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Millennium Post

Demography, development & data

Drawing upon palpable real-life experiences of our country’s people, Bridgital Nation suggests methods of coalescing big data, Artificial Intelligence and human skill to pursue a development trajectory that is feasible and tailor-made for our vibrant democracy. Excerpts:

Indians go to spectacular lengths for the most basic things. The graduates who join millions to apply for a few dozen entry-level positions. The rural traveller undertaking an epic journey from home to see a doctor while she worries about her work, her money, her family. When an endeavour is successful, the effort it takes is forgotten. The enormous odds, once they are overcome, gradually seem less daunting. But this success is also a sign of deficiency. Unexceptional tasks are made exceptional only by the difficulty in achieving them.

We believe there's a way to make things easier.

Using technology the right way, with targeted interventions, India can remove long-standing access barriers to vital services. Bridgital wraps technological advances around India's most abundant resource, its people, to multiply their capabilities and change how they work.

When we think about the future of technology and work, there are three important distinctions that set India apart from advanced economies, and that make Bridgital a significant opportunity for the country.

First, India's lack of markets means access will take precedence over efficiency.

Advanced economies have a host of mature markets in which digital transformation is focused on increasing efficiency. India doesn't lack efficient markets, it lacks markets themselves. In the absence of these outlets, people fill in and operate independently—sometimes at the very edge of the law—meeting the unfulfilled demand for healthcare or other basic goods and services.

This absence of mature markets is evident in financial services. Despite the success of the historic Jan Dhan Yojana, India's ambitious financial inclusion programme that increased bank account penetration from about 50 per cent to 80 per cent in just three years, there is still work to be done. The country has around 190 million adults without a bank account, making it the world's second-largest unbanked population after China. Of those who have a bank account, almost half did not use it in 2017, preferring to use cash for spending and saving. New-age financial technology companies are already stepping in with data- and technology-led approaches to meet the demands of the underserved. For example, low-income entrepreneurs, who had never been able to access capital from banks, can do so as companies use analytics to assess their trustworthiness, reducing reliance on collateral and credit scores.

Building entirely new markets is a different beast to optimizing existing ones. It means prioritizing access, alongside efficiency. Technology adoption will create new markets within the Indian economy. As they are created, and entirely new ecosystems begin to form and spread, there will be demand for people skilled in the ways of these new technologies.

We believe that Bridgital workers—digitally literate and intermediately skilled workers whose capabilities are complemented by technology—can play a pivotal role in traversing the barriers that have prevented markets from developing. This is an opportunity to create a new category of worker who acts as a bridge, a guide, and a translator. As with cars, planes and computers, where new markets develop, new ecosystems flourish around them. For example, these ecosystems have already grown around the mobile revolution in Africa: Kenya's largest mobile operator directly employs only around 5,500 people, but has spurred the creation of over 130,000 mobile money outlets to handle the country's transition from cash to mobile money.

Second, India faces a perennially limited supply of skilled human resources and physical assets.

It is widely known that India does not have enough skilled resources and expertise. Accompanying this is a lack of infrastructure and physical resources as well. India has only half the number of doctors recommended by the World Health Organisation. The availability of hospital beds is even more problematic, with around two-thirds fewer beds than the global average. A citizen in rural India experiences even greater deprivation than the overall figure suggests, because resources tend to agglomerate in large cities. More than 60 per cent of hospitals are in urban India, where only about a third of India resides. With a population of 1.3 billion and growing, India does not have enough physical infrastructure—hospitals, roads, schools, warehouses, testing centres—to match the challenges posed by its scale.

India is making gains on these metrics, but will continue to be a stretched society. It will need to make the most of what resources it does have, through a combination of both people and technology.

Third, India's demographics demand a different approach to automation and AI.

Developed economies are well into middle age. China and the US will have a median age over thirty-eight by 2020 (Japan's will be over forty-eight). The older that countries get, the fewer workers they have available. This shortage drives them to develop technologies that can substitute for labour. As ageing economies have automated, they have transformed production practices, making them leaner and more efficient. The choices they've made are about efficiency, a response to their particular concerns.

In contrast, the median age of India's population will be twenty-eight by 2020, and thirty-one by 2030. The problem India has is not of age or numbers; it is skills and qualifications. Therefore, India's approach to automation has to be distinct from China, the US and Japan; it has to focus on technologies that augment and raise people's skills.

India will not be able to simply cut and paste China's (and much of Asia's) development path. It will need to forge a new path and bring the twentieth-century growth model of manufacturing-led development into the twenty-first century. This new growth model requires an alternative strategy: Boosting a range of labour-intensive, intermediate economic activities that take care of India's vast unmet demand and shift people towards more formal characteristics of work. Bridgital is a way of doing just this.

In the early 1980s, there was no playbook for what came to be known as outsourcing. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India's first IT services firm, was then a far smaller organization. It had to convince hesitant clients that India had the brightest engineers, and that they could meet every business demand. Back then, it was common for representatives of large US and European companies to attend meetings, listen attentively, and politely decline to have a part of their work handled thousands of kilometres away. At one meeting, the head of a credit card company listened to a visiting TCS team distractedly, and then, at the end of the meeting, said, 'I don't believe you guys can do it. I'm not risking it. This has never been tested.' To this, the leader of the TCS contingent replied, 'I hope you will call me back.'

Within months, the company head called back. In a short while, other calls followed: From the city of Detroit for software for its police force, from a company in New York that wanted its banking software serviced, from Phoenix, Sydney, Venezuela. They were all participants in the Third Industrial Revolution, a period marked by the proliferation of computers and the development of information technology. It eventually led to the adoption of business models like global supply chains and business process outsourcing that are commonplace today, but were unthinkable at the time.

Technology's upheavals are constant, however, and no sooner was the third over than the Fourth Industrial Revolution began. Even so, keeping an eye on the future requires learning from the past.

(Excerpted with permission from Bridgital Nation; written by N Chandrashekharan & Roopa Purushottam; published by Penguin Random House. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Wrapping Technology around People')

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