In the pantheon of modern developmental lingo, “innovation” is among those chosen words that allow a certain ambiguity. Whether used by fresh graduates in Silicon Valley, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, or staff at a start-up NGO in Uganda, everyone seems to use it with equal ownership, and often to mean entirely different things. Over the last few months, one such claim for innovation has grabbed the attention of Nepal’s public sphere: the National Innovation Center, a research institute that claims it will “support transformation of Nepal into a developed nation” and have “a tremendous impact on the economic and social development of Nepal in the long run.”

At the forefront of the campaign for the National Innovation Center (NIC) is Mahabir Pun—the wireless-internet evangelist, who, in 2007, was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for taking wireless internet to several geographically remote villages in Nepal. Born and raised in a British Gurkha family in the mountains of western Nepal, the 62-year-old started his career as a schoolteacher. After obtaining a scholarship for a bachelor’s degree in science education in the United States, Pun returned in 1992 to run a school in his village, Nangi. Pun’s school, Himachal High School, soon began experimenting with computer education—a rarity at the time—with Pun seeking computer parts from donors around the world.

In 2002, he took this a few steps further: with help from volunteers around the world, he was able to bring wireless internet connection to Nangi. Today, Nepal Wireless, the organization that Pun heads, has managed to extend wireless connections to 175 villages across 14 districts. This feat has brought significant popular appraisal and media celebrity for Pun.

By standards of connectivity, the number and reach shows real success. There have been news reports of how some communities have seen increased income, mostly owing to the project’s links with tourism. On the other hand, a 2012 study notes that in Nangi “wifi has not directly benefited the village [in financial terms] as expected.” One of Pun’s colleagues, who worked as the network administrator in a village Nepal Wireless had recently supplied, said that people were using internet for a range of reasons, as might be expected, from getting in touch with relatives abroad to researching, and in some cases connecting with, manpower agencies.

Recent years have, however, been less successful for Pun. As the center’s chairperson, he has been nearly single-handedly championing the cause, looking for seed funding to start the NIC. His plan is to raise enough money to construct and run a 10-megawatt hydroelectric plant that will, in time, generate enough cash to pay back the loans and eventually fund all the innovation that NIC hopes to foster. At the outset, Pun will need to collect NPR 500 million as equity, which will be needed to take out NPR 1 billion in loans necessary to construct the self-financing hydroelectric plant.

Over the years, and through different governments, Pun has courted one governmental body after another, all of which have acknowledged the need for such an innovation center, but none of which have taken concrete steps to signal their interest. In July, when Pun made public his frustration over the government’s unwillingness to finance his project (either through a one-time grant or a soft loan), it was received with much sympathy and indignation in the press and on social media. At a time when the government has granted land to a religious cult and funded a child fortune-teller, these reactions are not unwarranted. There have been far fewer critical voices, mostly those limited to questioning the financial motives behind Pun’s plans for the hydroelectricity plant. (Pun has issued a clarification: the NIC is registered as a company that will not be sharing its profits.)

But amid the din, there is a curious silence when it comes to the core of this project, the “Innovation” in the National Innovation Center. There has been almost no scrutiny of what these innovations—or inventions, as NIC’s Nepali-language translation Rashtriya Awishkar Kendra implies—will be, and how the NIC will accomplish all that its advocates claim.

Long on visions, short on details

Pun is partly responsible for this. The NIC’s website carries a concept paper explaining the vision and goals of the innovation center, with back-of-the-envelope calculations on the initial financing of the center, and names of “well known action oriented personalities” who make up its board. There is also a list of proposed steps to support an innovation, giving a broad idea of NIC’s work procedures. But there is little of substance on how the center would function.

When I met Pun earlier this month at a restaurant he runs in Thamel, he laid out the phases of innovation development: first, the NIC will accept proposals for product research. A committee of experts will then determine the merit of the proposals and decide the amount of time and money needed. The center will provide the necessary funding and mentoring to see the research through to prototype development, and then it will polish the prototype to a commercial product, and help obtain intellectual-property rights. Finally, the center will find an investor willing to take the product to the market.

These are all logical steps in a process of technological innovation. Yet when I pressed Pun for details, it seemed that there were serious gaps in the scheme. For instance, Pun told me that the NIC would be open to proposals of all kinds, ranging from IT to agriculture to innovations that would spur “social reform.” This seemed vague and a bit impractical. The process of assessing these proposals alone would be costly since each sector, according to Pun, would have to be examined by a different committee of experts. Projects from distinct sectors would also need a different set of metrics for assessing their feasibility and charting their progress, if they are to be done in a fair and transparent manner.

Then there is the question of the quality of mentorship offered to the research fellows. “Scientists within and outside Nepal from the related field will mentor them,” Pun said, adding, “NIC will ensure that we connect the researchers with the right advisors.” Pun cited Nepali scientists around the world as candidates for such mentors. But the mentors, he said, would largely be volunteers. Presumably, these are full-time professionals who would volunteer a few hours from their already busy schedule, which raises the question whether such mentorship could really be effective. Compare this approach to that of doctoral programs that pay PhD advisors to follow up on students’ work and provide necessary correctives.

