Anand Giridharadas: A new geography for bright ideas

Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee.

Beginning at a point he had undoubtedly not planned, Anand Giridharadas described his great surprise that Rick Bragg had preceded him on the stage, explaining how the writer had been an inspiration for him, and how, in particular, he had inspired him on his way as a writer and columnist for the New York Times.

Listening to him speak, you understand, like Bragg, he values words. Giridharadas measures them.

Knowing that he was a child of "two ways of being," a theme to which he returns near the end of his talk and during the question and answer session, Anand says he was not "All-American" in certain ways. Being exposed to two cultures, he didn't like the implicit choice that others might assume he had to make. Moreover, he had always had the sense that his parents had somehow escaped a country. But what he found on more recent visits to India was a new country emerging from a very old one.

India is vigorously reinventing itself.

The contrast with the current national mood is obvious. The future today seems to too many people a threat. Now back in the United States, Giridharadas sees a fatalism in America that he once sensed in an Indian culture that is now spinning rapidly into the future. Based on his deep experiences in the country, he proceeds to describe how India does innovation.

They obsess about how strip away cost, how to make more things available to more people. The trick is how to make better things despite scarcity.

"Gandhian engineering" also brings an irreverence toward things that have been done before. That too is a function of cost. "If someone gives you a $800 laptop and tells you to make it for $80, you don't look at the expensive laptop for design guidance," he says.

Irreverence means asking how you make banking affordable to an illiterate person via their phone. "That's a crazy question," Giridharadas says. Crazy questions don't naturally lead to an "up-sell." It's all about the down-sell - how can the idea be produced for less - which also means that India is intensely focused on needs.

Looking up from the podium, he adds that "one thing we forget is that a lot people in America have needs."

Indian innovators know that people need more "dumb phones" because, he adds, "more people have access to cell phones than a flush toilet."

Distinguishing between the soft power many people, perhaps mistakenly, believe America still wields, he instead goes into some detail on the "knock-off" power adopted by India. American culture is everywhere. Imitation is not in this case necessarily a form of flattery, but rather a means to an end.

"What I fear" is that many people wielding that new found "knock-off" power do not still admire America, he says.

Circling back to Bragg, Giridharadas also expresses a deep admiration for the "geography of belonging," that richness of knowing something in great detail. He says he is still grappling with the idea that he is a child of two ways of being. The rootlessness at is both terrifying and exhilarating.

It also means he will mischievously play along with Indians when presses about his "place," intentionally obscuring the Indian geography - oh so important - of his parentage.

I guess some engineering should not require an explanation.