A vivid look at how India has developed the idea of entrepreneurial citizens as leaders mobilizing society and how people try to live that promise
Can entrepreneurs develop a nation, serve the poor, and pursue creative freedom, all while generating economic value? In Chasing Innovation, Lilly Irani shows the contradictions that arise as designers, engineers, and businesspeople frame development and governance as opportunities to innovate. Irani documents the rise of "entrepreneurial citizenship" in India over the past seventy years, demonstrating how a global ethos of development through design has come to shape state policy, economic investment, and the middle class in one of the world’s fastest-growing nations.
Drawing on her own professional experience as a Silicon Valley designer and nearly a decade of fieldwork following a Delhi design studio, Irani vividly chronicles the practices and mindsets that hold up professional design as the answer to the challenges of a country of more than one billion people, most of whom are poor. While discussions of entrepreneurial citizenship promise that Indian children can grow up to lead a nation aspiring to uplift the poor, in reality, social, economic, and political structures constrain whose enterprise, which hopes, and which needs can be seen as worthy of investment. In the process, Irani warns, powerful investors, philanthropies, and companies exploit citizens' social relations, empathy, and political hope in the quest to generate economic value. Irani argues that the move to recast social change as innovation, with innovators as heroes, frames otherscraftspeople, workers, and activistsas of lower value, or even dangers to entrepreneurial forms of development.
With meticulous historical context and compelling stories, Chasing Innovation lays bare how long-standing power hierarchies such as class, caste, language, and colonialism continue to shape opportunity in a world where good ideas supposedly rule all.
About the Author
Lilly Irani is associate professor of communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is a cofounder and maintainer of digital labor activism tool Turkopticon. Twitter @gleemie
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INNOVATORS AND THEIR OTHERS
BEFORE THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the entrepreneur was someone who managed an enterprise, undertaking projects financed by others and seeing them through (see Sarkar 1917). This once managerial figure has in the early twenty-first century become mythic, symbolically bound to social progress through invention, production, and experiment. Globally circulating digital media — TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) videos and Harvard Business Review articles, for instance — popularize the entrepreneur as a normative model of social life. The ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship, honed in high-technology firms, has colonized philanthropy, development projects, government policies, and even thinking about international diplomacy. Innovation competitions, hackathons, and corporate mythologies around figures such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs proliferate optimism that passionate dreamers can change the world. Austerity is no barrier; in myth, entrepreneurs are fueled by nothing more than perseverance, empathy, and resourcefulness in the face of adversity or injustice.
The entrepreneur, no longer just a manager, has become an "agent of change," an ideal worker, an instrument of development, and an optimistic and speculative citizen. This citizen cultivates and draws what resources they can — their community ties, their capacity to labor, even their political hope — into the pursuit of entrepreneurial experiments in development, understood as economic growth and uplift of the poor. Most important, entrepreneurial citizens promise value with social surplus; as they pursue their passions, they produce benefits for an amorphous but putatively extensive social body. The entrepreneurial citizen belongs to an imagined community of consumers, beneficiaries, and fellow entrepreneurs. If this imaginary of the entrepreneurial citizen sounds grandiose and vague, this is no coincidence; vagueness has been core to the global promise and portability of the entrepreneurial ethos. State and corporate elites point to entrepreneurs as those who can make opportunity out of the innumerable shortcomings of development.
