Harnessing technology for sustainable growth
Innovation and infusion of technological change have historically been major drivers of development and increase in human welfare. In the US, economists, particularly in the last century, carried out detailed analysis of the role of technology in promoting economic growth. In developing countries like India, such an assessment has not been attempted adequately, possibly because the task would be much more complex in our setting. The Indian economy is much too diverse, defying easy aggregation, largely because of enormous disparities and a large component of non-market activities.
Second, technological choices faced by various sections of society in India today are vastly different from what existed in the developed world during the 20th century. In today’s world, the place of information technology and flows of knowledge are much more extensive than was the case in the previous century. In India, for instance, the major expansion of mobile telephone usage has changed the scenario substantially in just the last 10 years. The country’s mobile phone subscriber base has now crossed one billion users, of which very soon a large number will graduate to the use of smart phones. It is anticipated that India would soon be crossing the 200 million target of smart phone users. Significantly, China already has over 500 million users of smart phones.
The vision of a country’s leadership on technology issues can be a major determinant of changes that actually take place. When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister, he focused on the expanded use of desktop computers, and even though this was criticised by many as being irrelevant and redundant for the country’s needs, the extensive provision of computers in Government offices at various levels brought about a revolution in the use of IT as a tool for analysis and decision-making across the
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on smart cities has had a psychological impact on looking at urbanisation as a remarkable opportunity for efficiency improvements in the use of various resources through the application of smart solutions. This thinking, however, should be, and to a limited extent already has, extended into rural areas as well. While the expansion of mobile phone services is changing the landscape rapidly, a much greater effort towards change in other sectors must percolate through rural communities, based on large-scale information dissemination and education, whereby technological change creates opportunities for major transformation.
A recent study on the role of science and technology (S&T) in the developing world in the 21st century concludes that S&T fundamentally alters the way people live, connect, communicate and transact, with profound effects on economic development. It concludes that to promote technical advancements, developing countries should invest in quality education for youth and continuous development of skills for workers and managers.
A country like India where the spread of Government and its institutions is extensive, training of Government decision makers and upgrading their skills acquires very high priority. Applications, which can make an enormous difference to the lives of people in both urban as well as rural areas, include the spread of microprocessors, biotechnology and nanotechnology innovations. In the coming decades, developments in various fields will lead to breakthroughs in health services and education.
India still has almost 300 million people who have no access to electricity. Recent cost reductions and efficiency gains in photovoltaic technology make it possible for rural areas to benefit from decentralised and distributed forms of power generation, rather than waiting for the expansion of power from centralised supply systems. Recent developments indicate that solar photovoltaic-based power generation can take place at costs approximating three rupee per kilowatt-hour. In fact, such cost reductions are becoming possible also with wind energy and solar thermal technologies for power generation.
Decades ago, the philosophy of pioneers like Schumacher dominated technology choices in developing countries, with emphasis on “small is beautiful” and the concept of appropriate technology. Essentially, this thinking emphasised the concept of customising technological innovation for rural applications, because it explicitly factored in existing lack of skills, infrastructure and access to capital. Constraints were also seen in the ability to harness and maintain sophisticated technology in societies and communities which did not have the requisite knowledge and infrastructure widely available in the developed world or even in prosperous regions of the developing world.
Today many of those gaps can be closed because of knowledge flows and the spread of information technology, which were inconceivable even at the beginning of this century. However, to effectively close the gap that existed earlier, education would be essential for creating skills and understanding of technological developments in a variety of sectors including healthcare, agricultural innovations and energy supply. As yet, most developing countries have fallen behind in this regard.
Equally important would be the expansion of banking facilities and availability of finance by which a quantum jump would become possible in our rural areas. The term often used to describe such advancement of technological capabilities and their upgradation is “leapfrogging”. A far more appropriate analogy would be that of grasshoppers, who, light in weight, are able to jump remarkably long distances, with their ability to fly as well. If deprived societies were to cover long distances with net economic benefits, as in the case of mobile phones, they would not necessarily confine their choices to examples close to home, but also access experiences in other parts of the world. That would include learning from success stories in other developing countries as well.
Typically, our vision is directed to what has happened in the developed world, and we routinely neglect information and experience of technological improvements which have worked in India and other developing countries. If there were better flows of information between developing countries, the appropriateness aspect of technological improvement would be fully integrated with opportunities that are pursued. Hence, not only do we need upgradation of education and information flows within a developing country but also across developing countries.
Placed as India is, with growing disparities between rich and poor, we need to evolve on a continuous basis science and technology strategies for our rural areas, which provide new and smart choices for the most deprived sections of society. There is available a fund of experiences which if analysed in depth would give us substantial insights essential for an enlightened S&T policy, which succeeds in uplifting some of the most deprived communities in the country. The time for an intensive and continuing effort in that direction is here and now, with full involvement of Government, researchers, industry and civil society.
(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-2015)