Why India Is "Geek Nation"

India is already known as one of the world's IT powerhouses. Angela Saini, author of the new book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, believes the country is also becoming one of the world's hubs for innovation and scientific ingenuity.

Over the past few years, BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) has become a buzzy acronym for technology- and finance-watchers. India is already known for call centers, IT development, and expatriate coders. The country is also home to one of the world's fastest-growing middle classes. Angela Saini, the British author of the new Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over The World, believes that India is also becoming an innovation center to be reckoned with, and a world leader in tech.

Fast Company recently spoke with Saini about India's tech industry, the growth of Indian startups, and what the future holds for Indian innovators. Geek Nation is being released in the U.S. on May 1.

FAST COMPANY: Why do you consider India to be a "Geek Nation"?

ANGELA SAINI: I grew up in London, and it's difficult to grow up in this city and not notice that every school has at least one geeky Indian kid. I was the geeky Indian kid in my class. My dad is a geek, many of my cousins are geeks, and more generally, India is famous for producing doctors, university professors, and engineers who work all over the world. India itself is not a world leader in science and technology yet but it does have a culture that strongly favors these things, above anything else. So Geek Nation was my journey to figure out why, and also where that ambition is taking it.

I have to admit, as a science journalist, I started out with a big measure of skepticism--I mean, India has a weak scientific publication record compared to the U.S. and Europe--but the trajectory it's on is just incredible. I think the rest of the world underestimates just what hundreds of thousands of committed young scientists and engineers can achieve. Then again, President Obama gets it. If you look at his speeches on science and education, he often mentions the growth of India as one reason that the U.S. needs to stay competitive.

The subtitle of my book is a bit bombastic, but the contents are more balanced. I look at scientific research and technologies that are having a big effect on ordinary people's lives--the good as well as the bad--and the ambitious projects that the government hopes will help secure India's future superpower status. At the end of the day, I'm just a journalist. I'm not trying to argue a point, but rather to take an honest picture of a country through my geeky lens.

What was the most surprising thing you uncovered while researching your book?

There wasn't a day in my research that I wasn't surprised by something. I traveled the length of India, north to south, and met such fascinating characters. What impressed me most is that so many Indian researchers have such a social aspect to their work. They want to help India's poor and vulnerable, as well as to do good science.

One interviewee, Sujatha Narayanan, was a tuberculosis researcher I met in Chennai. A few years ago, when she didn't have enough healthy volunteers for her work, she started running tests on herself. One day she found some TB bacteria in a tube that had been in her throat, which meant she may have accidentally infected herself. She had to undertake a grueling drug treatment for months, which she believes triggered her diabetes. She put her life on the line for her work, but it has not diminished her passion or her commitment to science.

What role are ethnic Indian immigrants/returnees from the West playing in India's tech industry? Are they a major factor?

The success of India's tech industry has encouraged a lot of young engineers and scientists who left the country, in the big brain drain, to return. And they're playing a big part in shaping the future of the industry. Not only are they bringing their expertise and experience, but they are also bringing the culture of places like Silicon Valley. In Bangalore these days there are meetups and cool conferences for young techies and designers, just like you get in San Francisco. There's this buzz about the big cities, which is making them an exciting environment to be in. But it's not just in IT--I met scientists in all kinds of fields who had chosen to come back to India because they felt the opportunities were improving and that they could make a difference to the country.

Can you explain why you compared India's current situation to Japan in the early 1970s?

When you read academic studies about the attitudes that people had toward Japan's technology industry in its early days, it's very similar to what people have been saying about India recently--that scientists and engineers are hardworking and educated, but not particularly creative or original. In Japan's case of course that all changed, giving rise to a truly powerful scientific nation. I think similar stirrings are happening in India now. There are shoots of creativity all over the country, particularly in areas like biotechnology, life sciences, and computing. I don't want to forecast what might happen, because I don't think anyone can know for sure, but India does at least have the ambition and willpower to want to be the next scientific superpower.

You wrote about jugaad--the power of improvising to solve problems--in a recent article. How do you think that has influenced India's tech industry?

