India will be big technology innovator in next decade

By Pradeep Gupta, IANS,

Economists have been predicting it, stargazers have been forecasting it, and now the technology trend watchers are saying it – the coming decade is surely going to belong to India.

Support TwoCircles

Jason Pontin, the charismatic editor and publisher of MIT’s “Technology Review” – the publication of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – confidently proclaims that India is going to dominate the innovation space.

This is why the 109-year old magazine has launched an edition in the country. “I want to be the first to tell the world about the action in the labs here,” says Potin.

Economists may predict superpower status for India based on its growth figures and the economy’s resilience in the face of global downturn. But the motor of this growth will be investments in science and technology, believe experts.

At EmTech2009, an emerging technologies conclave recently hosted in New Delhi by Technology Review and CyberMedia, the exciting forecast is that India’s knowledge superpower domain is all set to extend beyond the field of IT.

Areas where India is seen making major inroads include healthcare, education, biomaterials and nano-technology. From being a service providing nation, India is finally heralding its arrival as a knowledge-creating nation, as befitting a country that centuries ago was the original fount of all knowledge.

Tantalizing glimpses of how technology that is developed by Indians is already empowering and enabling millions were provided at the conclave. Pontin talked about how Technology Review’s annual list of technologists who could change the world is increasingly being dominated by Indians.

In 2004, there was Vikram Sheel Kumar, founder of Dimagi – a unique combination of engineering and medicine. Kumar is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and the Harvard Medical School. His software products have encouraged compliance from diabetic patients and removed stigma from HIV/AIDS testing.

Then in 2007, Tapan Pareek’s work, which helped Kerala fishermen keep track of market prices on their cell phones, was highlighted. This year, it’s the turn of computer science professor Vivek Pai to turn out a technology that will help store web content to enable poor students in developing nations beat bad net connections.

As can be seen from the examples above, the nature of the technologies emerging from innovation labs around the world today is completely democratic, having the power to touch billions – the literate and the unlettered, the affluent as well as those at the bottom of the pyramid.

If the Indian innovators, tuned to the needs of the less advantaged in their country, are coming out with technologies to address this space, then large multinational corporations, admittedly driven by marketing compulsions, are also now focusing on this segment.

Companies in the IT, mobile and electronics space, looking to expand their market to the next billion “non-premium” users, are tweaking the characteristics of the new technology so that it is in sync with the needs of their new target base.

So, poor farmers in the hinterlands can now use technology to broaden their markets, women in shantytowns of Bangalore can use mobile applications to avail themselves of micro-finance, and rural youth use new models of tele-learning and e-learning to receive education.

In fact, today, it is the cross play of technologies from different fields that is making a difference to the lives of many.

At a macro level, IT and mobile telephony are powering healthcare delivery as seen in the health superhighway envisaged by Apollo Hospital’s Prathap Reddy.

And then at a micro level, advances in camera technology is helping doctors make an effective diagnosis as it helps improves CT scans to unimaginable levels.

“The new emerging technology is part of an ecosystem. It reduces information asymmetry. It makes time and geography irrelevant,” says Vivek Mohan, president of Alcatel Lucent, a company whose mobile applications are transforming lives at the bottom of the pyramid.

The question: Is India ready to accept this technological boon conferred on it? The short answer to that is: Yes. This answer must also be seen in the context of the experiences of companies like DuPont and mChek, which found rural India not just willing to accept but often two steps ahead!

Significantly, as more and more individuals are taking technology by its reins, configuring devices to suit their own unique needs, they are also setting new parameters for innovation.

In the words of Ramesh Raskar, brilliant MIT computational photography whiz who is working on a next generation camera for the people by the people: “The emerging technology is distributed, adaptive, democratic”.

Hordes of MIT researchers are also descending on the country to use it as their experimental field, and not just because of the scale, size, the lower cost and stratified society alone. Those are the old reasons. “India is an amazing test bed for us because it’s so ready to experiment and adapt,” says Raskar.

It’s perhaps fitting that the largest democracy in the world should be the one taking a lead in democratising technology. Innovations by the people, for the people, are all set to take India to the next level.

(18.03.2009-Pradeep Gupta is publisher of CyberMedia. He can be reached at [email protected])