An alumnus of IIT Bombay, Ramanan Ramanathan, the first Mission Director of the Atal Innovation Mission AIM) at NITI Aayog between June 2017 – May 2021, continues to inject his long experiential wisdom to several organizations and fora in advisory/member capacity post his retirement. These include him being as an Advisory and Governance Committee Member – Science and Innovation at Bharat – office of PSA India since August 2021 and very recently he assumed advisory role in Enlearning Skill Development Pvt. Ltd., which runs Enpower techno-entrepreneurship program in schools.
Autar Nehru through an email interview attempted to understand the pivotal role of R Ramanan in integrating technological skills as part of educational cultural milieu in India
The Atal Innovation Mission call
R Ramanan’s transformative journey took a fateful turn when TATA group/TCS acquired CMC in 2001 and he was made its MD & CEO. He had joined TCS in 1981 right after completing his engineering. He found it amazing that CMC, a government-run organisation was doing so much innovation in various verticals. Whether building the first stock exchange trading platform BOLT, for providing an online trading solution or computerization for various ports in the country- it was a very productive and innovation-oriented organisation. “This was not surprising to me, but it also showed the power of Indian IT capabilities employed in these innovations. This was a very transformative experience as I had to figure out how to take a public-sector government-oriented organisation to become a global systems integration organisation,” he says. By 2016 CMC had grown to a point it made sense to amalgamate CMC into TCS and make it one organisation.
While this success was substantial and fulfilling for him, the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) opportunity came along. The government of India wanted to create a vibrant ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship across the length and breadth of the country. “This ambitious project spoke to me at a personal level and I joined as the first Mission Director of AIM, Additional Secy at Niti Aayog. As you know AIM is the brainchild of Niti Aayog, the think tank of India responsible for forming and issuing policies like Digital India and several others and came as an opportunity to implement such a big national initiative. AIM to me was a national mission, where I had the opportunity to use all the knowledge I had gained over the years in different sectors, in different capacities and roles,” he explains.
Mr. Ramanan, serving the Atal Innovation Mission as the first mission director for more than 4 years must have been a transformative experience for you personally. Can you tell us broadly how you go associated with it, your exploration and overall experience?
AIM as a concept itself held so much potential for becoming a sanctuary of national innovation—a place where the innate talent of the Indian public could be nurtured and honed. It is a known fact that India has immense potential in all fields be it arts or science but our people seem to flourish more in the States because foreign countries offer a conducive ecosystem and environment that blossoms the skills of a person. With AIM that is what we planned to achieve. A place where the youth of India could hone their skills and reach their maximum possible potential as contributors not only to their persons growth but also to the socio economic progress of our country.
What kind of objectives were in place?
Our main goal with AIM was to build an innovative and problem solving mindset for the young minds because if we want to produce a land of entrepreneurs and job creators then we have to instil a problem-solving innovative mindset at an early age. Hence, the Atal Tinkering Labs came into being at a school level.
ATL provides an IOT, robotic and miniaturised electronics tinkering lab, augmented with electro mechanical tools, AR/VR do-it-yourself tool kits, and other new-age learning materials to the students so that they are able to ideate and create new and better solutions to the problems being faced in and around the communities they live in. And as the students aren’t taught this as a normal class but as an extracurricular activity, they show great interest in learning and having fun together exploring, experimenting and innovating.
The students have to adopt the do-it-yourself attitude which is the key to building a problem-solving mindset. There are now 10,000+ ATL’s around the country, and mind you, 70% of the ATL labs are in girls/coed schools, and 70%+ in government schools in Tier-2, Tier-3 cities of India across all districts.
When we held these national competitions like Atal Tinkering Marathons or Tinkerpreneurs , it’s amazing to see the number of girl students (45%+ in the last competition) getting prizes for their innovations. Girl students getting a tech enabled level playing platform, and their communicative, detail oriented, and multitasking abilities made them win and acquire great self confidence to become innovators of the future. This opens up new opportunities for girl students.
And what about university level?
At the University level, India needs to provide students with an environment to explore and learn about the Startup world and AIM has step in here. Atal Incubators aims to provide students with the infrastructure and facilities required for embarking on the entrepreneurial journey funded by the government. Without the right access to emerging technologies , venture and research support a start-up is bound to end up in a valley of death, AIM is here to ensure that it aids the Startups through world class incubators, and steers them off such valleys of death. There are about 75 Atal incubators.
AIM has also set up several Atal Community Innovation centres for rural India, spurring local innovations and local job creation in and around these communities. The objective of AIM with all these centres is to provide all facilities required to enable good ideas for real problems to convert to a real innovation at a local level for immediate impact and relevance. AIM’s purpose is to turn India into a nation of job creators rather than just producing job seekers. As someone who got to be the bridge between both private and public sectors while envisioning and building the foundation of this mission, it thrills me to see how far it has come. AIM is an integral part of me and what I shall be doing in the years ahead
Concentrating on schools, a lot of schools are now part of the Atal Innovation Labs network in the country. How has this changed or at least begun to change our school education?
I genuinely believe that AIM has brought about a significant change in today’s education methods. The Ministry of Education’s NEP 2020 is a game-changer in terms of how education is being perceived and how one should go about making it more inclusive, relevant, and accessible for everyone.
Another contributing factor to the urgent need for change in our education strategies are possible disruptions like the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has certainly revolutionised the concept of education in uncertain times. Virtual education and distance learning have gathered momentum due to the crisis created by COVID-19. India, according to me, responded magnificently to this situation.
