Opinion

India needs to get its tech act together

Ashish Kundra | Updated on August 01, 2018

Tech push Indian manufacturing needs to get embedded into global value chain   -  /iStockphoto

The new world order will be shaped by nations that take a lead role in technological innovation

The second industrial revolution laid the foundations for European domination in the nineteenth century. America assumed global leadership in the 20th century on the strength of its economy, innovation and military technology. The first two decades of the new millennium have pushed the world to the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Leadership in technology will have a defining influence in shaping the new world order.

Constant disruption and transformation is the new normal. Policy makers around the world are scrambling to keep pace with rapid technological change. New regulatory issues and policy challenges are engaging serious attention of global leaders. It would be useful to dwell on some of the major policy implications from an Indian standpoint.

Firstly, foreign trade and investment policy regime must have inbuilt safeguards to hedge against risks of volatility. Technology has altered the nature of global finance and commerce. Global commerce is increasingly transacted electronically rather than along sea lanes. Foreign capital relocates with remarkable speed on the first signs of perceived fragility or on spotting an emerging opportunity.

Secondly, a globally harmonised intellectual property regime is bound to take shape, elbowing out the current flexibility available with developing economies. The foundations of mega tech lie in decades of high quality research funded by billions of dollars of investment. There is bound to be an increasing demand for protection of proprietary technology. A technology development fund pooling public and private resources would help acquire global patented technologies for cutting edge research.

Thirdly, a silo based approach needs to be jettisoned for carving out a unified technology policy. Modern technology is facilitating remarkable convergence. Quantum mechanics, chemistry and electronics are coalescing into a common pool. Genetic engineering, medicine and information technology are beginning to collaborate. A blurring of boundaries between defence and civilian technologies is evident in dual use applications.

Fourthly, negotiations of future free trade agreements would need to focus on embedding Indian manufacturing into global value chains in areas of advanced manufacturing. Underlying modern manufacturing are global value chains, built around comparative advantage of nations. The stellar growth of ASEAN nations, embedded in the larger Chinese economy is a case in point. India lost out on the electronic hardware manufacturing, by signing off on the Information Technology Agreement in 1997. Zero import duties for electronic goods practically thwarted development of hardware manufacturing industry.

Global research tie-ups

Fifthly, a policy framework which encourages increasing global research collaborations is worth pursuing. The US remains the leader in research, technology development and innovation, though other countries are catching up. Offshoring of manufacturing maybe passe, but offshoring research is here to stay. The GE Jack Welch Technology Centre in Bengaluru employs 4,000 engineers and has over 1,000 patents to its credit. Such centres across urban India could position Indian technologists on the global high table.

Sixthly, universalisation of digital skills must be an integral part of the education policy. A disruption in labour markets is on the cards . Mismatch between demand and supply of skilled labour is already apparent in the developed world. A McKinsey Global Institute Report 2018 points to a shortage of 80,000 IT workers in France by 2020 and a vacuum of 2,50,000 data scientists in the US in the short term. School and college drop outs would find themselves at a disadvantage in absence of adequate digital skills. A greater focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math( STEM) is an urgent imperative.

Seven, issues of equity, affordability and ethics, need regulatory oversight. ‘Net neutrality’ and ‘universal roaming facility’ have posed questions of equity. The disparity between digital access in rural and urban areas is skewing equality of opportunity. Eminent technologists and scientists including the late Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates worry about ethical issues. A debate has been triggered in the UK around the need for a regulatory framework for future ‘gene editing’ of human embryos. In the words of Elon Musk “I think we should be very careful.. With Artificial Intelligence, we are summoning the demon”.

Eight, regulators would need to strike a balance between the democratising influence of technology and the need for moderation and security. Concerns on cyber security and privacy are growing. Public outrage over massive data leak at Facebook and ‘Wikileaks’ exposed the vulnerabilities in data security. The EU has enacted the General Data Protection Regulation 2018 which gives individual citizens greater power on personal data. The Srikrishna Committee has submitted a draft legislation on data protection to the Union government. ‘Unregulated expression’ on social media and the social repercussions of ‘Fake News’ are posing a new set of challenges.

Knowledge upgrade

Lastly, lateral entry of global specialists with strong background in technology is the need of the hour. We are witnessing an intersection of 21st century technology with archaic institutions of governance. Policy formulation and regulation can no longer be the sole remit of the generalist civil service. Civil service needs constant knowledge upgrade on technology. Short sabbaticals to the corporate sector would help.

In the last century, a large number of bright Indian technologists migrated, chasing the “American dream”. They played a central role in the modern technology renaissance. The Diaspora will be a great resource in shaping an Indian technology boom. Rather than fretting about ‘Brain Drain’, we should aspire to create a global ‘Brain Pool’.

The author is an IAS officer currently working with Government of Mizoram. Views are personal.

Published on August 01, 2018

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