India? That’s beyond Mexico, right?” In my early days of global travel, circa 1994, I gradually adjusted to the average American’s knowledge of geography, long after having read about a prominent survey where most Americans couldn’t put their top foreign-policy obsession for decades – Vietnam – on a map. I gave up explaining that we did not have elephants and snakes on the street: it was easier to go along, and even embellish the stories a bit. My favourite was at a dinner at Palo Alto where I was asked if we really did drink fresh cow milk, and the story came back to me later that evening when someone else asked if we kept our own cows, and if we drank milk straight from the cow...? Geez. Course we do.
What a change in a decade. In 2005, I had a stranger on a US domestic flight ask me if I could fix her laptop. As it happened, I could: it was a minor problem, but how did she know? “Oh, you’re an Indian, I thought you’d know!” Did she know where India was? Of course. She’d even been to Goa. (By 2007, the new refrain was: “India? Oh, you guys have taken away all our tech jobs!”)
No debate about it: the tech industry has transformed India’s image.
I don’t have to explain India any more to Americans. I do, however, find myself doing that to Indians, though I pass up on the loud drunk ones at parties who insist that we’re just millions of ‘tech coolies’. The somewhat-more-knowledgeable will argue that it’s all coding and answering phone calls, while the real product design and innovation happens in the US... after all, how many Indian software products do we use?
That debate is passe. There are few exclusive American or German or Indian tech products any more. Products are designed across the world. Cutting edge processors from Intel, software from Microsoft, apps from Google... all have Indian teams worldwide, including in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Entire products are designed in India. There’s a spate of patents from design centres in our cities. And there are inventions and innovation happening right here in India.
To see just how much innovation there is, I attended EmTech 2010, the India version of MIT’s annual cutting-edge tech show in March. And especially its TR35 programme, which recognises young innovators under 35 years of age – those who have invented, created, or applied technology to solve problems, while based in India. These are just a few snapshots from the 20 innovators under 35 years who were recognised for their ingenuity and impact – young inventors who show that innovation is alive and well in India. More of them, next week.
The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of gadget site LD2.in and other specialty titles, and organisers of EmTech (technologyreview.in).