The “Design” imperative — The greatest challenge for India in Post Covid world

The most probable Achilles heel for the Indian government, India Inc. & other institutes to tackle economic challenges post Covid-19 in India would be the inability to “design” good measures, interventions, products, services etc. One, does not have to look beyond India’s ranking in Global Innovation index 2019[1] of 52, which is lower than Vietnam, Thailand, Chile etc. , among 130 countries to imagine the scale of the problem we are looking at.

While the problem of the lack of capability of “design” is omnipresent in every sector. It is prudent to look at the darling of Indian economy the “Technology sector”, which is often the poster child, to understand the true depth of the problem. The birth of many unicorns over the past few years and the constant god-like adulation of many such unicorns and “tech stalwarts — ” by the mainstream media over the years has exacerbated the shiny object syndrome. This propensity to glorify has led to a lot of wishy-washy narratives on India’s real contribution to the technology sector in the world. The conversations required to make India a true technology powerhouse seems to be lost in this melee.

The proponents of the performance of India’s technology sector do make two strong claims. These are: 1) The immense contribution of India’s Technology sector to the world and to the Indian economy, and 2) The Indian start-ups are pushing boundaries, increasing the technology currency, and making the shift to a higher echelons in the value spectrum by creating awesome products.

These claims while true to some extent are sometimes best left at the headlines. The moment you dig beyond headlines, the claims fall apart. For instance, let us take the IT sector or as often referred as “IT and ITeS”, as an example.

Software Products & Engg. Services — 28% in FY19[2]

The very construct of the emergence of this sector was not a tech innovation, but plain financial motivation of cost arbitrage. The liberalization, a large educated middle-class looking for jobs in the late 80s, 90s and 00s and the opportunity to create the IT service sector was in many ways, a coming of things together. As a result many home grown IT companies sprang up, many international tech companies set shop in India, and many existing tech companies pivoted to the service model, to get a piece of the cake. The spike in demand for a particular kind of skill resulted in an unintended change in supply side viz. the exponential increase of engineering colleges which was often seen as the instrument of a promise for a job for the emergent middle class. It is still true that the graduates from all fields (not necessarily engineering) are joining an IT company . If you look at the work the IT & ITeS sector predominantly does you find the work that is not of higher value. And, the intellectual and cognitive ability required to do this kind of work is probably there but sparingly engaged. Often, one just has to look a bit deeper into the work that is done onsite and offshore to know the difference. Though, this narrative is changing with the advent of captives and shipping of more quality work to India but the work that requires higher cognitive ability and meta skills like concepts, architecture etc. are not so common. This begs the question —

Now consider the possibility if the following decision were taken consciously when this IT boom had just started.

I would like to go out on a limb here and claim that in all likelihood this one measure may have helped us to move higher in the value spectrum, and we could have really become an influencer and not just a contributor in the world of tech sector. If you look at the tech sector and at the big players you see presence of Indians or Indian-origin expats at all levels and recently at prominent positions — Microsoft, Google, Adobe, IBM and so on. This phenomenon is not limited to tech sector, one is beginning to find the same cohort taking up technology leadership positions across sectors ( e.g. Bosch-CIO). Brushing this phenomenon as serendipity is a self-goal we may not want to concede. A careful look at the individual journey of these leaders ascertains the importance of building the skill of inquiry along with chasing the opportunity each one was undertaking.

The second claim about the start-ups pushing boundaries is true. But more so in dimensions such as scale, context, product extensions etc. which in itself is a humongous achievement. But, here is a “bummer” for the ones who want to have a hard look at the mirror. For every Flipkart in India there was an Amazon before, for every Zomato and Swiggy there was a Yelp, for every Ola there was an Uber. Probably fast or first followers in different market is a good strategy, but bringing a “original unique value proposition” to market is probably the game changer. And, again the claim here is that the skill of “inquiry” we would have had at large scale would have made our society a true hotbed from where new ideas emerge that change the world. In this world, we would have called San Francisco, Dublin and other places in the world as the Garden-Tech city of USA or Europe, than calling Bangalore the Silicon Valley of India.

The ability of undertaking an “inquiry” by each individual and as a collective which eventually leads to a good design is probably a key skill we the citizen and the government is lacking the most now. This skill requires constant practice, one cannot just wake up on a fine day and start with an inquiry and design for a sector of their liking.

Although, in India there are some individuals and institutes who are able practice inquiry well; We are still far away from scale that is required to make any noticeable difference to India, and to the world. As a first step, the government should appreciate this gap, and enable policies that bring onboard such institutes and individuals with the purpose of addressing the void of “inquiry” and subsequently the capability to “design”. COVID-19 has brought us to a place where the old paradigms are challenged and we really need to take a real hard and . The “intent to address” by taking concrete steps like the one above to address the “Design” imperative, is the need of the hour.

As for the technology sector, The “National Policy on Software Products — 2019[3]” is a step in the right direction. But, the opportunity we now have is to look beyond the fag end of value chain — of becoming a software product economy or tech sector. Rather, the opportunity we have is to build extreme technical dexterity across multiple sectors. The transferable skills along with the acquired ability of inquiry will equip us to better “Design” and address the economic, social and every other challenge in the decades to come.

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