Science, Creativity and Imagination

I was 15 when I read Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke and discovered space fiction! What a story that was even though some concepts were beyond me. Recently, I was reminded of the key aspects of the book when I read about the interstellar object that passed through our solar system.

At that time, Star Trek and Cosmos were broadcast on our television screens. Carl Sagan talking about the wonders of space. Every episode left you with a sense a awe and inspiration. I came to know about Voyager spacecrafts journey across our solar system at that time and have kept abreast of the latest till their last recorded moments in our solar system. The technical feats achieved with such early-stage technology fill me with a sense of awe. The real merged with the reel with Captain Kirk seemingly continuing the mission of the scientists of that time.

Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian cosmonaut in space. He and Ravish Malhotra were household names. I remember the Insat-1B and the SLV3 missions and followed them with as keen an interest as the information of that time allowed. So the world of space in the form of Cosmos, Star Trek had an Indian connection.

The idea that the rockets that carried humans to the moon were outdated and soon to be replaced with the space shuttle was quite exciting then. The shuttle went up like a rocket but landed like an aircraft and in that year the space shuttle Challenger seemed to indicate it was safe too. It went into space multiple times that year. There were also the Soviet Soyuz T11 and Salyut 7 to dream and discuss.

In that year, I re-discovered the 1977 edition of the Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. This was found in an old bookshop by my father and it had been there in our collection. It had a lot of pages, very heavy to lift but it was fascinating. Every single aircraft by a country was listed there. I remember reading about the Marut. Comparing features of some of the world’s best aircraft was a good past time. It had photographs, illustrations, specifications and so much more. I felt rather grown up! This was also the year the Indian Light Combat aircraft was announced or at least came into my field of exploration. It felt good that India would develop an aircraft for our own use!

And then there were ads! How could you not like the ads? They were better than the programmes that one got to see on TV. I longed to somehow record those ads in my collection but I did not have the means to do, till much later in my schooling. It certainly sparked an interest in marketing and brands!

We’d won the world cup a year earlier and the Indian cricket team had visited our school. I remember recording the anecdotes on a dictaphone and sharing with colony friends. It had a micro-cassette and that was very interesting to me. A neighbour wanted me to test it. He worked for Indian Airlines and was part of the programme that would induct one of the first Airbus planes in India. I still remember the Airbus stickers on his bags!

While I read a lot it was mostly Soviet classics and comics. But I was introduced to computers in a magazine called Computers Today. It seemed to discuss things that sailed over my head. It would leave a lasting impression despite not understanding mainframes etc. Here’s an example of the tech coverage of that time.

I signed up for the after-school computer programme based on the BBC Micro. It was basic but it was thrilling to hear sounds, see some of the text art as graphics on those screens. Went on to learn Basic and felt like a genius!

There was awe and I wanted to explore more. So the books at the British Council and American Center libraries came in handy. Even though most of the concepts were way about my level.

Oh and music! It was still the era of records and one made sure that the record was not scratched. Cartridges required special care as well. It was fun to find a way to take the line-out of the record player into another music system. Primarily to create mixtapes. It was an early stage experiment that would continue to grow. Mixtapes would grow on to become a big interest for me. Another thing that I learnt was to open the music system and figure out its belts and gadgetry etc. There was the soldering iron to explore with. Some of it known to the family and some not. But frugal mix and match was the order of the day.

All in all, a time of inspirational moments in space, mind opening science fiction, first steps in technology that would become central in my life. The idea of recording mix tapes, recording events would come back later. It allowed me to get comfortable with my interests and not just scholastic activities.

There was a curiosity to learn then and it has only grown bigger. Some of the curiosity gets transferred into work solutions but there is still the same core foundation of interests that form a part of my conversations and exploration.

Now imagine a child who is going to be 15 in about another 9 to 10 years. It is fascinating to think about what she is going to experience . What will inspire her and what will become a lifelong interest-

In a world filling up with technology where anything can be 3D/4D printed, will she turn to handcrafted experiences?
Will the first generation of humans have already settled on Moon or another planetary outpost? What will be the stories from there?
What will serendipity bring to her musical or creative interests?
Will she learn with holographic images much the same way that the holodeck offered in the Star Trek?
Will humans have overcome the more significant issues of the current time?
Will she have any aspiration to drive a car in a world of seemingly autonomous vehicles?
What will she want to tinker and will the machine be her connected assistant?

Writing this was good nostalgia but imagining the next 15 year old’s inspiration, one thing is certain the Future is not more of the past.

Also available here as part of the Linkedin #WhenIWas15 series

Optimism, Entrepreneurship and Wind of Change!

