How technology can be optimally used to benefit humans in all spheres of life in the coming years
By K Yatish Rajawat
The objective of most books on digital technology is to position the author as an expert and then to sell the expertise. In Bridgital Nation, the authors assume that the reader knows about digital technology and jump to discussing India’s problems and prescribe solutions. The book sets a quick pace to present solutions in an easy-to-read form, breaking down chapters in short pithy size with no repetitions. This is a welcome departure from prescriptive books on technology and policy. One, it refuses the narrative of the technology caucus. Second, it does not bore you with a new interpretation of a known problem. It does define some problems differently, like the diversity challenge as a talent. More importantly, the focus of the book is on solutions. The solutions are pragmatic and come with a whiff of fresh thinking, making it a treasure trove and must-read for entrepreneurs or business leaders looking for new business ideas.
The book proposes a new way of thinking about technology for a populous country like India. The country will have the single-largest working age population of 90 million Indians joining the workforce between 2020 and 2030 when every other economy like China will see a reduction in their working age population. Hence, while other economies can look at automation to bridge the gap, India has to do the reverse. “Therefore, India’s approach to automation has to be distinct from China, US and Japan: it has to focus on technologies that augment and raise people’s skills,” it says. Technology cannot be used to diminish or force people out of employment.
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The authors want Indian leaders to adopt a new way of thinking about technology — use it to bridge the gap of access and jobs, India’s twin challenges. The access challenge is the huge gap in India for quality health, judicial and education services due to the lack of qualified people to deliver it. Jobs is a perpetual challenge, where neither manufacturing nor services jobs are growing commensurate to investment. Capital investment does not lead to jobs in both manufacturing and services sectors. My own estimate is that over the next 12 months, 15-18% jobs will vanish in the BPO industry in India thanks to automation. Jobs are being decimated across sectors.
But this twin challenge is an opportunity. Technology platforms can be used to create new markets for enhanced service delivery in education, health, judiciary and caregiving. Technology has to be used to bridge the gaps in socio-economic system to create both economic growth and jobs. The continuous cacophony of technology narrative scares and dazzles policy makers into believing that if they don’t adopt it yesterday, the country will somehow fall off the railings today.
Every new technology needs to be immediately implemented, whether it is autonomous cars, or artificial intelligence or 5G. Technology vendors are so influential in moulding bureaucrats and policy makers that thinking has vanished from the policy ecosystem. Technology’s role in public good or economic growth is taken for granted. Technology is seen through productivity gains but the overall impact of these productivity gains are never measured. Do they lead to job losses? Can a balance between such gains and public good be maintained?
These questions are swept away in a hurry and get the new shiny box of tech. Technology naysayers are seen as luddites and technology proponents as progressives. Which is why you have government departments fighting over who will implement the next artificial intelligence mission when the focus should be on how all departments can leverage AI. It’s like a fight about who will use electricity first and not on what are you going to use it for, or why isn’t everybody using electricity.
This is the most important takeaway from the book – to use technology platforms to enable creation of new industries leading to new jobs.
The book recommends bringing more women into the workforce. But Indian women are the primary caregivers and their role needs to be gently and creatively replaced to bring them back into the workforce. These services can be reimagined through technology platforms that can help bridge this gap in an affordable manner. The government’s role is to ensure that service standards are high, pricing is affordable and technology can be used to enable it. Nearly 120 million women in India, more than the population of South Korea, have secondary education but do not participate in the workforce. If they are provided trained and reliable caregiving, they will have little guilt in going back to work.
Similar innovative platforms can be built to improve health services. Technology can be used to create a new layer of intermediary service providers between patients and doctors. These intermediaries can bridge the gap between rural areas and urban hospitals, between patients and doctors. They can be the force multiplier for doctors, helping them service more patients.
The National Health Policy original draft had envisaged a three-year course for such intermediaries that was opposed by doctors’ associations. Doctors felt it as a dilution of their role, importance and degrees. The role of these intermediaries in reducing friction in medical services and increasing access was never explained. This is the discussion that India needs to have on adoption of technology expertise. Can intermediaries using AI-enabled platforms diagnose patients while doctors recommend the procedure, medicine and surgery. This process innovation will revolutionise India’s economy.
“Innovation that addresses the persistent resource deficits in ways unimaginable in the past; and that enhances its workers, rather than replaces them,” is the core message. The authors estimate that this can positively impact 30 million new jobs by 2025.
The author is a senior journalist and policy analyst. He tweets @yatishrajawat