Away from the glare of the media, few interesting signals seem to have emerged from Mr. Narendra Modi (Modi) on what might be Information and Communication Technology (ICT) of National Democratic Alliance (NDA). A keen enthusiast of ICT, Modi, in all likelihood, will ensure greater emphasis on ICT in governance.  Thus, decoding his interaction with top ICT honchos and interview to a tech magazine would be appropriate.

A cursory glance at the internet and the accompanying digital revolution demonstrate it challenging the contemporary notions of business, politics and society.  The pace of penetration of internet was swifter than what even its most enthusiastic supporters expected it to be. Knowledge dominates both production and consumption as never before. No longer, dominant market positions are achieved through innovations in the product markets alone.  Besides, the shift from the production patterns of the industrial economy towards the customized production of the information society has upset the traditional balance of power between the private corporations, civil society and the governments.

Access to information ceases to be the preserve of the state, yet neither the corporation nor the wide body of non-profit, nongovernmental organizations and pressure groups can claim exclusive control. Yet, the current information order is not an outcome of technology but an outcome of consumer, citizen and producer behavior reaching a tipping point facilitated by digital tools.  In other words, technology is not deterministic. All these provide us the backdrop for evaluation of NaMo views on ICT

NaMo Tech Vision

Gleanings from his interactions, the following can be broadly summarized as Modi’s key vision points.

  1. Information technology (IT) sector as engine of innovation and growth in the coming decade and in particular exploiting the demographic dividend.
  2. IT as agent of change in Rural India- In other words bridging the gap between what is termed as ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’.
  3. Leveraging domestic talent to create the next generation of IT giants
  4. Integrating non conventional energy generation with data centers- in others as Thomas Friedman would argue where Energy Technology (ET) meets IT.
  5. Increasing rural tele-density through augmenting mobile and broadband connectivity
  6. Local infrastructure development to exploit economies of scale in telecom and IT hardware sector
  7. Emphasizing  Research and Development (R&D) and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) creation
  8. E-governance as tool for maximizing governance while minimizing the role of the government
  9. Revamping IT education
  10. Using IT to create access to education among the lower strata of the society
  11. Leveraging ICT applications in enhancing delivery in health care sector. More pointedly would be the sections of society hitherto untouched by the mainstream.
  12. Social media as tool of expression for common man; in other implicit linkages to democratic dividend
  13. Integration audio technologies with internet to facilitate greater access and usage of ICT by common man.
  14. Environment of collaboration between venture capital, industry and academia
  15. Integration national security and defense with technology incubation system.
  16. Focus on value addition and not on raw products
  17. Manufacturing sector complementing agriculture and services.

At the outset, it appears an ambitious agenda apparently tested on ground to an extent in Gujarat.  Definitely clarity is visible on the reach and extent of ICT though one would anticipate the signals to become more specific in the days to come.

Connectivity and Tele-density

Broadband connectivity particularly, an optical fiber grid cutting across the country backed by assured power supply is a pre-requisite.  Given the opportunity costs of erratic power supply and diesel consumption to keep the mobile towers running, power reforms would result in significant savings. In this context, it is welcome thinking of linking the establishment of data centers (or server farms as Google would like to call them) around the non-conventional energy plants.

Further as connectivity technologies evolve and thus ‘inter-generational’ evolution 3G to 4G and later to 5G etc, case can be made for greater transparency in allocation of spectrum. Further exploration of cognitive radio technologies can ensure efficient utilization of scarce spectrum.   Yet, if tele-density were not to remain a statistic, mere connectivity with assured power supply will not suffice.

ICT as Agent of Change and Rural Empowerment

Irrespective of motives behind the decisions, laptops are being made available to students across different states. Further the ubiquity of mobile brings a new meaning to connectivity.  Adding to this, the growth of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC) has resulted in a new model for education and present infinite possibilities for adoption in primary and secondary education in the hinterland and subaltern empowerment.  Yet in a way we are missing the woods for the trees.  Success has been an exception than a rule.  The underlying barriers seem to stem from differentials arising out of access, capacity and motivations (see an interesting article here). Significant gap in terms of access to ICT across social and economic strata cannot be ignored. Even within the same social/economic strata, all do not have the same level of access. In rural areas even today, higher castes have the first right of resources.

