In the ever-evolving landscape of modern commerce, Tom Godwin’s quote from Digital Darwinism has become an often-repeated cliché: “Airbnb and Uber are the largest companies in their respective industries, without owning any hotel or car, respectively.”

Often, technology is considered as the sole driver for these new age organisations. While technology undoubtedly serves as the catalyst for disruption, it is the symbiotic relationship between technology and the crowd that truly propels these new-age organisations forward. Enabled by digital platforms and the ubiquitous reach of the internet, millions of individuals now act as the backbone of services provided by many such companies. This phenomenon, commonly known as crowdsourcing, has become integral to their business models.

With technological enhancements and organisations exploring further optimisation in their operating model, crowdsourcing can be considered as an option for delivering services across many domains. Tasks such as review/tagging images, audio and videos, synthesizing data/information from public domains in media and entertainment, product cataloguing related tasks in retail, customer service, etc., in a variety of industries, can be effectively outsourced to multiple individuals, facilitated by digital platforms that connect supply with demand.

The AI challenge

The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and associated technologies introduces a potential challenge to these crowdsourcing models. These technologies are capable of performing tasks without human intervention, prompting a critical question: should organisations invest in AI solutions or continue to rely on human crowdsourcing? It’s a conundrum faced by many.

The allure of AI is undeniable, offering unparalleled efficiency and scalability. However, one significant drawback is its lack of contextual understanding and nuanced decision-making abilities.

Another consideration is the cost associated with setting up and regularly updating technology solutions. The initial investment required for development and implementation can be substantial and would require ongoing investment, continuous monitoring and updates, to remain effective. On the other hand, human workers, possess the ability to adapt and learn new skills over time, making them more flexible and versatile.

Further, for India this narrative takes on a unique dimension. The demographic dividend with a large educated population, presents the unique opportunity. The recent ILO report has highlighted high unemployment rates among educated youth, especially in non-farm sectors. The ability to connect with the crowd to get work done may also open up new possibilities for workers in rural and other economically depressed areas. Progressive labour laws, such as those enacted in States like Rajasthan and Karnataka, offer a conducive policy for the growth of the gig economy. Platforms like UrbanClap have been instrumental in empowering blue-collar workers by providing them with access to a digital marketplace to connect with customers, and earn a livelihood.

Enabling these opportunities for India’s large white-collar workforce requires a paradigm shift in how we conceptualise and implement such platforms. Beyond serving as mere marketplaces for tasks, these platforms must evolve into comprehensive service delivery ecosystems, seamlessly integrating with existing business workflows and processes.

There are challenges that India has to surmount. There remains a stark digital divide between urban and rural areas, with access to high speed internet connectivity still limited in many hinterlands. Empowering workers from these demographics with the necessary skills and training is also paramount to ensure their success in the crowdsourcing economy.

Milind is Professor at MBM University, Jodhpur, and Sharad is Senior Associate Director at KPMG, Gurgaon. Views are personal