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A Call For Tech-know Power

India’s top agenda should be to keep up with rapidly expanding technology and to follow the path of continuous innovations

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The 70th anniversary of freedom is a good time for an assessment. On one hand, we should celebrate our robust democracy and — despite some times visible strains — the harmony of our multi-religious, multi-lingual, society. Economic growth, earlier steady but slow, has picked up and enabled pulling 140 million out of poverty in 10 years (2004-14), and facilitated growth in the education system. On the other hand, there have been disappointments and failures. We are yet home to the largest number of poor and illiterate; we top the table in terms of number of malnourished children; and, surprisingly, for a country that was for long avowedly socialist (and is so defined in the Constitution), there is extreme — and growing — economic inequality.

On the sci-tech front, successes in atomic energy and space have put us in the top league in these areas, with global acclaim on how much has been achieved with how little. Our prowess in IT software is now legendary and has propelled us to global dominance in off-shoring. However, in basic science and research, we are yet a laggard, with contemporaries like South Korea, and of course, China, being way ahead.

The glass is, not surprisingly, only half full or half empty, if one prefers. Yet, on this occasion, rather than chest thumping about successes or playing a blame game for failures, it may be more productive to look ahead and suggest what needs to be done, so that India is at the pinnacle of success by 2047, its 100th birthday.

The defining element in this century is going to be technology: in the way it affects our day-to-day life, its impact on the economy, and its geopolitical implications. Technology and knowledge (tech-know) are, in this century, what oil and gas were in the latter part of the last century. They will determine the prosperity and power of countries. While tech-know is often sold by itself, increasingly it comes embedded in goods — with its spread and value both growing rapidly. In a high-end car today, the cost of electronics exceeds that of metal.

Clearly, value — in trade as well as geopolitical clout — comes from tech-know. On the face of it, this is good news for us: with an education system capable of graduating 1.5 million engineers a year, and strong capabilities in IT and engineering, we are well placed to take full advantage of the situation. However, things are not so sanguine. While the importance of tech-know is growing, it is also evolving rapidly. Yesterday’s technology is obsolete by tomorrow, and so are yesterday’s skills. Ever newer technologies and continuous innovation are the watchwords that define success. If India is to leverage tech-know for growth and development, there are many things it needs to do. Only then will India @100 be the country we dream about. Here are a few critical things which must be done in the next 30 years:

Given the fast changing scenario, Indian industry needs to quickly adopt the new technologies. Companies, whether in manufacturing or services will have to integrate these new technologies into their business to prosper — even to survive — in an increasingly competitive world.

Manufacturing is going through a disruption, thanks to additive manufacturing (3D printing). Combined with digital designing and in-silica (computer-based) testing, this has drastically altered the speed and flexibility of manufacturing, as also its economics. Technology is re-modelling the architecture of the financial sector, with paperless, presence-less and cashless banking; platforms for peer-to-peer lending; and near real-time credit decisions through data analytics and AI. Education has already benefited from tech-enabled anywhere, any time learning, exemplified by global MOOCs. Healthcare is being revolutionised, with technology-aided diagnosis. AI (for example, IBM’s Watson) is already being used to supplement — sometimes, supplant — doctors, while telemedicine is “transporting” top specialists to remote areas. Body parts are being “printed” through 3D printers, and body-embedded electronics is creating bionic beings.

The convergence of these various technologies is giving rise to the “fourth industrial revolution”. Further, technology is creating new paradigms through tech-based platforms (Uber, AirBnB) which have engendered the “idle-asset utilisation” economy.

As these (and even newer) technologies sweep across all sectors of the economy, India can either prepare for this change or it can proactively lead and shape it. There is no third option: doing nothing will only invite economic doom. India is, in fact, well-positioned to take a pole position, with talent, entrepreneurship and innovation as drivers. As in IT, the key element will be human resources — in terms of both, quantity and quality. New technologies are creating new types of jobs, requiring a different kind of talent. This will need flexible and agile education systems, able to meet new and changing needs with the highest quality of output. This calls for an urgent and drastic overhaul of the education system. This base, combined with enlightened and supportive policies, and backed by serious R&D funding, can enable India to become the tech-know hub of the world by 2047.

To make this a reality, a small group needs to evolve a broad vision with specific objectives and a road map. An appropriate policy framework — including drastic reforms, especially in education, regulations and science/R&D administration — will be required. Some new institutions will be needed (think 1950s and the IITs; 1960s and the IIMs) and given freedom and autonomy to be true centres of excellence. This, along with innovation and entrepreneurship, will drive the economy, making us a truly developed country, ensuring inclusivity and reducing inequity, making for a healthy, happy and harmonious India when we celebrate our 100th birthday.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Kiran Karnik

The author is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad

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