Digital Bharat

The making of a digital Bharat

By Roopen Roy Mar 03 2015

Tags: Op-ed

Exactly 20 years ago, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Labs wrote a book called Being Digital. In that book, he distinguished between ‘atoms’ and ‘bits’. Atoms make up physical, tangible objects such as CDs, books and letters. Digital information, on the other hand, is made up of bits, the smallest unit of information on a computer. He argued in 1995 that all forms of information that are made of atoms will eventually be transformed into bits. The understanding of this taxonomy is vital to the ongoing digital transformation.

When programmers were ‘atoms’, we could harvest cost arbitrage between the US and India only by ‘body-shopping’ them. That is how all our iconic software services companies began their journeys. But the improvement in telecommunication speeds and the digitisation of data made programmers electronically portable. Thus, from body-shopping, we moved to remote delivery of IT services. The digital transformation of the IT services industry in India was possible because we converted atoms into bits.

Take the example of mo­ney. Paper currencies are at­oms. But when you use digital money in wire-transfers, you convert money into electronic impulses that traverse the globe securely and instantly. Music is mostly bits today, as are other forms of information. What Negroponte did not explicitly forecast 20 years ago is the massive improvement in storage technology and the birth of ‘cloud’ computing. Today, massive amo­unts of digitised information are stored in and accessed from the ‘cloud.’

Digital transformation is a big deal both in business and in nations like India. How can we make Bharat digital? Before we get caught up in lofty slogans, we must appreciate that we have a long and arduous journey ahead of us. According to a study conducted by MIT Centre for Digital Business, only a third of the global companies have an effective digital transformation programme in place. The proportion for governments is much less.

SMAC (an acronym for Social media, mobile apps, analytics and cloud) is changing the way we do business and how governments deliver services and transform their own processes. The stated mission of the ‘digital India’ project is “to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.”

There are three pieces of the puzzle for a digital transformation of India. The first and obvious one is digital infrastructure and access. We still have a significant digital divide in our country. The vision of the government of India (GoI) is to remove this digital divide by developing high-speed internet infrastructure as a core utility. As part of this initiative, the GOI will rely on a unique digital identity like Aadhar which can authenticate an individual online. It will aggressively expand participation in digital space through mobile devices and the deployment of financial services applications digitally. The GOI is also proposing the use of shareable private space on a public cloud that is safe and secure from cyber-attacks.

We will not, however, digitally transform Bharat by creating infrastructure and access alone. The second piece of digital India constitutes the services that will ride on the digital highways. To begin with, the GOI intends to seamlessly integrate digital information and applications across departments and jurisdictions. Its vision is to deliver government to citizen (G2C) services in real time from online and mobile platforms. It proposes to make all citizen entitlements accessible on the cloud. Since one of the GOI’s central objectives is to improve “ease of doing business,” it wants to render its services digital. It wants to make financial transactions not only electronic but also cashless. To improve accuracy and comprehensiveness, the GOI wants to leverage GIS in applications like land records and environment and develop decision-support systems.

But even if we have fast highways and vehicles, we still do not have a digital society without the drivers and users. Here then comes the ‘third vision area,’ — the digital empowerment of citizens. At the heart of digital empowerment is literacy and the digital ability to access and transact. It deals with how digitally literate citizens are empowered to interact meaningfully with a digitally enabled government.

There are three suggestions in making digital India a resounding success in an aggressive time cycle that targets 2019 as the breast-the-tape date: first, use frugal innovation to obtain the best bang for the buck. Government agencies have not demonstrated a great track-record for innovation, let alone frugally. It will be vital to harness the capabilities of innovative, technology companies in India who have hitherto served to make governments in other countries sm­art. On March 1, 2015, while speaking to Nasscom leadership, prime minister Narendra Modi posed the question, “Why didn’t Google happen in India?” He answered the question himself , “Innovations should happen in this country and the government will adopt those innovations. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to innovate.”

Second, not to reinvent the wheel just to produce a sw­adeshi wheel. If there are pieces of the solution already developed and working elsewhere in the world, bring them in through a lower cost, rapid execution programme.

The last and the most difficult one is to transform the government culture and min­dsets. A massive change in management programme is required to transform the behaviour of the bureaucracy and the government delivery system. We have decision-makers who are not used to saying yes fast. There are yet others who expect to be taken care of before they sign off on a file. Thus, a programme of cultural transformation and transparency is central to the success of digital Bharat.

(The writer is the Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting, India)