I didn't write about jugaad in my book. But yeah, I wrote an article about it recently, because it is such a fascinating phenomenon. Jugaad is a very broad-brush word, meaning something like getting things done by hook or by crook. So for example, in rural areas, people will throw together tractor engines and bits of wood to make trucks, and in the urban slums, people will recycle old newspapers and rework appliances to make new ones. It's really driven by poverty, but it has inspired some Indian companies to look at frugal, mass innovation for India's domestic market--for example, the TATA Nano car. But I don't think it's had a big impact on India's mainstream technology industry, which is focused on creating high-quality products and services that can sell overseas.

What do you see as the strong points and weak points of India's tech industry?

India's tech industry is great at business innovation. India's outsourcing model for IT work has been incredibly successful and, on the back of this, it's managed to build a profitable industry that is globally competitive. But it's less good at genuine technological innovation. India simply hasn't yet produced a company of the caliber of IBM or Microsoft. But that isn't to say it will never do it. It certainly wants to, but I have a feeling it may come from the younger generation, which is more free in its thinking and creative.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and readability.

Geek Nation was released this past March in the United Kingdom and is currently awaiting U.S. release.

[Image: Angela Saini]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter.

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20 Comments

  • Pat Mc Laughlin

    The comment on the passion of  Sujatha Narayanan, undermines the credibility of the piece as it simply highlights bad laboratory practice and not much else.  A science journalist should surely objectively recognize this.

  • Ian Colle

    Until India is willing to make a significant investment in High Performance Computing, they will lag the rest of the world in scientific development.  As of the June 2011 Top 500 list: http://top500.org/stats/list/3..., India only had 2 systems that made the list - on par with Denmark, Singapore, and Belgium. A true commitment to science and technology will be reflected in a commitment of resources to develop this crucial scientific infrastructure.

  • G Srinivsan

    Angela Saini has also shown oracular insight in classifying India's upsurge on the scientific front as a Geek Nation. But what is not yet known is that the very origin of India's Vedic heritage is more scientific than the progress in science today. The theoretical strength of Vedic science lies in its derivation from axiomatic basics which is unique. The lead to extracting energy directly from space is given in its treatise Sankhya forming the core of the Bhagavadgita. Very soon a complete book on its extraordinary contents with an associated  technology that would raise living standards to ideal levels is about to be published. See the basics in
    http://s2.webstarts.com/Sankhy...

  • Tk421

    The west thinks that India is full of geeks, because the Indian jocks dont get visas - they arent needed.

  • Samir Shah

    Trade associations (like NASSCOM) may want to have an ombudsman to objectively go into the complaints (like the ones by "donkarr").

  • Gautam

    It's great to see such optimism, but I think articles like this one are highlighting the exceptions and not the rule. I quit my day job and started my company several years back and I've encountered headache after headache. Finding competent staff has been very difficult, the Startup scene is nascent, and vendors that do a complete job and that go the extra mile are extremely rare. It feels as though everyone is all about shortcuts and making a fast buck. For the sake of the country I wish my experience was an anomaly, but I hear similar stories from others. I'm now seriously pondering shifting my firm out of the country - visa regulations be damned! :). I guess if you're an IT or multinational giant - India's a great way to save money for all your mundane processing jobs, but for innovation? Forget it!

  • Samir Shah

    India will improve because of her geeks. To speed up the process, Indian govenment can do the following.

    1) Have major Internet backbone spanning four metros and minor backbone spanning state capitals.

    2) Geekdom is corrently confined to English in India. Really, really, raally force support of Indian languages on PCs and mobiles. PCs never invaded Indian homes because of the language problem and India may get shut out of smartphone revolution partially bacause of the language problem.

  • Samir Shah

    I agree with the author and I think that India will improve with 2x speed and 2x force (overall 4x inprovement) compared to what the author is thinking because India's geekdom is not confined to men. In India you find as many women geeks as there are men geeks. As an example, except for Civil Engineering, you will find many engineeing colleges having almost 50%, or sometimes even more than 50%, women to men ratio.