What is “Entrepreneurship”? It is not about finding funds from venture capitalists in an easy market. It is not about making money with the help of policy interventions by government. It is about creating opportunities where seemingly none exists, it is about taking risks with a big heart, it is often about proving naysayers wrong. Entrepreneurship is about starting a journey on a bumpy road because on smooth roads anyone can move ahead.
In sport, you can win on your home ground but the real test of your ability is when you win in an away encounter, where your competitor has fans rooting for them, ground conditions are in their favour, and when you long to be home. To be considered a great, you must win in conditions that are tough and alien and where you have no home advantage.
In the India of the 1980s and the 1990s, people took flights to places in the USA, Germany, erstwhile USSR and more, and created new opportunities. Tax-free income provided incentives to start an export business. The markets, though, had to be created and retained. There was no policy leverage beyond this. Your competitors were people from your own country as well as global competitors. You had to deliver the best,consistently. Some won and some were not so fortunate. It was the era, where exports and exporters were celebrated for creating opportunities and markets. The result was large Indian players in apparel, IT-e-nabled services and much more.
Here was the catch. You could only spend foreign currency that you had earned from your business. In a sense, one lived within one’s means. Some might say it was limiting and maybe it was, but it is a useful thing to remember.
Especially now.
Now, several foreign brands and companies have a significant presence in India. Leisure travel and higher education options in other countries have opened up for Indian citizens. Online shopping sites, Indian and otherwise,now let Indian customers buy clothes, books and several other products from anywhere in the world. Global cuisine is being explored in metropolitan cities. In many cases, local companies have opted to import products as a response to emerging opportunities in the Indian market.
All this means one thing — that we are spending a lot more foreign currency.  
The question is — are we living within our means?
Conversation around the world and in India, for the better part of the decade, has focused on the India opportunity i.e. access to and size of the Indian market.
In this noise, perhaps the need for a next generation of entrepreneurs, that was focused on creating new markets away from home, was not felt. Or not felt enough. There is much talk about slow pace of policy change etc, but true entrepreneurs create markets themselves. One can’t simply depend on the policy leverage of the home base to connect with customers elsewhere.
We take pride in our food habits and how we ensured that global food chains had a more localised product in line with our preferences. But have we created market for our food elsewhere? (Haldiram’s is the only exception I can think of, but do contribute in the comments for more stories.) One could give many more examples from other sectors.
The conversation these days focuses on our currency. Some of us notice the more expensive smartphone, others complain as they holiday in New York or London.
This note is not about monetary policy and there is no claim to expertise in that domain. Nor is this note about import substitution.
The harsh reality is we can’t merely be net consumers; we need to become net creators.
This note is about real entrepreneurs in emerging India, who have the guts to create markets elsewhere. People who are willing to develop products and services, that the consumers of other countries would love to have.
If we have allowed ourselves the benefit of global products and services, then surely we have a responsibility to compete in world markets. If a market for 2 minute noodles can be created in India what is stopping us from creating markets for our food at a global scale? If we sign up for cloud computing from global companies, what is stopping us from creating mobile products and services that the world cares about?
If we focus on creating for the world, then we would not need to worry as much about our consumption of foreign brands and the state of our currency.
All this is an opportunity for the Indian Entrepreneur. It needs ambition and vision on the part of the Indian Entrepreneur to make the most of this opportunity. This is the Wind of Change!
This post is also available on Medium

Outsourcing of a Revolution will not work.

They say cricket is a religion in our country. So here is a thought for you to consider. The world cup was not won for us by umpires. It was won by players, each of whom played a role. In each and every interview, the players talked about all the hard work they had put in to that effort. The rising expectations and emotions that were swirling all around. Yet they focused.
That’s true for nation building too. Lets ask ourselves, “Are we playing well?”.
The news, these days, is full of the debate on corruption and the individual who is fasting. While one respects the moral authority of the person who has undertaken the fast and believes his efforts are laudable. The question that keeps coming up in my mind is – “will it change anything?”. After all the person who will be appointed to this position will likely face the same tugs and pressures that all the other upright officers and leaders face. It seems like we are seeking to appoint an umpire who, we feel, will then help us win the national ethics cup.
The mere act of an umpire declaring someone out is not the only step that helps a team win a match. In fact, that is merely the decision that has been taken basis the action on field of play. A bowler with skill and effort keeps the batsmen in check and as some commentators would say keeps the batsmen honest. If a bowler does not bowl well, however, the umpire cannot give someone out.
Similarly for the batsmen, to be granted a four or six simply because they expect one is not enough.
Watching the noise and fury around the fast, the primary reason for it and the suggested solution, I felt that we as a nation are expecting shortcuts to solve a fundamental issue that ails the country today. We expect to appoint an umpire who, we feel, will act in all fairness all the time. Cricket tells us, it will not work.
So here are some thoughts :

1. Instead of expressing rage periodically, are we willing to work hard and ask tough questions?

Following up on progress each month and making course corrections will help keep the so called leaders in check. There are enough provisions provided we decide to use them. Super umpires are not the answers to our problems. Pegging away one ball at a time will definitely provide results.
Are we willing to set exacting standards for ourselves? No exceptions, just the way it would be for public servants and others. So no going down the wrong side or breaking traffic lights, free passes to cricket matches and then the more complex issues that still need to be addressed.
UDRS is simply a support mechanism for on ground officials. The review is rarely used simply because these officials get the job done even under pressure. To expect UDRS to be used as the primary and absolute decision making authority would be setting grounds for failure. Let’s not get into absolute measures like super umpires and instead focus on strengthening the hand of on ground officials by exceptional conduct at all times.