I call this economic and political regime entrepreneurial citizenship. Entrepreneurial citizenship promises that citizens can construct markets, produce value, and do nation building all at the same time. This book shows how people adopt and champion this ethos in India in the early twenty-first century, articulating entrepreneurship with longstanding hierarchies and systems of meaning. Entrepreneurial citizenship attempts to hail people's diverse visions for development in India — desires citizens could channel toward oppositional politics — and directs them toward the production of enterprise. Elites, political and industrial, produce this ideology. It makes the most sense for India's middle classes — those with access to institutional, capitalist, and philanthropic patronage and investment. Entrepreneurial citizenship's language and social forms discipline political hope. As people — privately or through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — pitch to funders, to innovation competitions, or to corporate partners, they have to articulate dissatisfaction and demands as "opportunities" in patrons' interests. They monitor themselves, their relations, and their environments as terrains of potential. On these terrains, they look for opportunities to take on projects and redirect their lives to add value. These practices bend away from the slow, threatening work of building social movements; rather, people articulate desires to work for change as demos and deliverables. Calls to entrepreneurial citizenship promise national belonging for those who subsume their hopes, ideals, particular knowledges, and relationships into experiments in projects that promise value.
Proponents of this form — often technocrats and capital investors — promise that everyone is potentially an entrepreneur, from the least to the most privileged. Prominent business school faculty Anil Gupta (2006) and C. K. Prahalad (2004), for example, have celebrated the entrepreneurial capacities of rural inventors and informal producers. A report by the Planning Commission of the Government of India (2012d) featured a woman selling colored powder dyes on its cover, but its pages were filled with policy recommendations targeted at developing high-tech ventures. In casting street hawkers and elite technologists alike as entrepreneurs in potentia, proponents collapse the vast gaps in money, formal knowledge, and authority that separate these two. Entrepreneurial citizenship becomes one attempt at hegemony, a common sense that casts the interests of ruling classes as everyone's interests.
But this entrepreneurialism is not only a project of the self but also a project that posits relations between selves and those they govern, guide, and employ: leaders and led, benefactors and beneficiaries, the avant-garde and the laggards, innovators and their others. Champions of innovation and entrepreneurship often leave this hierarchy implicit or deny its existence, leaving the problems it raises unaddressed. So who becomes an innovator and who becomes the innovator's other? Who conceptualizes and valorizes, and who does the work? Who modernizes whom, and toward what horizon?
Advocates of entrepreneurial citizenship argue that society must invest in innovators, as innovators promise a better future for all. This book depicts the practices by which institutions, organizations, and individuals selectively invest only in some people, some aspirations, and some projects in the name of development. As powerful institutions actively cultivate "the capacity to aspire" (Appadurai 2004) through entrepreneurial citizenship, this book illustrates the seductions, limits, and contradictions of entrepreneurial citizenship's promise of inclusion through the generation of economic and social possibility.
The politics of entrepreneurial citizenship play out diffusely, in sometimes hazy, sometimes passionate, and sometimes convenient decisions people make about who to work with, who to work for, who to invest in, and what spaces to inhabit. Schools, training programs, venture capitalists, NGOs, and entrepreneurial individuals cultivate and cull futures as they invest in some projects and people and not others. As these actors decide whom to fund, whom to have coffee with, and whose feedback to take, they select and cultivate relationships that produce emergent forms of hierarchy. These decisions play out moment to moment in studios, NGOs, and social innovation spaces, shaped by assumptions about caste, class, region, and cosmopolitanism. These judgments are often glossed ones of "like-mindedness," "authenticity," and "fit."
Value orients entrepreneurial citizens and those who invest in them. But it is not tangible productivity, but what anthropologist Kaushik Sunder Rajan characterizes as "the felt possibility of future productivity or profit" (2006, 18). They produce and respond to vision, hope, and hype as they pursue speculative capital investments; they promise not only financial value but also social value and legitimation for socially responsible funders and investors (Friedner 2015). With this book, I render these social forces visible so that those working toward horizons of justice might channel their hopes and labor in ways less easily appropriated and disciplined by capital investments, and the demand for financial value. I assess entrepreneurial citizenship in light of the still lively legacies of enlightenment and colonial projects that position some people as India's past and fewer people — the educated, the modernized, and now the innovators — as India's future, deserving of investment in the name of the nation.