  • Ishan

    Pretty amazing how most of the comments bring forth the problems facing India with very little optimism.  I think the beauty of India is that everything is in the open ; everybody knows that large sections are impoverished and that challenges are immense. The nation is young and is growing up, things will be better and are changing. Although I positively don't adhere to the term "geek" ,  I cant fault with the authors optimism. What is the point to life without some escapism.

     My generation is the first who have the luxury to take risks and start-up, we will get things done.I grew up in a small town and about to finish my grad school in cambridge at MIT; I cant wait to go back home in a few months to start up and be part of something wickedly awesome. 

  • Rene Schlegel

    By all means, countries to not have to send their citizens into outer space to belong to the league the author seems to long for..... Some nations that Mrs. Saini mentions as exemplary actually never did this nor will they.... Walking for long in the footprints of others, no matter if on the surface of the moon or the earth, is not necessarily the best idea for countries to cross any threshold.... 
    @rene_schlegel:twitter 

  • Aizad

    Superpower status??? The author is hallucinating! India is one of the poorest countries in the world where 60% of the population has been ignored into oblivion. India's population density is far greater than China and the majority of its population does not have access to electricity, sanitation, clean drinking water and healthcare. With a population that will exceed 1.5 billion by 2030, I fear that it is heading towards an implosion.

  • Vishesh Bhavsar

    Reading all these comments, I am surprised to see how bias and stereotype the Western population is. I don't say we don't have problems at home, but who don't have problems? In the times of recession, India is one of the strongest economy. Whoever said that the infrastructure of India is bad, he is right. But because we have efficient workfoce a moderate change in the condition improves the productive capacity of economy significantly. Thanks to British empire, and because India's population crisis, India is one of the largest English Speaking population in the World. Following are some of the Innovative and Scientific startups credited to India, and you are probably living and sleeping on it:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L...
    @Aizad, the "0" you used when you wrote 2030 was invented by an Indian Mathematician way back in 3rd century. Cheers

  • samuel p

    I might agree with authors view about the younger generation doing it for India. But, as I see the state of scientific development, or research in India there is absolutely no scope in near future for any new inventions happening. India so far, has been following the west in innovation. Everything is so commercialized, including health care, I see very few if at all any geeks. People are more into technology for the money and good life it buys, its not real passion. Innovation can never happen without passion.
    Moreover, the culture is not of risk taking, especially average Indians, who form the major chunk of average customers. Also, there is no infrastructure, government support for innovation. All major inventions, especially in US like Internet, computers, have happened with government funded and supported defense labs or military bases. If India would ever become a "technology super power" that will be an outlier of an outlier.
    I'm sorry, this is the problem with journalism, they don't see or experience the real life as it happens daily, its just an opinion based on few selective interviews or discussions.

  • donkarr

    I lost over $200,000.00 to an Indian programing company Sigmainfosolutions. What I got was never useable. They act like the nicest people, but  why not, if they were not nice how could they swindle me out of my money,  Now I am trying another country to do my programming. During my exploration for a good programmer, I would hear the same thing over and over. India does not have the ability to do a good job.  I would expect that some Indian firms are first class, but let the buyer beware. The project was agreed at $45,000,00. After some time they Froze the work and demanded  another $50,000.00 and promised that would be all, no more costs.  When we launched the auction site failed miserably.  I was instructed to hire a Guru to give them advice of how to fixt the problem. This cost $ 3200.00 The India Times says it best. These are coders, sitting in a small cubicle, not real programmers.
    Beware !!!!!!

  • Shankar Saikia

    INDIA A TECH INNOVATOR = POSSIBLE BUT NOT PROBABLE

    I appreciate the author's optimism about India's potential as a tech innovator. One crucial requirement for the success of tech innovation is to be able to find early-adopter customers willing to take the risk on new technologies. Customers in countries like India and China are usually not willing to try new technologies. The other aspect of innovation success is a culture that respects and appreciates risk-taking. In India (and I mean physically-located in India) the culture and society value the safety and stability of employment in established big companies. India, by virtue of its size, commitment to education and history of scientific discovery, has a large number of intelligent people. However, the obstacles to tech innovation are structural (including geographic location) and societal and cultural. 

    I would love to find a way to incent those who left the US to come back to the US ;)