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Lessons from India in digital disruption

By Nandan Nilekani | China Daily | Updated: 2019-06-18 07:53

Digital technology can rapidly transform how countries provide services such as education and health for their citizens. Public services in the future should be effective, efficient, fair, data-driven and responsive to individual needs. And the groundwork to turn this vision into reality needs to be laid now.

Managed wisely, data can be the key to providing quality healthcare and education for all-at speed, at scale, and in a sustainable way-and to boosting social and economic inclusion. But countries also have to anticipate and manage the associated risks of the digital revolution. To this end, India's use of data and technology offers four lessons for other developing countries.

First, scale should be built into the project design from the very beginning, instead of being an afterthought. India must think about how it can help 1 million community health workers provide healthcare for people in rural areas, and how it can improve the skills of 100 million youths seeking better jobs. The world must ask a similar question: How can we provide safe, high-quality vaccinations for 20 million infants around the world and educate the more than 260 million children and youths who are not in school?

Second, countries must focus on building the underlying digital infrastructure needed for sustained success, and avoid the allure of the latest shiny innovations. Too often, developing countries have seized on new technologies-by distributing tablets to schoolchildren, for example-without giving enough thought to how they will be used in specific national contexts. This has resulted in many pilot projects that failed to deliver sustainable impact at scale.

A new report from the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development, based at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government, suggests how countries can address this problem. The report urges them to establish a foundation of "digital building blocks"-including basic infrastructure and skills-in order to harness positive disruptions to education and healthcare services. In addition, countries should provide essential "digital scaffolding" around which new technological solutions can be deployed at scale.

India has led the way in this regard. For example, Aadhaar, India's biometric unique identification system, shows how cutting-edge technology can be used to establish unique identities in a developing country.

Third, countries must anticipate and effectively manage risks that arise from collecting and using digital data. An electronic consent framework that enables citizens to understand and authorize specific uses of their data should be set up.

But, in addition to consent, we also need new data-handling institutions that do not have interests competing with those of the user.

The well-designed digital account aggregator system of the Reserve Bank of India, the country's central bank, for example, enables potential lenders to review borrowers' financial assets digitally, on the basis of borrowers' explicit consent to access only specific data, for a specific purpose, for a specified period of time.

To enable large-scale financial inclusion, key government, private sector and civil society actors must quickly establish standards, regulations and institutions that put citizens back in control of their own data.

And fourth, a gradual evolutionary approach will not resolve large, complex societal problems. Too often, organizations believe they have the solution to a big social challenge-such as improving access to healthcare across rural India-and simply need to keep chipping away at the problem.

Rather than searching for one perfect solution, countries should instead build a digital infrastructure that empowers passionate innovators, nurturing an interconnected network that can simultaneously co-create thousands of solutions to hundreds of different problems. Instead of more and better silos, we need more nimble and open innovation environments.

New technology, institutions, and regulations can help countries to re-imagine education and healthcare, build human capital and prepare their youths for the jobs of tomorrow. To be sure, India still has much to do in that regard. But its efforts, one hopes, will prompt other developing countries to nurture equally inclusive digital ambitions.

The author is chairman of the EkStep Foundation and chairman of Infosys Ltd., and was the founding chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (Aadhaar).

Project Syndicate

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

  
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