This book offers an ethnography of entrepreneurial citizenship. I pay close attention to why entrepreneurial citizenship makes sense to people — what histories, mediations, and ideologies make it compelling for those who respond to its call. I link affects and practices to institutional, political, and political economic structures that necessitate them. I begin by analyzing various visions in India of how state and society ought to relate to one another and what kinds of subjects have emerged in such arrangements. Entrepreneurial citizenship is one such arrangement that emerged as the Indian state attempted to privatize the functions of development to private industry and civil society while managing surplus populations (Sanyal 2007). I draw on studies of South Asia's history, political economy, and culture to show why these arrangements began to make sense to elites and to many in the middle classes in the decades following liberalization in 1991. I address questions about the organization of neoliberal hegemonic projects and how they shape class, caste, and gender relations (e.g., Bhatt, Murty, and Ramamurthy 2010). To understand what is new about this arrangement, I turn to development studies' examinations of rule of experts and civil society NGOs and introduce the concept of "rendering entrepreneurial" to explain how the state goes beyond the management of poverty to the proliferation of enterprise around poverty. I draw on science and technology studies, economic sociology, and economic anthropology to show the kinds of infrastructures, social relations, media forms, and epistemologies that make such enterprises seem tractable in practice and in promise. From literature on human computer interaction (HCI) and design, I take the insight that interfaces and materialities of mediation condition interactions and intersubjectivities up close and at a distance (see, e.g., Lave and Wenger 1991; Dourish 2004). Drawing from feminist analyses of labor, I analyze these resulting subject formations and divisions of labor as regimes of invisibility and hierarchies of value. Debates about power and values in design processes (e.g., Friedman 1996; Nissenbaum 2001; Muller 2003) must reckon with the colonial, postcolonial, and capitalist processes that lend design and innovation their social promise in the first place. And I turn to postcolonial and feminist studies to pose the question of how the social promise of innovation responds to anxieties about difference and disorder in the national community. Policy elites, for example, saw in India's youthful population a productivity boon or fodder for political fire; all depended on whether entrepreneurship and industrialization could absorb and direct their energies (see Nilekani 2009, 52; Gupta 2016, 297, 341).
I use citizenship here as both an emic and an analytic term. Many whom I met in the course of fieldwork positioned entrepreneurship not just as an economic activity but as a nation-building one. They built on long-standing understandings of development as a collective national project demanding contributions from all citizens. As they spoke of their vocations and biographies, many spoke explicitly of problems of "civic sense" and what the government ought to expect from them. People did not speak of "citizenship" per se but of the civic, of India, and of "doing one's bit." I also use citizenship as an analytic category to draw into sharper relief the implications of people's own ideologies of belonging and specific state policies to recognize membership in the nation. In chapter 2 I show how the state redefined citizenship policies specifically to include the technical expertise and wealth of diaspora in the nation, elevating upper castes and classes with access to education over laborers abroad. Within South Asian studies, sociologists and anthropologists have primarily discussed citizenship in terms of rights demanded from the state, whether as consumers of services or as groups demanding affirmative action, land rights, or recognition; this book puts in the foreground the responsibilities the state attempts to place on citizens as well. I bring this study of citizenship into dialogue with the perspectives of science and technology studies, which I argue ought to attend not only to the practices and histories surrounding technology but also to the ways in which states hierarchize people in terms of their capacities to offer expertise recognized as high value at particular historical moments.
Innovation as the Rearticulation of Development
People champion a variety of cultural imaginaries under the seemingly global banner of innovation. A challenge of this analysis is to locate the stabilities among entrepreneurial and innovation projects while recognizing contestations and variations among them. Here, I begin by contrasting three different prescriptions for development from three elite policy actors. Their visions are varyingly capitalist, socialist, and Gandhian, yet they share a belief in entrepreneurial innovators as a vehicle for national growth and distribution. They share a vision that draws distinctions between valorized innovators and their beneficiary others. Differences among them signal the varied historical strands of development that still animate Indian politics today.
