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Thought Leadership at ESSEC Asia-Pacific: Diplomacy and Innovation

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An Executive Summary with a focus on the keynote address of Srividya Jandhyala, Associate Professor of Management and expert in international business and public policy at ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific, at the 2019 India Conference on Innovation, Intellectual Property, and Competition.

The lone genius. A flash of insight and Eureka! A magical moment of epiphany that changed the world.

Leonardo da Vinci. Johannes Gutenberg. Henry Ford. James Dyson. History has perpetually celebrated brilliant individuals who, through talent and inspiration, single-handedly achieved feats no one else had before. But the reality could not be further from that. Breakthrough innovations aren’t achieved by one person, or even within a single organisation. What starts as an idea for a product or a service depends on thousands of forces, seen and unseen, for it to be transformed into its functional form.

One key factor is diplomacy. Although innovation is not usually associated with political or diplomatic elements, whether innovation occurs, what form it takes, which standards get adopted, how businesses evolve, and when it is a force for good are all as much questions of social and political factors as they are of technological factors. So, how can diplomacy make or break innovation? Srividya Jandhyala, [Associate Professor] of Management and expert in international business and public policy at ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific, get to the bottom of things.

To begin with, accessing and integrating knowledge across different technologies, expertise, and borders is a major challenge. A strong framework is essential to pave the way for a pattern of interaction that connects innovators across regions. This is where diplomacy steps in to help. Diplomatic efforts establish connections among different parts of the world to generate access to information that might otherwise be challenging to reach. For instance, the leadership and expertise of the inter-governmental body, World Meteorological Organization, which coordinates large amounts of global climate data, is leveraged by many countries in their preparation for adverse weather events. Also, countries that are better connected to intergovernmental organisations have witnessed a dramatic increase in national innovation.

Next, any innovation inevitably sparks off thorny questions about who should capture the commercial benefits of the new technology, trade-offs between individual rights and collective interests, as well as balancing internal and external imperatives. Here, diplomacy plays a key role in shaping the patterns of reward distribution. As a case in point, when the Indian government adopted new e-commerce rules that worked against the long-term interests of foreign online retailers, Amazon and Walmart vehemently opposed the rules as they viewed the untapped potential of the Indian market as an important source of growth. With so much at stake, the US firms lobbied their home government to intervene diplomatically. And, the US government responded by revoking India’s trade benefits.

How can we address the big challenges that confront the world today? We need innovative solutions – new ideas, products, processes, business systems, organizational forms, bold reforms  –  to overcome problems such as climate change, migration, and food security. But equally important is diplomacy to enable that innovation and secure returns from it. The world of science is all about international collaborative action. Building bridges between nations and as such, bringing together unlikely combinations of people, domain expertise, and ideas can do wonders. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton couldn't have said truer words.

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