Social entrepreneurs are devising technology to help the marginalised
Imagine a robot that can replace manual scavenging of sewers, or a software that can help ambulances navigate the chaotic traffic of our citiesUpdated: Mar 21, 2018 17:36 IST
In a world driven by technology, it is often debatable whether adequate priority is given to the marginalised sections of society. So while we marvel at the human ingenuity that has given us self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, it warms the heart even more to hear about a robot that can replace the inhuman manual scavenging of sewers, or a technology that can help ambulances navigate the chaotic traffic of our cities to get patients to critical care.
Indian startups and entrepreneurs are eyeing innovations that are globally marketable, as they should; but they are also making a sincere attempt to apply technology and come up with products that can solve real-life problems in our own country, which bodes very well for our digital future.
At the various technology hardware and software incubators functioning under the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) for example, we’ve seen a lot of young entrepreneurs pitch ideas that have emerged from their own experiences within their cities, towns, villages and communities. Young people come to pitching sessions with ideas that could help farmers, tailors, small business owners, housewives looking to supplement their household incomes. Normally, technologies are rarely customised for these groups, but social entrepreneurship is changing that.
Our young tech-savvy generation has been inspired by the success stories of Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, and it is natural for them to harbour ambitions of that scale; indeed many Indian startups have made their mark globally. However, the socio-economic, cultural milieu from which these tech bigwigs arose is very different from the Indian context. For one, the digital divide in our society is far wider, and challenges of accessibility and affordability more real. Ten years earlier, if we looked at cyberspace, there were very few solutions which would benefit large sections of populations. Now the scenario is slowly changing but it is important that they cannot be mere consumers of mobile-based services.
Products and technology which will change the way day-to-day work is made more productive and outputs get better market realisation are extremely relevant. Social entrepreneurship in India, therefore, is driven less by empathy than an urgent need for real solutions. But the kind of sea change we need in this area cannot be achieved without private sector participation, or the energy, drive and creativity of young people in large numbers.
Socially responsible investment, which is essentially motivated by purpose rather than profit, is still a relatively small domain, but it’s growing worldwide. More important, there is a change in the mindset which believed that social enterprises cannot be profitable. Businesses thrive when they successfully cater to a demand in society, so it is unreasonable to assume that enterprises which address pressing, social, educational or environmental needs are doomed to fail.
In the right hands, and with the right direction, they can be as successful as any commercial venture and as profitable for investors. The value such projects will bring to society, especially in uplifting marginalised communities, is immense.
In Kerala, where this social commitment among youth is palpable, we will host a global digital summit on March 22-23 bringing thought leaders to brainstorm on our future direction in the IT sector. Social entrepreneurship will be at the forefront of these discussions. Technology is a great connector and the farther it reaches, the more it can do to unify us in the vision for a truly digital India.
M Sivasankar is IT secretary, Government of Kerala. The views expressed are personal.
First Published: Mar 21, 2018 17:36 IST