Definitions of innovation vary widely. One definition suggests that it is “the use of a new knowledge in order to produce and provide a new product or a new service that customers desire”, yet another suggests that “invention is a new product, where as innovation is a new value”. But much discussion of innovation agrees on one thing – the role of innovation in development, and that an ecosystem of frameworks, processes, capabilities, networks, markets and consumers is required to make an ‘invention’ into an ‘innovation’.

Way back, when the licence-raj still had its vice-like grip on the telecom sector in India, when getting a telephone line was harder than (and sometimes as expensive as) finding a matrimonial match for your highly-educated daughter, Sam Pitroda took over as an advisor to Rajiv Gandhi. Combining the downsides of the burden of an elephantine bureaucracy with a canny insight into the ‘micro-economy’ of the worker getting paid daily, he spear-headed the launch of the Public Call Offices (PCOs). These were small booths with a phone line with both trunk-call and international calling facilities, and a meter that clicked on so the caller could see his or her spend in real-time. After all, poor people – and those choking under the burden of the wait list – also had friends and relatives living far away.

The insight was simple- delays in getting a land-line aside, small, daily wages did not enable the payment of the line rental. With a phone available to dial all the time, the bills could soon get out of hand too. PCOs provided a simple solution that combined these various considerations and offered a way out.

Of course, those who did not want landlines, but had the money to look into alternatives, were also early adopters of mobile phones with their large line rentals, expensive in-bound calls and no texting available. I was one of them way back in the mid-1990s with a Nokia 1610.

Although the penetration of mobiles in India is small, and the growth rates high, the allure of the PCO is not lost, as this (a tad old) report suggests.

So are these PCOs still popular? Very much so, as I found 3 years ago. Except that now they combine their proposition with mobility.

I saw my first ‘chalta-phirta PCO‘ (an ambling PCO) in 2004. These were enabled by Reliance’s Fixed Wireless Terminals, and additional equipment included a billing monitor, an operator and in the beginning, a hand-propelled rickshaw, completely green.

Sweet are the uses of mobility!

After enabling calls-on-the-go, mobility now enables web access in remote areas. With the use of a Wi-Fi enabled bus, a bit like a library-on-wheels, except that this one is global and a farmer in a remote village in India can access the Library of Congress or the British Library with equal ease.

This innovation-as-you-move business requires more than capital; it requires an understanding of the micro-economic dynamic, the social context and the recognition of the paying power of the smallest consumer. It requires the five minds that Howard Gardner proposes are essential kit for ongoing success in our changing future (more on which should be coming shortly).

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