At Atal Innovation Mission we have these online Atal tinkering modules which are virtual modules contributing to real time learning on artificial intelligence, programming, 3D design, etc. Many programmes like the ones introduced by Entrepreneurship Learning Programme were introduced online and now have become mainstays of problem-solving oriented education. NEP 2020 is very comprehensive in bringing about the right changes to the education system. I do believe that online education is not good enough and you require physical access to the labs, especially with science. Physical interaction that is so very important for the psychological growth of a child has become extremely limited during the pandemic which is incredibly unhealthy. The leverage online education has over physical education is changing the face of the Indian Education Society. Now all is left to find the balance between online and offline education methods and Atal Innovation mission is already progressing towards it. With all the digital assets and advanced accessible technologies, there aren’t any innovative hurdles we can’t cross. With resources of institutes like ENpower coming together with the infrastructure provided by Atal Tinkering Lab becomes a very powerful transmitter mechanism that can be enabled for young minds.
Most people like me, who have not had first-hand experience of seeing these labs at work, see them as robotics labs. Can you give us an overview of what exactly these are meant for?
Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL) is a dedicated innovation workspace in schools where we equip students with mechanical, electronic, software and hardware technologies. A grant of 20 Lakhs is given to selected schools and the school is required to have a dedicated workspace for students to get together and discuss innovative ideas. There is also a technology-based do-it-yourself kit consisting of 3D printing, IOD, miniaturised electronics, robotics, soldering irons, etc. as these are the tools of the trade. Similar to learning how to build a paper boat in crafts class, at ATL the students learn how to build advanced models with electronic-integrated tool kits. So the level of technology has reached a height where the student not only learns but also realises how to implement the technology. ATL also provides a dedicated teacher who works under the management of the school. AIM also attaches mentors to the students / schools- these mentors (over 5000+ voluntary mentors – one of the largest in the world at a school level) are people who are excelling in their field of choice and are here voluntarily to students and teachers with all the information they need in a particular field.
There is a training program conducted for the teachers as well as the students as there are situations where the teacher herself doesn’t know how to operate a 3D printer.
The idea of setting up all of this is not to get marks in an exam but to prepare the students for life with skills they can apply in the real world when faced with a problem. So, there are the Tinkering challenges and opportunities presented to the students at ATL. We allow students to apply the entire limit of their imagination and have been wowed by the result on many occasions. ATL is exciting for both students and teachers.
You are part of several science fora and must be delving often into the state of fundamental science in our schools and curriculum. Do you feel, the present generation of children has more scientific curiosity and thinking than the past?
I think they do and we can credit all of this to the presence of the internet. It has enabled young people to explore, and once they start exploring their curiosity leads them further in directions like science, arts, and technology. According to my observation at ATL, students are inherently very curious, and with the right equipment they can explore several phenomena in-depth and come up with solutions that are sometimes unimaginable to scholars of our generation.
Your decision to join as an advisor to ENpower is indeed a welcome step. What exactly will be your role in its programs?
ENpower according to me is doing a fabulous job as it is teaching students not just how to come up with innovative solutions but also how to market them. ENpower is helping students market their ideas and teaching them the true meaning of becoming an entrepreneur. Students need to learn the various stages of innovation and the various challenges they would face before their innovation hits the market otherwise there is a chance of them getting dejected at the first hurdle they hit. I am happy to see that ENpower is an organisation focused on providing this information. I am glad to be part of this in an advisory capacity to make sure its efforts align with NEP 2020 and what the government is thinking while being aligned with what the students are expecting. ENpower is also building the pathway for students who want to start their startups in the future and I hope they succeed and I am able to help them to my best capacity.
Your YUWAAH engagement is yet another youth-oriented pursuit, what will be your message to the youth of the country?
The YUWAAH is a great initiative by UNICEF and is extremely crucial. India is the youngest democracy in the world; YUWAAH by UNICEF is a program largely aimed to empower the youth to become innovative and carry their innovation further into the next levels of Entrepreneurship. So, my personal advice to the youth of this country is to join the YUWAAH program. It is going to be extremely beneficial for them more than anything else. Earlier the ten-ten rule was prevalent, where every innovation took almost ten years to become mainstream, then in 2006 came the one-one year rule with the introduction of the world wide web , because now innovation could reach the masses and become mainstream in just one year (e.g. Youtube). Innovations also become jobs centric / jobs oriented. Multiple jobs got addressed by one innovation so it didn’t take that much time to become mainstream. The youth of today have the privilege of this one-one rule and programs like YUWAAH is going to help them figure out how to reap the benefits.
Lastly, share your optimism about New India and any message you have for school students/Teachers?
New India is all about what the youth of India can and will create. And we have a tremendous opportunity to become the leaders of a knowledge-driven world in the near future. And this is an opportunity everyone should embrace. According to me, New India is all about technology-driven growth because technology has become extremely affordable, accessible, available, advanced and easy to use in the past few years and it is an ever-changing field. Now, I am not asking everyone to become a technologist but one should know how to leverage technology for creating new solutions. This is a golden moment in India’s history. We are already the 46th most innovative nation in the world. And this is a recent development. Five years ago we ranked 81 in the index and now are at 46th. This huge leap was only possible because of the students and teachers of the country*. And I wholeheartedly believe that India can be in the Top Ten most innovative countries in the world within the next Ten years with the vibrant, energetic and innovative youth of this country