Even among households, the access to women is normally absent or at best viewed as last priority caste. No matter, the design of the technology, a well educated person is likely to leverage the internet more effectively than rural layman. Education, status etc. play a role in determining how an individual or an organization harness the core, the internet provides. It is unlikely a person with a rural background use internet to leverage his/her business in a way their urban counterparts do. This would require investment in education and training. In the absence of capacity building even the best intentions suffer. Assuming for a moment the bridging of capacity differentials, motivation differs among users.

Studies have shown preference to use systems for online games, accessing porn content or movies on YouTube and similar sites rank among the top priorities than using the resources for more productive usage.   Unless these gaps are narrowed, it is unlikely that ICT would be effective as tool for development and change.  Therefore any agenda will have to concentrate on filling these gaps than restricting themselves to providing free laptops or increasing optical fiber cable density.

Local Infrastructure Development

Orthodox models on cost arbitrage and scale face challenges from of Internet based models. Products are being positioned as services, 3D printing and open hardware can longer be dismissed as fancies and manufacturing is no longer a subtractive process. Further where low R&D expenditures and gridlocks on account of IP protection can erect barriers, these new models may offer a way out. Innovative platforms and firms like Aurdino and Ponoko might be the sign of things to come. Incentivizing India-centric platforms on these lines and letting them flourish with minimum interference from the government might be good idea. Besides job creation host of entrepreneurial activities would spring up.  They might complement the existing manufacturing sector as well as percolating the fruits of development downstream.

An extension of these models would be integrating hardware, mobile and big data in areas like public health etc. Encouraging signs exist in the highlight of diagnostics using mobile and big data in tribal areas in Gujarat. Similar applications like OpenPCR are already around. When most pharmaceutical diagnostic measures show little interest in diagnostics for tropical diseases, these alternative platforms can go long way in redressing the problems.

Software and ICT

Software driven reorganization has shaken several information industries. New industries have sprung up from its debris.  In the industrial information economy, opportunity to make things that are valuable and important was constrained by availability of physical capital thereby necessitating scale. Currently, we are witness the centrality of information, knowledge and culture being a key towards human freedom and progress. Any connected device like Personal Computer (PC) or even mobile phone can act as physical capital in itself with the resultant output being human meaning and communication.  Non market and non proprietary means of production, for long in the periphery are now increasingly emerging at the core.  The openness resultant of the networked era makes possible access to real time data.

It is creditable that Mr. Modi understands it when called for need to create real time data system in agriculture to combat food inflation.  It can be a tool for state intervention though one would expect such intervention would be a case of last resort. Going forward, maps are big source to obtain real time data. Success of platforms like Ushahidi in Haiti, Kenya etc through integration of mobile, maps and data do send us significant message. Maps can be used in profiling crime-prone areas, disaster prone areas, migration patterns, possible ghettoization, water availability and access, tracking delivery of public services etc. and can lead to improvements in policy formulation and implementation.

Yet E-governance has not incorporated the significance of maps and they remain the preserve of nongovernmental organization, industry or few amateurs.  Citizen inputs and collaborating in development of these tools might be step in distribution of capital costs through the society.  Emphasis on integrating audio technologies into internet could be good starting point in involving greater citizen participation in governance.

Possibility of theoretically infinite inventory levels, absence of scale in digitally mediated transactions, high degree of customization, value chain deconstructions, and user involvement in innovation all point out to new structures emergent in business arena. With a large number of entrepreneurial opportunities hitherto unthinkable, emerging, government must let these ideas flourish and commercialize and not stifle through intervention. Entrepreneurs may be technocrats or may be some distant villager. They may not have an expertise in commercializing these ideas or even understanding the financial implications. Operational issues can be ironed out. Remote connections can itself make location redundant and these can go in narrowing the differentials discussed above.  As one writer put it, it is geodesic distance that matters and not geographic distance these days.

