The great Robert Noyce once said, “At the heart of what is possible is innovation and imagination”. Since I came back to India, I have been even more fascinated by the statement and how aptly it summed up the situation in the country.
For centuries India has been a land of promise and potential, the promise of 1.2 billion plus people, the astounding potential of its demographic dividend given a largely young population and the promise to be a leading global player. The world has waited eagerly for India to deliver on the promise, but most will agree that it hasn’t happened yet. That however is changing and changing fast. We now have a strong leadership committed to change and not afraid to take the tough decisions needed to make it a reality. The Digital India vision gives us an inspiring goal to work towards – one in which technology will ensure that every citizen has access to education, jobs, governance, healthcare and critical services, thereby creating a platform for real inclusive growth. The sheer thought of 1.2 billion people contributing to the economy is so mind boggling that one cannot even begin to imagine the possibilities.
And at the heart of that possibility does lie Innovation in its truest form. Digital India is not by any means an easy goal. It is bold, audacious and will need India to become THE most innovative country in the world for success.
Just as India is the land of potential, it is also the land of complex challenges. A lot of them arising from the overwhelming diversity we see in the country. To connect all citizens with technology, we cannot ignore the rich diversity of the country. Instead we must build for it. The biggest bottle neck to technology adoption in India is relevance, especially in rural India. If we want people to connect and use technology in a sustainable way, we need to show how it can improve – and this is the biggest challenge – their livelihood. I am a strong believer that we must rethink technology development in the country to impact livelihoods. Only if that happens, will every citizen want to connect to technology.
The realization of Digital India needs a complete grounds-up approach to innovation and tech development. We have to develop for India and to solve the problems faced by the diverse Indian citizenry. Not an easy challenge by any means. It calls for an incredibly robust ecosystem that sees value in innovating for India and developing solutions based on real problems. Thanks to the strong Government push for startups, I do believe we are seeing the ecosystem build up. However, it needs help and focused support to increase the impact it can have.
The technology startup ecosystem in India needs to be motivated to build for the country and see the benefit (read growth) in doing so. It is a real issue faced by them and unless it is addressed, we are not going to see the impact in terms of growth and results. The two key challenges faced by tech startups are lack of access to technology mentorship and scale know-how.
We are beginning to see tech multinationals in India launch initiatives to work with startups, providing them with access to funds, technology and mentorship. However, given the urgency we face, the efforts need to be significantly dialed up and focused on finding solutions for India. This is where a formal initiative by the Government to encourage large companies scale startup outreach and mentorship can help a lot in accelerating the momentum. The Indian Government is doing a lot to provide funding support to startups and increase their ease of doing business, but tech mentorship is another crucial area that needs to be an integral part of any startup support plan. And the plan needs to benefit both the mentee and mentor for sustainable success.
Another area where startups needs support is scale knowhow. Most of the tech startups I have interacted with are worried to develop an India-only-solution as it is incredibly difficult to find scale, especially when dealing with solutions addressing social issues. This is where the Government must step in and play an important role. Countries like US have grown grounds-up innovation by acting as a strategic investor through a decentralized network of public institutions like National Science Foundation to not just invest in the development of new technologies, but in the creation of new markets that the private sector might be hesitant to enter. This is a must do in India. The government has to play the role of a catalyst in enabling scale for solutions addressing challenges in key areas like agriculture, education, healthcare, financial inclusion and make it easy for the startup community to succeed in these segments.
We cannot unleash the true India potential unless and until every single adult citizen becomes a contributing member of the economy. Technology will be the key enabler. And for technology to deliver on the promise of connecting all Indian citizens, it must be relevant and developed with specific needs or challenges in mind.
Innovate or die is no more a cliché for India, it is the hard truth. India’s success depends on it.
(Debjani Ghosh has had an illustrious career with Intel spanning 21 years, and is now working towards growing tech innovation fostering equal opportunities.)
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