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How technology will help governments address global grand challenges

Techonomy

By Nitin Dahad

Earlier this month some of the world’s tech company leaders convened at a two-day conference in Half Moon Bay, California, to discuss the impact of technology on the global economy.  At the Techonomy conference there were some thought-provoking discussions on how technology can meet some of the world’s great challenges.

With technology impacting almost every aspect of everyday life, it’s natural for tech industry commentators to ask global corporate giants how they can use their power and technology’s reach to impact local and global communities. In this respect, it was refreshing to hear how philanthropy was ingrained into the philosophy of salesforce.com from day one 15 years ago by founder Marc Benioff. He made a powerful point about how leaders should not just be thinking about making an impact on the community after they have made their wealth, but they should be doing this right from day one, as part of their contribution to ‘compassionate capitalism’.

One of the panel sessions debated how technology can meet the world’s great challenges. The answer is likely to come from creating the greatest impact on the biggest realms of human activity, like healthcare, food, water, energy, and education. It discussed how businesses can rise to the occasion and focus on the things that really matter, and how they can best partner with governments and NGOs to implement the solutions.

In emerging markets and developing economies, many countries have a great opportunity to leapfrog the developed economies by using the latest technology to meet such challenges to lift them out of poverty or to significantly increase GDP. The BRICS countries are certainly in this position.

India, for example, has a great opportunity to deliver both on the issue of meeting grand human challenges by working with governments and NGOs, and on making an impact on the community. This was illustrated quite well for example by the response of the Andhra Pradesh (AP) state government and its chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, to the recent HudHud cyclone, which had a devastating impact on the state’s coastline.

The AP state government received accolades for the way it was able to minimize human losses, but little known is that it is also using mobile technologies after the event to assess damage and assist in processing compensation claims. According to reports, the government deployed hundreds of trained operators with GPS-enabled tablets and smart phones equipped with special apps developed for this purpose.

Technology is being used to expedite claims and maintain transparency. The operators record the damage caused by cyclone to homes and farms, and upload pictures along with other relevant data about the incident – like details of affected people, including Aadhaar identity, ration card and bank account numbers.  This is important because there are estimated to be over three million families in around 320 villages affected, with crops on 200,000 hectares damaged.

It is thought that this is the first time in India that such a solution has been deployed, where photographic and other evidence is uploaded to a public web site using mobile technologies in order to speed up the process of delivering compensation to affected families.  The company delivering the technology solution for this monitoring is Bluefrog Mobile Technologies, headquartered in Visakhapatnam.

The drive and ambition of the AP government in utilizing technology was re-inforced by the visit of its IT minister to the UK this month. Dr. Palle Raghunatha Reddy, minister for IT and communications (and several other portfolios), along with 27-year old AP minister Rammohannaidu Kinjarapu, emphasized how the state would be the IT hub of India with its own ‘Silicon Corridor’, helped on by the capable chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, who is respected in the global technology sector for the way in which he built up Hyderabad as one of India’s top technology centres.

This kind of government support might be a key enabler in addressing some of India’s own grand challenges – like the Digital India vision and the aspiration to create a number of smart cities. Dr. Palle was keen to emphasize how in the state of AP the infrastructure, the talent and skills, and government support would be developed and nurtured, along with a strong start-up community (including incentives for women entrepreneurs too).

Together with this kind of government vision, corporate and industry support can encourage and mentor small and medium sized enterprises and startups in solving real world problems and challenges and to grow.  In one initiative, the government of India and the World Bank have just agreed a US$200 million five year loan to finance the setting up of technology centres to help small enterprises to enhance productivity. The Technology Centre System Programme (TCSP) will set up 15 new technology centres and modernise an existing 18 centres at a cost of around US$ 400 million, which includes World Bank assistance of US$200 million.

At a different level, Infosys is involved with the organisers of CeBIT, one of the world’s largest technology fairs, to mentor and make strategic investments in tech startups that can help with addressing their own client requirements. It is part of the +91 startup challenge set up by CeBIT, designed to connect five finalists from the competition in India to other entrepreneurs, global media, consultants, support programs, angel investors, and venture capitalists around the world. The five finalists from the +91 challenge will also get an opportunity to showcase their product and solution to a global audience at CODE_n, CeBIT 2015 in Hanover, Germany. The latter provides a platform for 50 promising startups from around the world to exhibit their business ideas and compete for the grand prize in CeBIT’s flagship technology showcase in Germany.

In India, there are many social, health, education and environmental challenges that need to be addressed to make India’s digital vision real – of connected cities, connected people, transparency, and growth. In other countries, especially like Brazil, there are similar challenges and similar ambitions of government.

As global leaders debated this week in California, technology is a key enabler in achieving this vision for many communities around the world. When state governments like Andhra Pradesh in India develop aggressive policies both to nurture talent and technology, and make it easy for high-growth tech businesses to set up and grow, this create a mix of the right ingredients to potentially address the grand social and economic challenges that such countries face.

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