Rise of CivicTech to shape future of cities: How digital ecosystems are transforming urban governance and citizen engagement

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August 11, 2021 1:31 PM

In this exclusive interaction with Financial Express Online, Shilpa Kumar highlights the rise of digital ecosystems that are increasing the momentum in terms of benefiting those who were earlier excluded from the digital society altogether.

Shilpa KumarAn alumnus of IIM-Kolkata, Shilpa Kumar has spent more than three decades with the ICICI Bank group, and has held board positions in several organisations.

Rise of Civic Tech in India’s urban governance! The coronavirus pandemic has redefined digital ecosystems in every sphere of life. With people turning to embrace technology like never before, we can see the ripple effect across local communities that were earlier excluded from reaping the benefits of digitally enabled services. To what extent can this go forward in shaping the rise of CivicTech in the future of our cities? We are about to find out.

In this exclusive interaction with Financial Express Online, Shilpa Kumar highlights the rise of digital ecosystems that are increasing the momentum in terms of benefiting those who were earlier excluded from the digital society altogether. In her words, “For instance, there is currently an increased momentum of technological innovations in the judicial system as well as in our urban and healthcare infrastructure. A strong governmental tech backbone can deliver services more effectively and can cut the dependency of ordinary citizens on interaction and transaction-based services.”

An alumnus of IIM-Kolkata, Shilpa Kumar has spent more than three decades with the ICICI Bank group, and has held board positions in several organisations. A key part of her career pertains to financial markets. Further, she has also served on regulatory committees including SEBI’s Secondary Markets Advisory Committee, RBI’s Technical Advisory Committee and RBI’s Mohanty Committee on Monetary Policy. Further, she also held key positions in industry bodies such as FIMMDA, and the FICCI Capital Markets Committee besides serving on the advisory committees of the NSE, BSE and National Securities Depository Ltd.

She further adds, “We at ONI have recently kickstarted a very interesting initiative called Citizen Innovation Lab (CIL), in partnership with CIIE.CO. The aim of this platform is to promote this space of legal, civic and property tech by addressing the various different pillars that are crucial to a successful startup ecosystem. CIL will build knowledge about the sector, its opportunities and challenges, it will engage with colleges to seed entrepreneurial energy and will activate regional ecosystems. The ultimate aim will be to incubate ideas and early-stage startups in these 3 areas of CivicTech, Property Tech and Legal Tech.”

COVID-19 pandemic has upended the status quo globally especially in services that depend on state-citizen interaction. How are these challenges being addressed in terms of digitization, open digital ecosystems?

India had luckily embarked on a much-needed path of digitization over the last decade. The pandemic clearly showed the benefits of digital identity and digital banking rails in being able to provide relief directly to citizens across the country. This digital ecosystem needs to expand its reach and depth, extending to sectors that have so far not benefited from technology and to people who are as yet excluded from our digital society.

Since, urban governance and citizen engagement is an area of focus for ONI, how do you see this space evolving further in a way which incentivizes entrepreneurs working in these areas as well as investors across the board.

Cities are the drivers of any economy and hence we at ONI believe that entrepreneurship in the space of urban governance and citizen engagement can have a transformative impact. This currently is a nascent space for philanthropic and investment firms. We have made this space one of our priority areas for 2021.

Our decision to focus on CivicTech is based on 2/3 principles: for starters, cities themselves are adopting tech backbones and most urban citizens are digitally equipped. Secondly, Covid has brought into focus critical areas related to the future of cities, for e.g. better focus on civic services, climate resilience etc. This creates a very interesting space and momentum for entrepreneurs to operate in- the ability to digitize their offerings as well as the ability to engage the demand side.

A combination of some of these factors can truly drive deep-rooted and inclusive urban change. For this space to truly take-off, investors will need to invest in start-ups primarily believing in their immense intrinsic value for the future and their large impact footprint in addition to their economics. Policy and regulations will also need to support entrepreneurs and start-ups in this field to build a holistic and attractive ecosystem.

How important is citizen engagement and a participative approach across all relevant stakeholders to create inclusive and equal cities? How can these interactions be further institutionalized and streamlined?

Citizenengagement is the foundational stone of all democratic processes. Technology can help make it easier for citizens to reach civic services faster and cheaper. It can also be helpful in finding out where there are gaps that need to be filled.

What are some of the learnings that have come up during the pandemic in terms of their inclusivity, sustainability and resilience? How are these challenges being addressed by the innovators and entrepreneurs?

For a country as large and complex as India, there are many areas to focus on as we move towards full inclusivity. There will need to be a strong and dedicated push towards enabling digital identity, as well as enabling access through both digital and phygital means.

Why do you think this space of CivicTech, PropertyTech and LegalTech have not been getting the requisite push in the ecosystem considering how important these issues are?

These sectors were largely spaces with large governmental presence and hence it has been hard for entrepreneurs to build sustainable business models. Also, most of them were B2G models and not really able to tap into the needs of private businesses or consumers. This made a large number of them dependent on philanthropic donations. In civic tech, for example, much of the funding that these 400-odd civic-tech Indian startups have received is philanthropic in nature.

These sectors have the potential to create substantial change in the lives of ordinary citizens.

We need to redefine how innovation and entrepreneurship has been approached in these sectors.

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