2. Are we willing to face moral and social issues?

On the issue of conduct, it is not just financial conduct that is at the core of our nation’s problem. Instead there are moral and social issues that need our attention. Not rage, but hard work and behaviour change. What am i pointing to? The Girl Child is but one example of our moral laxity.
Just a few days ago, census data revealed a shocking complicity of each of us. Some who would have acted against the girl child and some who have either remained silent and most who have failed to raise their voice against this corruption.
It was disturbing to see that most of the discussions around this topic were distant and clinical in nature. As though somehow this was less important and not to be discussed. Not to be discussed because we are complicit in our moral turpitude or we do not want to take a stand because asking uncomfortable questions within our social circle is not ok?

3. Criticism is not enough, neither are candle light marches.

In cricket, hard work helps deliver a watch winning performance. Good cricketers let their performances talk and one does not run down officials and opponents in place of performance. Time is spent in the nets, skills added and weaknesses removed forever. 30 second sound bytes do not win matches.
Similarly in civil society, can we start the process of improvement not by insulting and bypassing constitutional provisions regarding law making processes, or appointing super umpires but by correcting weaknesses in our conduct? Debate and healthy criticism is good provided we move beyond the 30 second sound byte model of nation building. Our actions matter, Everyday.
Finally, lighting the candle and marches are all good and maybe make us feel we have contributed but the real contributions will be in our day to day actions because a large part of it has nothing to do with government.
Do not depend on super umpires because Outsourcing of a Revolution will not work.

On Mentors..

In a world where everyone is seeking smart people, experts and lists, the real lessons that one learns are in the nuggets of insight, encouragement or the tough questions that some people provide for no apparent benefit. These people may actually be outside your social circle or influence. Call them chance encounters or serendipity but one just comes across these people and they make a difference to the outcome of one’s situation at that time.
A mentor’s input is never a commercial transaction, because if there is some money involved then one could question motive. A mentor is not really a designation and one does not anoint someone as mentor. A person rarely would announce to the world that they have identified a mentor. A mentor is just someone they would turn to for that practical, no nonsense, non judgmental input over a period of time. Continue reading

Optimism in Action

In 1990, as a new generation  joined the work force, a song called Wind of Change became a hit.
The song was about the historic events of the time. To me, its a song for the future, of hope and optimism. These words more so..

“The future’s in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change”

or these

“Where the children of tomorrow dream away
In the wind of change”

But it is also about memories

“Walking down the street
Distant memories
Are buried in the past forever”

The events since have been dramatic. Nations have grown and shrunk, companies have come and gone and there is fragmentation. A fragmentation where everyone seems to have looked out for themselves and perhaps created more strife. Its true of the world of work and social life.
Its been a time of growth and cynicism. But it all came crashing last year. The signs were there for all but they were missed.
Last year, news was dramatic and it seemed nothing was safe. No one, it seemed, knew what to do. There is a word in sanskrit, Pralaya, that defined things aptly. Pralaya means dissolution, not destruction , so that things can be recreated again. For the optimist, then it means that things will be better again.
So maybe there are changes taking place and the future is in the air.
Changes that bring stability, not just here but everywhere.
Changes that bring about a greater consciousness and thus dictate better action.

These points reflect optimism in action and some learnings for me:

  •  The Importance of the Counter Trend
  •  Be in the Front
  •  Positive Action is Key
  •  Believe in Something
  • Keep Your Fear in Check
  •  Performance Pays

Your Thoughts ?

Inspiring great performances in tough times

Customer experience has become even more of a critical issue in the current business environment. But think about this. If one were to look at the Brand Experience in terms of internal and external.
Some of the best coaches in sports manage to get their teams to perform way above their level and making them believe in a shared vision.
Think Employees, they have to go deliver the brand experience to customers. What does a company do in making them feel connected to the core philosophy of the company or brand. It starts here…
Think Customers, do they get great experiences from motivated employees or others? So the tone that one hears in emails, call centers and other communication and services is a reflection of the above….

But in this season of slow down and layoffs, how do the CEO’s and other leadership members get to be like the best sports coaches and make their companies do better.
One might say that coaches have a smaller number of people to work with but a leader in a company must reach out with a human, inspirational voice across many levels and regions.
Can it be done in the age of collaborative practices but in reality a communication vacuum?

%d bloggers like this: