Lessons from India in digital disruption


This is an excerpt from an OpEd authored by Nandan Nilekani in the The New Times online newspaper on June 12, 2019.

Digital technology can rapidly transform how countries provide services such as education and health to their citizens. The public services of 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 health and education services for all – at speed, at scale, and in a sustainable way – and to boosting social and economic inclusion. Alongside these exciting opportunities, countries must also anticipate and manage the associated risks of the digital revolution. To this end, India’s pioneering use of data and technology offers four lessons for other developing countries.

First, scale should be built into project design from the very beginning, instead of being an afterthought. In India, we must think about how we can help one million community health workers provide healthcare to rural areas, and how we can improve the skills of 100 million young people seeking better jobs. The world must ask a similar question: How can we provide safe, high-quality vaccinations to 20 million infants around the world, and educate the more than 260 million children and youth 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 – “Distribute tablets to schoolchildren!” – without giving enough thought to how they will be used in specific national contexts. This has resulted in many disappointing pilot projects that failed to deliver sustainable impact at scale.

India has led the way in this regard, by intentionally making its new digital infrastructure a public good. For example, Aadhaar, India’s biometric unique identification system, shows how cutting-edge technology can solve the societal problem of establishing unique identities in a developing country of over a billion people. 

Likewise, EkStep, a not-for-profit initiative that I co-founded with Rohini Nilekani and Shankar Maruwada, has built a learner-centric, technology-based societal platform to improve literacy and numeracy for 200 million children across India. To make an impact at scale, EkStep connects various innovations isolated in silos and engages the key actors across the education ecosystem (public, private, or social) through collaboration and co-creation networks. This open and free digital infrastructure is enabling a range of solutions, including in-class resources, learning and training content, assessment aids, a registry of teachers, rewards and recognition, and learning communities.....click here to read more.