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Sustainable Global Innovation Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

USC Viterbi Professor Stephen Lu redefines innovation at the 2013 NASSCOM India Leadership Forum
By: Conrad Wilton
February 25, 2013 —

USC Viterbi Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Stephen Lu delivered a keynote address on sustainable global innovation during the 2013 National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) India Leadership Forum last week in Mumbai.

Over 3,000 people representing 26 different countries packed the auditorium to hear Lu advocate for a new conception of innovation – one that does not necessarily require state-of-the-art technology or a large-scale industrial solution.

Lu argues that the current approach to innovation focuses on the wants of “the few,” and thus wastes resources and widens social divides. He suggests that sustainable innovation should, instead, focus on satisfying the needs of “the many.”

“The many has to participate in the innovation,” Lu said. “That’s what makes it sustainable.”

Lu’s objective is to employ intuitive technology that empowers the public to serve themselves, maximize indigenous resources and minimize waste. Examples include teaching people living in rural areas how to use gravity to generate electricity or how to put special chemicals into straws that purifies river water as it travels through the tube, thus making it safe to drink.

Children Drinking River Water From Specialized Straws

“When you empower the many, they develop a simple solution with hidden local resources to ‘self-serve’ their own needs,” he said. “The resources are hidden, so you have to be creative to find and use them.”

However, the current educational system must be reformed to unleash this new form of innovation, Lu said.

“You have to truly understand how the many live their lives,” he said. “How do we prepare our young to really be able to develop the skills to understand indigenous culture around the global market in order to be a player in sustainable innovation?”

Lu’s solution is iPodia, a virtual classroom where students all over the world engage in real-time, cross-cultural learning. The USC-led iPodia Alliance currently includes eight members: USC, Peking University in China, National Taiwan University, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), RWTH University of Aachen in Germany, the India Institute of Technology, and the Escola Politécnica da Universidade in São Paulo, Brazil.

“In iPodia, you use technology to eliminate the distance between learners, regardless of where they are,” Lu said. “Peer-to-peer learning inspires global innovation.”