Digital disruption for a better tomorrow

25 technologies that can change the government rule books, governance and citizen service delivery in India

Shubhendu Parth, Pratap Vikram Singh, Ridhima Kumar and Ankita Lahiri | March 12, 2015


#egovernance   #narendra modi   #digital india   #disruptive technologies  


When India sent its last telegram on the late Sunday evening of July 14, 2013, it was perhaps not the first technology to reach the end of its lifecycle. However, the reason it made it big on news pages was because the 163-year-old service was surgically put to rest after it was nudged out by newer, faster and personal modes of communication: email, mobile phone, SMS, and social media tools like Facebook and WhatsApp.

What was surprising though was the fact that telegram was kept on life support for more than a decade to serve pockets in rural India that were still to see the advent of technology and because telegrams were registered under the Indian Evidence Act and continued to remain a credible document acceptable by a court of law in India. However, there is a long list of other technologies that lost the plot much early on the social, computing, networking, and environmental front, including the much recent personal computers (PC) that have been outnumbered by handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

Interestingly, the PC itself was a disruptive technology that took more than 17 years to get a foothold in the market, after the term was first used on November 3, 1962 in a New York Times article on the vision of future computing. In the article, John W Mauchly, the American physicist who had designed the first general-purpose electronic digital computer, had said that there was no reason to suppose that the average boy or girl cannot be master of a ‘personal computer’. However, it took the PC couple of more years to become all pervasive in a way that it completely replaced the minicomputer that was originally sold as an inexpensive alternative to mainframes; IBM PC launched in August 1981 is considered to be the first PC that justified the widespread use of the term.



A quick search on Wikipedia shows that the term, disruptive technologies, was first used by Clayton M Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor in his 1997 best-selling book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. According to Christensen, disruptive technologies means new technologies that still lack refinement, often have performance problems, are just known to a limited public, and might not yet have a proven practical application.

In 2009, while describing high technology as disruptive technology, American economist Milan Zeleny highlighted that technology was a form of social relationship that went through the same lifecycle and evolution process that living beings go through. Pointing out that no technology remains fixed, Zeleny said that technology starts, develops, persists, mutates, stagnates and declines – just like living organisms. He also said newer technologies lead to disruption of the support network of an existing product.

In the public sector space, a good example of such disruptive technology in India was the introduction of computers in banks and online reservation facility of the Indian Railways. However, in both cases, the technology was not as new as its usage and, in Zeleny’s words, in the long run these high (disruptive) technologies bypassed and replaced the outdated support network. The various IT infrastructure projects like state data centre, state wide area network, and other mission mode projects like MCA21 and the passport project also come under the new usage category, the adoption of which not just disrupted the backdoor support network, but also changed the way the government worked.

This is akin to the change that the assembly-line technology and Henry Ford brought in the automobile sector. While cars had for long started replacing carriages, it still remained an object of desire. And while Ford did not invent the automobile or the assembly line, he pioneered the development of the first automobile that many middle-class Americans could afford. This was a disruption that changed the way the automobile industry worked. The local example from the sector in India can be well understood from the success of the Maruti 800 car that not just changed the dynamics of the car market in India, but in the long run led to the phasing out of the iconic Ambassador and Premier Padmini cars.

New technologies, newer trends


A 2013 report by James Manyika and Richard Dobbs of McKinsey identifies certain technologies that could drive truly massive business and economic transformations and disruptions in the coming years. The authors believe that while many of these technologies have been there for a few years now and are being tested and perfected, researchers and companies are working on newer technologies that are yet to be tested but may bring in a paradigm shift in the approach to governance. The report also highlights technologies like the exiting social media and big-data tools that help organisations and governments gather intelligence and feedback, and impact decision-making and policy changes in a big way.

Then there are technologies like mobile internet, autonomous and near autonomous vehicles like drone, advanced biometric technologies, predictive analytics, speech and gesture recognition technologies, quantum computing, crossbar memory, nantenna or nano antenna, digital and mobile payment technologies, including electronic fund transfer and e-currency, e-tailing, massive online open courses and wearable technologies that can be critical components for governance and development in the country.

The idea of using the term ‘disruptive technology’ for this cover story is to put together a list of technologies that can impact citizens’ quality of life in dozens of ways, as also the course of governance in India as envisaged under the ambitious Digital India programme and the initiatives like e-Kranti, Smart Cities, Aadhaar and the PM Jan Dhan Yojana. After all, it is not every day that a country’s government puts technology at the forefront of driving changes in governance. However, by deciding to take the digital route to rebuild and create a smarter, knowledge-based, empowered society, the Narendra Modi government has clearly indicated that governance by wire (or wirelessly) is the way forward. This also means that the country with a 1.25 billion population can become the test bed for newer technologies that can help make the citizen’s life better.

Governance Now lists down 25 such technologies, with a brief note about each technology, its possible applications in the government sector, its government sector use case, if any, the current status of the technology, and how India is placed to adopt and deal with it. In number terms, according to McKinsey, the adoption of key technologies across sectors spurred by the Digital India initiative could help boost India’s GDP by $550 billion to $1 trillion by 2025. The research firm that sees a lot of opportunity in digital technologies and smart physical systems also said the Digital India initiative would have a significant impact on technology adoption as well.

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parth@governancenow.com
 

(The story appeared in March 1-15, 2015, issue)

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