R&D and IPR Creation

For years, IP protection, a subject domain of the national governments, finds itself under challenge from global regulatory regimes. Critics allege that IP policy are design to advance rent seeking behavior of information industrial giants unable to come to terms with the changing industrial and economic structure. Thus IP protected is viewed as lacking economic wisdom and thus seen as a tool to control human creativity and intellect. With the IP laws designed for brick and mortar economy conflict with digital discourse, the battles for control in digital era ends up in courts of law and not resolved in the markets.  Societies priding themselves on free expression and creativity actually end up stifling it. In resolving these contestations, recognition of IP alternatives can be the first step.

These alternatives whether open innovation, Creative Commons, encouragement of remix etc do resulting in flourishing business while retaining incentives for knowledge creators. While it may be early days yet to be euphoric, Brazil’s experience is a pointer to a creating of environment inspiring free culture and creativity. The rising costs of production, shrinking shelf space in terms of time and resources apart from increased availability of substitutes besides low R&D intensity also compel firms to look at alternative models. As business models ranging from music to film to pharmaceutical industry undergo metamorphosis, these alternatives may present us tools to challenge conventional Western centric models.

The agenda has to be a development of university- industry-venture capital synergies, diffusion of R&D costs, recognition that proprietary IP discourse is not the only narrative with minimal state intervention. This is challenging but not impossible.

Manufacturing as complement to Service Sector

Certainly, value addition is continuous process to avoid the product focused innovation to fall into a commodity trap.  The dangers have only increased with rapid diffusion of business processes and shrinking time gap for new substitutes to emerge, while the costs of product development have risen exponentially. Yet the current services sector is only tip of the iceberg in terms of its exploitation. Digitization offer opportunities as discussed earlier and the effects are being felt with the terrain shifting slowly but steadily from the big corporate to the hands of autonomous individuals and participants in cultures and communities. New ideas are generated youth. Certainly success stories of Marc Zuckerberg and like serve as role models for large number of youth who want to strike big.

These are the opportunities that the government should utilize to encourage these youngsters to go whole hog with these ideas without fearing for failure. Allaying the apprehensions and technical and financial support can breed the next generation of digital industries which would take the manufacturing sector to new dimensions. It may not be product driven manufacturing sector but service driven, digitally facilitated, remote diffused manufacturing sector which has to flourish.

Concluding remarks

Digital technologies serve as engines of cultural innovation. Their influence stems from the virtualization of group networks and social identities like Facebook and extends to the digital convergence of textual and audio-visual media. The growth and adoption of electronic commerce gets inter-wined with the development and strengthening of intellectual property legislations.

The global nature of internet is evident in the fact that while service providers are located in industrialized world, the benefits are derived across developed and emerging countries alike. Limitations arise for direct command and control mechanisms to flourish. Delegating the regulatory functions depend on the presence of effective ‘stick and carrot’ policies. Cultural vitality, knowledge openness and information diffusion are pillars to human progress.

For India to emerge as a hub for these new generation companies, there needs to be a recognition that there are subtle shifts in the way we produce and consume. Certainly few pillars of the new economy like crowd-sourcing etc are being adopted by the Modi campaign team. Barring a major reversal of fortunes, it appears that Narendra Modi is having his best chance of occupying 7RCR.

He is certainly one of rare breed of politicians who have embraced technology and with fair degree of success. Yet while judgment can wait on his walking the talk, the challenges that lie for him would be political- converting ICT enthusiasm as smart politics.

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Prashant Kulkarni
Prashant Kulkarni teaches economics, a digital economy and globalization at a leading B-School. His area of interest lies in dissecting resource contestations and human behavior at the intersections of digitization, urbanization and globalization.