A closer look at innovation in Sri Lanka

*Some real new ideas of our people



Welcome to the fifty ninth edition of this regular column. Here in this column, we discuss a wide range of topics around Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) as well as about Business, Education, Entrepreneurship, Creativity, Innovation and the Society at large.


As we have discussed here in this column earlier, creativity and innovation are very important for the progress of a country. It is our own scholar Mr Kumarathunga Munidasa who said "Aluth Aluth De Nothanana Jathiya Lowa Nonagi", meaning we have to do new things if we are to improve as a nation. Albert Einstein once said "Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions".

Imagination is important. It will lead to innovation, which can eventually lead to entrepreneurship to create economic and social value. Imagination and Innovation is more the ‘thinking’ part whereas entrepreneurship is more geared towards the ‘doing’ part.

Recently (in July 2011), Sri Lanka was ranked 82nd, in a global innovation index issued by Insead, an international business school. We stand behind India but ahead of other key south Asian countries. Switzerland topped this year’s ranking in the Global Innovation Index (GII), while Sweden took second place and Singapore third. This shows that we have a fair way to go.

One important thing I think is the need to develop the innovative culture within us. The feeling that ‘we can do’ needs to be injected. After over four centuries of foreign rule and an overdose of westernisation through various sources, I feel like our people have come to a place where we simply consume what others do rather than inventing and developing things ourselves.

Therefore, while we have discussed some concepts of innovation in the past, I felt like discussing some of the real new ideas of our own people, just to showcase that we also can!

So, I picked two stories for today from two individuals. Both are readers of this column and were kind enough to contact me, and give details as well as being willing to see the concepts go public.

Importantly, they are looking for enthusiasts to take their ideas forward.

Fresh produce to market

Tilak Dissanayake is a mechanical engineer and an airplane nut. He worked for 12 years in the commercial and the defense sector of The Boeing Company. After 30 years in the US, working in a variety of fields for Xerox and other companies, he returned to Sri Lanka.

He has developed a new concept that uses strengths of existing technologies such as ICT (Information and Communications Technology), electronics, compressed air motors, and wind energy and has combined in innovative ways to resolve the long standing issue of getting fresh produce to the market at a fair price to both producers and consumers.

As we know, in Sri Lanka, there is a problem of middlemen with regards to fresh produce of vegetables and fruits. It results in delays, unnecessarily high prices due to commission (or ‘cuts’) and increases wastage of the produce (as high as 40% in some cases).

Innovation starts with wondering, questioning, and identifying problems. The question that needs to be asked is: Is it possible to move produce across large and small distances, in a more cost-effective and sustainable way, while maintaining high quality goods as well as a fair income to famers and a fair price for consumers?

So our man Mr Dissanayake has come up with a four staged concept. Although this will sound like a drastic concept at first, the more you think about it the more sense it would make.

1. Use low cost, lightweight, locally designed robotic airplanes to transport produce.

Instead of a large and heavy engine, these airplanes (called robotic cargo plane - RCP) will use a motorcycle or a similar small engine driving a propeller for thrust during take off and cruise. The RCPs will be privately owned and are essentially designed to be the "trishaws of the skies". Essentially they will be cheap to be built, making it affordable for Sri Lanka.

2. Linking farmers directly to markets by leveraging the strengths of mobile phone technology.

Mobile phones are now so inexpensive that pretty much anyone can generally afford to have one, while SMS text messaging using the English alphabet is in wide usage. A network of farmers, retailers and transporters could be linked through their mobile phones via structured format SMSs to form a trade network.

3. Leveraging the Energy of the Wind:

Conventional airfields have long, rectangular runways for planes to take off from because the engines need to be very powerful if you want to take off in a short distance. Instead, it is proposed that a few specialised RCP airfields be built around the country, located in remote, high-wind areas with farming communities nearby. Rather than being rectangular, the airfield will have a small circular field for a runway so that the RCPs can always takeoff directly into the wind minimizing the energy required to get into the air.

