Social innovation can help bridge the technology gap in India - Hindustan Times
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Social innovation can help bridge the technology gap in India

ByHindustan Times
Jan 30, 2024 12:19 PM IST

This article is authored by Nidhi Bhasin, CEO, Nasscom Foundation.

With a booming economy and significant tech innovations, India is well on the path to take center stage on the global platform. In India, we've carved out a new personal sector that includes individual entrepreneurship, micro enterprises, and micro financing. This sector capitalises on the capabilities of digital and mobile technologies. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect much of India's development agenda. However, in an era where technology is rapidly transforming every aspect of our lives, it's crucial to recognise that a significant portion of the country’s population still remains untouched by these advancements.

Technology (Getty Images/iStockphoto) PREMIUM
Technology (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Working towards global sustainable development is a key goal of the 21st century, and social innovation is vital in reaching this target. The SDGs call for worldwide efforts to end poverty, eliminate all forms of inequality, halt the climate crisis and environmental damage, and guarantee peace, justice and prosperity for everyone. Following the SDGs and other global plans not only gives us a clear path for making social changes, but also helps us keep track of how far we have come.

In this landscape, social innovators, the private sector and the government emerge as pivotal players. They have the potential to act as equalisers, bridging the gap between high-tech solutions and the underserved rural communities. By taking tech innovations to the 'last mile', they help ensure that even the most remote areas benefit from the digital revolution. In addition to the government's active participation in social innovation movements, providing special incentives for investments in social innovation can play a crucial role in encouraging investors. By offering tax breaks, grants, or other financial benefits to businesses and individuals involved in social innovation projects, the government can stimulate interest and commitment from the private sector. This alignment of government policies with social innovation goals can further motivate and legitimise the efforts of private sector players and social innovators, creating a collaborative ecosystem to address the challenges at hand.

However, for it to be truly effective, it must be implemented at scale. So, let's look at how social innovation can help us solve a critical problem: India's tech divide.

Social innovation is essentially about pioneering activities and services that are primarily spread through social organisations with the aim to meet a societal need. The core of any social innovation is an unmet need. The first phase of social innovation involves identifying these needs, locating potential solutions, and subsequently formulating innovative concepts to address them.

In India, social innovators utilise a wide range of strategies and multidisciplinary teams to tackle significant challenges. They frequently adopt open innovation frameworks, which enable their solutions to be duplicated and broaden their influence. The realm of social innovation in India has experienced substantial growth in recent years.

In rural India, social innovation is making significant strides by fortifying farmers, advocating sustainable agricultural practices, amplifying livelihood opportunities and thereby, reaching the last mile. Organisations such as Digital Green and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) are employing technology, imparting education, and fostering collective actions to augment agricultural output, forge market connections, and empower rural women.

Although innovation is commonly associated with the business sector, it extends beyond this domain. The Atal Innovation Mission under NITI Aayog is an excellent example that works rigorously to give the best exposure to young innovators and startups through Atal Tinkering Labs and World Class Incubators.

Despite the growth in social innovation, there remains a significant gap between the number of innovators and the resources they need. A major challenge is the lack of digital literacy and the resources needed to foster this skill. As India strides towards digitisation, it's concerning that only 38% of households are digitally literate. Rural areas, in particular, grapple with inadequate connectivity and infrastructure. While the rest of the world discusses advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 5G, over 60% of rural India doesn’t even have access to the internet.

Social innovation is a central element of the digital transition currently underway to improve the welfare and wellbeing of individuals and communities. This transition requires profound changes in the way social innovation is supported, with private entities playing a key role.

Access to finance is key: The main gaps are the supply of equity funding, in particular for early stage and accelerating socially innovative projects. Our existing corporate social responsibility (CSR) structure poses challenges for capacity building and investment in long-term innovation programs. Generally, investors and donors seek quick, substantial growth, which is a guarantee not all social innovators can provide. There needs to be more investment opportunities in social innovation and greater collaborative networks to mainstream their ideas and business models. Support from the private sector, encompassing capital, technology, mentorship, incubation, and partnerships, can play a significant role in crafting solutions that can be adopted and scaled through mainstream funding. Businesses, already cognisant of societal challenges, should leverage their capabilities and resources to foster comprehensive, inclusive societal development and economic growth. Blended finance is emerging as a crucial strategy in achieving India's SDGs by 2030 which can address the funding gap faced by social enterprises, which often struggle to secure commercial capital.

Technology paves the way for social innovation: Technology has played a crucial role in driving social innovation by making information and education more accessible to people across the country. With the advent of the internet and digital devices, individuals from marginalized communities now have the opportunity to learn and acquire knowledge that was previously out of reach. For instance, initiatives like the Digital India campaign and the BharatNet project have significantly increased internet accessibility in rural areas. This enhanced connectivity has empowered residents to access online educational resources, breaking down traditional barriers to learning. Students in remote villages can now participate in online courses, gain exposure to diverse subjects, and pursue educational opportunities that were previously geographically constrained.

Collaboration takes the centrestage to drive social innovation: Companies should establish partnerships with non-profit organizations, research institutions, and social enterprises to capitalise on their collective expertise and resources. These collaborative approaches lead to innovative cross-sector solutions and greater scalability of initiatives, ultimately magnifying the overall impact achieved.

While India is on a promising trajectory towards becoming a global tech powerhouse, it's essential to ensure that the fruits of this digital revolution reach every corner of the country. Social innovators, organisations and the government have a critical role in bridging this tech gap, especially in rural areas where digital literacy is low. Nevertheless, recognising that this monumental undertaking cannot be accomplished in isolation, it is crucial for all stakeholders to collectively support initiatives dedicated to the broader wellbeing of the country and society.

This article is authored by Nidhi Bhasin, CEO, Nasscom Foundation.

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