG or an MRI scan are not self-tests. Neither can you do it yourself (yet), nor can you diagnose the results.

Designing a measurement system that has a self-test and is emotion-proof is like creating a “weighing scale”. At the very least, you are generating an intelligent gossip. When I wrote about a simple innovation dashboard for checking how innovative you are a year and a half ago, I was trying to create a “weighing scale”. Contrast this with a perceptual survey which is based on questions like “Do you feel the environment in your company is conducive for innovation?” etc. It is neither self-testable nor emotion-proof. I don’t mean to say that these kinds of surveys are not useful. It is just that they are not “weighing scale” like and hence may not lead to intelligent gossip.

In the spring of 1884, Thomas Edison supervised 2,774 lamp experiments at Menlo Park. In 2010, Google engineers performed 20,000 experiments to improve the search algorithm and took 500 ideas live. Won’t it help to build a richer vocabulary of this kind and in fact, generate intelligent gossip from it? I believe it can be a first step in building a culture of innovation.

Related articles:

Innovation dashboard: 4 indicators of idea velocity

Innovation pipeline: a popular lead indicator metric on innovation