Arvind Subramanian, a former International Monetary Fund economist, served as chief economic advisor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi from 2014 through 2018. Sam Pitroda headed the National Knowledge Commission in the early 2000s after decades leading technology infrastructure projects for the Congress Party. Anil Gupta, a Gandhian Indian Institute of Management (IIM) professor, served the Modi government as second-in-command of the National Innovation Foundation. The three men vary in their political affiliations, but all envision entrepreneurship and innovation as engines of development.
Addressing the University of Pennsylvania's India Innovation Conference in November 2013, Subramanian speculated about India's future, painting the country as a temporal contradiction. "Despite being very poor, it is still cutting edge. ... [India] does things which a country at its level of development is not supposed to do"— Subramanian called this "the precocious model of development." He envisioned an India that exported information services like programming and tech support; it trained skilled entrepreneurs and managers; its wealthy invested their capital not only in India but in other countries. But this precocious India had not yet arrived. "India contains all ten centuries within it," he explained, pointing to the low-skill workers and low-caste Indians still mired in "backwards traditions" and without jobs. For Subramanian, innovation was key to growth, but it was the province of capitalists and highly educated managers and engineers who could invent it and organize it. He prescribed policies to empower these elites through easing restrictions on land, labor, trade, and foreign direct investment.
Pitroda is, like Subramanian, a nonresident Indian deeply involved in central government policy. He headed the National Knowledge Commission during Congress rule from 2005 through 2014. During a televised panel on innovation and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) staged by parliament, Pitroda spoke about the poorest Indians at "the bottom of the pyramid" not as potential workers to be stabilized by incorporation in low-skill jobs but as village Indians in need of technical solutions, innovation, and uplift. The market alone — and finance capital in particular — simply "extracts value" through exchange, Pitroda argued in a swipe at commercial capital. By contrast, engineers have the capacity to innovate by going to people, identifying their problems, and "creating value" by solving them. Pitroda is himself an icon of this form; he had led the central government mission to bring telephone service to rural India in the 1980s (Chakravartty 2004). This was a vision not of inventing for export but rather of dedicating professional Indian inventiveness to domestic consumers' and citizens' needs.
A business professor with a starkly different ethos, Gupta (2009) posited rural India as the true "hotbed of innovation." He taught for decades at India's premier management institute, IIM-Ahmedabad, and led annual yatras, or walking pilgrimages, through rural India on a search for "indigenous innovation." He mobilized audiences through TED Talk videos, a trade book (2016), and Indian national television. A global voice, but always donning Indian kurta and salwar, he made the case that rural Indians have appropriate technologies and traditional knowledge ripe for capitalization. These rural innovators, he argued, made affordable, repairable, and clever technologies driven by their impatience to make life easier. Gupta and his team documented these inventions and aided in diffusing them through patenting and licensing support, as well as a decades-old newsletter translated into a variety of regional languages.
In some ways, the three men could not seem more different. For Subramanian, innovation emanated from the gleaming towers of urban India to the networked globe. For Pitroda, it moved from urban offices into rural villages. And for Gupta, it could, with proper state support, circulate within and beyond rural India itself.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
List of Figures xiii
1 Introduction: Innovators and Their Others 1
2 Remaking Development: From Responsibility to Opportunity 23
3 Teaching Citizenship, Liberalizing Community 53
4 Learning to Add Value at the Studio 82
5 Entrepreneurial Time and the Bounding of Politics 109
6 Seeing Like an Entrepreneur, Feeling Out Opportunity 141
7 Can the Subaltern Innovate? 172
8 Conclusion: The Cultivation and Subsumption of Hope 205
What People are Saying About This
"A fascinating piece of scholarship on a critically important topic, this book addresses the rise of entrepreneurship in India as a new model of development. Irani captures the characteristics of the entrepreneurial citizen while taking care to show the enduring power of older developmental imaginaries and social hierarchies. This exemplary ethnographic portrait of twenty-first-century entrepreneurialism is sure to have a wide and varied readership."Ajantha Subramanian, Harvard University