More puzzling, for a project that is supposed to begin with a billion rupees in investment, its founder couldn’t think of a single product or service that could emerge from the NIC. “That kind of expectation shouldn’t be there. One can’t know about these things in advance.” Pun added, “Twenty years ago no one knew that mobile phones would be made.” He mentioned a few ideas that others had suggested—a medicine-delivery drone and a device that could allow people suffering from paralysis to operate switches. When pushed, he said simply that the innovations would be “knowledge based” and uplift the “socio-economic” status of Nepal. He added he couldn’t think of any similar institution in the world that the NIC could be modeled after.

For someone whose work is considered the most successful example of improvised technology in Nepal, Pun seemed to misunderstand, and underestimate, the scientific process. His vision imagines new ideas and processes to be products solely of individual creativity and will, which stagnate in the absence of funding, mentorship, and technocratic zeal. His example of mobile phones is especially telling. The modern smartphone is a culmination of decades of research and knowledge production in sometimes disparate fields. The lithium battery, for instance, can be traced back to the works of a material scientist in the 1980s. GPS came out of research contracted out by the Pentagon and NASA during the Cold War, while the touchscreen was invented by a health physicist in the 1970s. And so on. With the fundamental science taken care of, it was the growing computer industry that did the work of combining these advancements with technological and financial feasibility in mind.

The NIC’s problem is that it plans to bypass these crucial steps. Would the researchers working away at their proposed innovation get anything more than part-time mentors? Would they have a group of peers with whom they could discuss and dissect their progress on a regular basis? Would the technical and theoretical progress of their research be presented to people who could give meaningful feedback?

When I asked Pun if researchers at the NIC would be involved in publishing their work, he said, “We will not be having conferences and workshops in five-star hotels,” adding dismissively, “We are not purely academic research centers. We will not be just writing papers and publishing them in journals.”

It’s possible to attribute this tendency to his past success in ad-hoc, improvised solutions. But Pun was also channeling a well-known stereotype of academic bodies here. He implies that solid, practical research has little to do with the formalities of conferences and publishing. But nothing could be further from the truth. Behind any innovation lies a history of scientific collaboration, a culture of presenting ideas in writing, engaging with a community of peers who can contribute—critically or constructively—to a given field of innovation. To not participate in these things because they seem ritualistic and expensive is to disengage from a fundamental part of the creative process.

At the mercy of the market

There is a limit to how much criticism one can subject the NIC to, purely because in the absence of hard details, there isn’t much to critique. Let us, however, give NIC the benefit of the doubt and assume that it will function as its advocates imagine it will, churning out new products and services in a decade’s time. Could it then deliver the transformations NIC intends to give: economic growth, job creation, and reverse brain-drain?

There is no reason to believe it will. This is because what Pun suggests, is a solution contingent on the operations of the market. Whatever emerges from the labs, according to NIC’s plans, will be patented works of the individual innovators, who will be connected with a willing investor, whether domestic or foreign. These investors would produce the innovation on a large scale, turning a lab experiment into a commodity. This, Pun argued, would “decrease import or increase export,” spurring an economic transformation of the country.

This is a confusing argument. Sure, a commercially successful product would bear profits to the issuing company and royalties to its inventor. But what impact it would have on the country’s trade—to say nothing of its effect on the economy—is colored by many variables outside the control of the NIC. For instance, there is no reason to believe that these new products would be manufactured in Nepal, let alone employ a Nepali workforce. The plans for reversing brain-drain by attracting Nepali researchers seems equally unlikely. It is difficult to see why a typical candidate for reverse brain-drain—someone with access to the safety of international academia or the benefits of the private sector—would risk becoming an innovator without the immediate advantages of those two fields.

Surely, products from the NIC will contribute to Nepal’s economy as any product from any private enterprise—say Chaudhary Group’s Wai Wai—has. Why should the NIC be accorded a unique national emphasis? As I tried to get Pun to elaborate, it was clear that his rationale depended on a logic of exceptionalism. “Even if a foreign company invested,” he told me, “it would still be a ‘Made in Nepal’ product.” To the question of what would ensure that Nepal benefits from this trade of “Nepali” inventions, he replied, “That is for the economists to decide.”

Even as Pun contradicted his claims to the NIC’s economics, he struck on something essential. Whatever may befall institutions like the NIC, development, however defined, is tied to the country’s political economy. Nepal needs significantly greater investment in scientific education and research than the meager 2016–17 budget of USD 8 million, as well as vigorous adoption of technology. The same applies to the opaque and delayed life of infrastructure projects. But this will require relearning some commonly held notions.

Our development projects cannot continue to be extended opportunity for concrete suppliers to work at large profit margins, or be driven by a desire to replicate the nearest smart city. Similarly, we risk having “innovative” projects be left to the whims of TED talkers and militant entrepreneurs of the neoliberal shade, like those seen at “Talk Innovation,” a UNICEF-sponsored set of talks last year which was dominated by national celebrities, INGO bureaucrats, bankers, investors—all invited to repeat their brand of “inspirational talks.” Meanwhile, the politically and economically vulnerable, in whose name these projects are often initiated, end up with the least access to their benefits. Those grappling with ideas of innovation and development today might begin by thinking of alternative models, which involve consent and ownership of communities, or reduce reliance on corporate funding, and address the sea of administrative and financial changes that await the federal Nepal—all much needed forms of innovation. Most of all, they cannot continue to ignore the reasons why many Nepalis strove for political innovation in the last decade. And, as of yet, the partisans of technocratic innovation appear to be left behind.

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay.