“It is 2030, India is among the world’s top three economies. All Indians use advanced technology to either do their job or get their job done. All Indians have access to quality jobs, better healthcare, and skill-based education. Technology and human beings co-exist in a mutually beneficial ecosystem”.
By Parminder Vir OBE
So goes the introduction to Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem, co-authored by N. Chandrasekaran, and Roopa Purushothaman. The book is dedicated “for a country that cannot wait”.
Bridgital Nation describes how technology can solve India’s biggest problems if it is regarded as an aid and not a threat, and if the “simplistic binary of technology versus jobs” can be done away with.
Bridgital Nation identifies jobs and access as the two biggest problems facing India, and notes that access to basic services in healthcare and education (especially to women), and a lack of productive jobs for young Indi- ans entering the job market, prevent India from reaching its full potential.
In the foreword, Ratan N. Tata writes: “Bridgital Nation addresses these issues in the context of India and emphasizes the need to build human bridges which recognise the diversity of the human interface with its varied educational base, skill sets and access to in- frastructure. It shows how technology can create a pathway for government, busi- nesses, regulators, NGOs and everyday people to close the gaps that matter most”.
Unlike in most countries where growth is followed by the creation of more jobs, economic growth in India tends to come from services and produce few manufacturing jobs. In a more fundamental and tailored approach to these challenges, the authors propose the creation of the country’s own path to growth and prosperity by using technology as a bridge between the overwhelming demand for vital services and an overwhelming supply of human capital.
Bridgital Nation suggests using technology and advances in artificial intelligence to reinvent tasks so that the unorganised, semi-skilled and poorly paid sectors are included into the formal economy, bridging the gap between rich and poor, skilled, and unskilled. This way, technology offers everyone a chance to leapfrog several steps in each process and empowers workers to perform tasks that were thought to be beyond them. This approach could provide better service delivery in health, transport, agriculture, law, and education, and create and impact millions of jobs around the world.
In tackling the twin challenges of jobs and access, the authors argue that two other strategies are needed: bringing women to the workforce and preparing the ground for thriving entrepreneurship throughout the country.
They emphasise the importance of working women and entrepreneurs to India’s future. They use personal stories to make a case for policies that focus on childcare provision and parental leave, as well as concerted steps that must be taken to change the society’s attitude towards working women. They outline the need for a new focus on entrepreneurship to potentially shift 45 million workers into more productive and better-paying employment in small and medium enterprises.
The role of women is critical: Nearly 120 million Indian women – more than double the entire population of South Korea – have at least a secondary education, but do not participate in the workforce. Imagine if India allowed more of India’s secondary educated population to transition into the jobs market.
For Bridgital to work, women will form an important part of the Bridgital workers. India will need to address how to make paid work available to and worthwhile for women.
India is full of micro business – self-employed individuals running survival ventures. We know that SMEs account for over third of private sector employment. A focus on entrepreneurship throughout the country – urban, semi urban, rural could potentially shift 45 million workers into more productive employment in small and medium enterprises.
Bridgital Nation argues that entrepreneurship can flourish everywhere through the development of bridgital clusters that integrate and extend a range of digital business services which many SMEs lack. Bridgital clusters, coupled with the deeper use of digital governance to transform the relationship between SMEs and the bureaucracy, can positively channel the entrepreneurial spirit inherent throughout the nation.
Bringing women to the workforce and prepar- ing the ground for thriving entrepreneurship throughout the country are deeply interwoven, multiplying the impact on jobs and access. “We don’t have to look at digital approaches as simply cost-cutting, profit-enhancing exercises. They can augment our human capital. We do not have to look at gender as solely an inclusion issue. It is firmly a talent decision. We do not have to look at entrepreneurship with a singular lens of creat- ing billion-dollar unicorns. It is a strength that we can leverage throughout the country”. These are all critical bridges to a better future of work for India.
In Bridgital Nation, the authors do not just address the problems, they also propose so- lutions for moving forward through the adoption of technologies to these challenges. This “digital” becomes “bridgital”, using technology to supplement, rather than substitute, for human labour – a technology-based bridge between jobs and access to build a middle class that India needs. Bridgital does this by reimagining how services can be delivered and how people can use their talents differently once they are aided by technology. In the Bridgital world, technology does not disrupt an existing market as much as it creates an entirely new one. The more access India creates, the more jobs it will make available to its people, setting off a virtuous cycle of inclusion and growth. It is possible to achieve with the Bridgital Model.
The Bridgital Model uses technology as an enabler, a tool, to make the most of what India has, and give the country what it most needs. Bridgital enhances its workers rather than replacing them. Throughout the book, the authors show how this can be applied in health, education, agriculture, financial services, and logistics. If it is done well, they argue that it can positively impact 30 million jobs in 2025 and lead to a 10-20% increase in wages for workers, while giving over 200 million citizens access to better services including health and education.
Through poignant stories from everyday Indians, the book shows how serious the problems of the poor are, and how relatively unqualified people too, enabled by technology, can help address them. Bridgital Nation is a beautifully written, extremely insightful look at how India can harness technological innovation to transform its economy and people. As I read the book, I kept imagining applying the Bridgital Model to the African continent where I spent the past 6 years working, supporting thousands of African entrepreneurs from 55 African countries, and how the solutions from this emerging country can be transported to a continent facing the same twin challenges: jobs and access. The twin challenges, said Roopa, are not limited to India; they exist in many emerging countries and absolutely apply to the African continent.
By the end of the century, almost half of the global population will be African. And by 2035 – less than 15 years from today – Africa will have the largest and youngest workforce in the world. (Source: https://www.algroup.org).
In many ways, the challenges outlined in Bridgital Nation are mirrored in several countries across Africa – a growing population, few job opportunities, difficulties in accessing services, an underutilised female population. With these challenges come the same opportunities to use technology to effect transformations
at the country and continent level.
The Future of Work in Africa: Harnessing the Potential of Digital Technologies for All, published in June 2020 as a regional companion piece to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Workhighlights how global trends, especially the adoption of digital technologies, may change the nature of work in Sub-Saharan Africa by creating new opportunities and challenges, creating inclusive workplaces to accommodate less skilled and less educated workers.
Just as the authors of Bridgital Nation note, this report also points out that creating these opportunities will require “grassroots inventors and entrepreneurs” to promote “formal, private sector jobs”. In the past decade, with the help of entrepreneurship support organisations, entrepreneurship
on Africa has been embraced and has grown rapidly, providing jobs for an overwhelming majority and leading innovation in digital technologies. Policies and structures to support entrepreneurs and their business are more popular and continue to be a point of advocacy with governments and foreign agencies.
The Bridgital Nation model, applied to African countries, can catalyse the use of technology, talent, and visionary leadership to truly transform the continent by addressing some of its most pressing problems.
Throughout the book, I heard the distinct voice of Roopa Purushothaman who I first met in 2004, soon after she had published the path breaking 2003 Goldman Sachs report, Dreaming with BRICS: The Path to 2050. She was invited to share the report with the Board of UK India Business Council.
We met again in 2011, when she had produced her report on women and work in India. We reconnected again in January 2021 when I tracked her down on learning about her new book, Bridgital Nation. An economist by training, she is passionate about girl education and has founded Avasara Leadership Institute, about which I will write more in another article.
For now, I urge you to read Bridgital Nation. The Bridgital Model is not just for India – the size and diversity of challenges in India can certainly inspire the African continent. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the African continent to organise convenings around the Bridgital Model, because the future of work will be imagined on these continents – bringing people and technology together.
About the Authors
Natarajan Chandrasekaran is Chairman of the Board of Tata Sons, the holding company and promoter of more than 100 Tata operating companies. Prior to this, he was the Chief Executive Officer of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a leading global IT services provider and one of India’s most valuable companies. He is also a director on the Board of the Reserve Bank of India.
Roopa Purushothaman is the Chief Economist and Head of Policy Advocacy at the Tata Group, and the founder of Avasara Leadership Institute. She has contributed to a number of publications on globalization and development.
About Parminder Vir OBE
Parminder Vir OBE has dedicated herself to positively impacting and transforming lives through a professional career spanning 40 years in philanthropy, entrepreneurship, film and television production, arts and culture, and investment funding. She is the co-founder of the Support4AfricaSMEs campaign and The African Farmers Stories, launched in 2020. She served as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, based in Lagos, Nigeria from April 2014 to April 2019. Prior to joining the Foundation, Parminder has enjoyed a distinguished career as an awarding winning film and television producer and private equity investor in film and media.