4. Leveraging Navigation Technology and Inexpensive Communication Technology to Manage the Robotic Aviation Airspace

Sri Lanka has excellent mobile telephone coverage throughout the island, and telephone networks are highly reliable and available 24 hours a day. This reliable and extensive coverage can be combined with inexpensive and reliable sensors and other navigation devices to help RCPs navigate and communicate with a central control system.

While I am neither a Scientist nor a Physicist, when Tilak Dissanayake shared the detailed concept paper, I felt there is something in this. At least something that should attract discussion. Many people would fear these concepts going public so that others can steel the idea. But Mr Dissanayake reacted in the contrary. He actually "wants it stolen as much as possible so that someone will actually go build it or build parts of it". However, it’s best to do it together with the mastermind. So, please contact him at tilak@antsglobal.lk if you feel you are interested in any part of the concept.

Easier method of dress making

As my second story, I am picking an innovation from another reader. This is completely different to the first. But it just proves that innovations can be born anywhere and in any field.

Mrs Barbara Wijesinghe is a 75 year old dress making teacher. She invented the ‘Check Block Method of Dressmaking’ which is very different to the traditional methods of dressmaking. It is a very practical, easier and quicker method.

This method of dressmaking requires only ‘two measurements’. I am no expert of dressmaking but Mrs Wijesinghe explained that normal methods take 14 (or even up to 21) measurements while her method takes only two. According to her, it works for any type of dress as well. The complicated method (called the scientific method) that is widely used in Sri Lanka and other countries might actually make dressmaking too hard for young girls who are always looking out for easier methods. It involves many calculations and too many measurements. So an easier method like this might actually attract and keep them interested in it for longer. Apart from economic benefits of stitching your own dresses, it in fact is a great past time and a good mental therapy.

Mrs Wijesinghe holds the Intellectual Property Rights for the ‘Check Block Method of Dressmaking – Only Two Measurements’ and received a Presidential Award from the Sri Lanka Inventors’ Commission in 2007 in recognition of this, as a new and innovative method of dressmaking.

She has published an English book called ‘Check Block Method of Dressmaking’. A Sinhalese version of this has been published by the name ‘Kotu Pathuram Kramaya’. She expects to translate it to Tamil in the near future so that more people would have access to it.

The inspiration for her innovation has sprung from her late mother. Many years ago this method of dressmaking using a checked out brown paper was taught to her by her mother who used eight measurements to draft a basic block. However, through many years of experimentation, through experience and innovation, Mrs Wijesinghe has simplified the method a great deal and it is now a method that requires only 2 measurements for each basic block.

Today she is happy and content at her age (75 years) teaching students this method. However, she is worried that this easier method might just die away.

So, if anyone is interested, they can contact her at barbaraw_keegel@yahoo.com or visit http://dressmakingcheckblockmethod.com/about.html to see what this is all about and how it can benefit the dressmaking process. There is also an invitation to educationalists, especially the National Institute of Education (NIE) to see if this is something worth teaching young girls in their Home Science subject at school.

Yes, we can!

If you have a similar story, please let me know.

Also, if you have any feedback, please drop a note to yva@lankabpoacademy.lk

See you next week!


The Columnist

Yasas Vishuddhi Abeywickrama is a professional with significant experiences. In 2011 he was recognised as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) in Sri Lanka. Yasas has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from University of Colombo and a Masters degree in Entrepreneurship & Innovation from Swinburne University in Australia. He has worked in the USA, UK, Sri Lanka & Australia and being trained in the USA & Malaysia. He is currently involved in the training organisation, Lanka BPO Academy (www.lankabpoacademy.lk). Apart from this column, he is a regular resource person for ‘Ape Gama’ program of FM Derana (Sunday 3-5pm). Yasas is happy to answer your relevant questions – email him at yva@lankabpoacademy.lk .

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