Non Profits as Innovation Incubators

Fund Raising is the common concern of start ups and nonprofits. I guess Innovation should be another core strand in that aesthetic. Any venture which is innovative, is not in alignment with the existing structures of commerce and social constructs. Aggregators have clicked because of the convenience it renders to the consumer. They are connectors, and when they started, they were innovative, now they are the status quo, an important characteristic of the status quo is when even the established business class, the traditional mercantile groups globally whether it is the baniya or the east coast jew, or the west coast VC jump in not to solve issues via disruption, as no one does disruption or innovation out of the blue. The vexed matters such as urban homelessness have been around for decades, no one has seen money being made easily. The aggregators have a proof of concept. Lets make sanitation sexy as Jack Sim says. Or let’s make the difficult classy. Innovation works on many hierarchies. Innovation, does not pay upfront, as there is no market. That market has to be curated.

Non Profits are true incubators of disruptive ideas, start ups have a valuation imperative. Non Profit start ups, have funding issues, but they can be a grant magnet very easily once they have built the correct platform. Prasoon Kumar whom i am working with has a great innovative product for the urban homeless, is right up the alley for creating a ripple.

 

Quoted in Forbes series on Demonetization again

Thanks to Wade Shepard, i was quoted in the Forbes series on Demonetization again.

As Monishankar Prasad, a New Delhi-based author who is currently traveling India researching the on-the-ground impact of the demonetization phenomenon pointed out:

The unbanked and informal economy is hard hit. The poor do not have the access to structural and cultural resources to adapt to shock doctrine economics. The poor were taken totally off guard and the banking infrastructure in the hinterland is rather limited. The tech class has poor exposure to critical social theory in order to understand the impact on the ground. There is an empathy deficit.

“In the long run, this is nothing short of a revolutionary measure in moving a traditional cash centric economy to a fourth industrial revolution era. It’s audacious, brash, and a future-centered decision, which has changed India, its people, politics, and money game forever,” Prasad declared. “India will be ‘before demonetization’ and ‘after demonetization,’ BD and AD.”

However, there are obviously still many cogs in the works before India can truly depend on its digital financial infrastructure, as Prasad discovered during his travels:

India is lived in the hinterland. Even when the card terminals are available, the telephone lines are not robust enough, as they are prone to weather centric disruption. The pharmacy today, in North Kolkata- Laketown, the card machine was out of order, the e-wallet application was working after four false attempts. The area has four pharmacies as it is around a prominent medical center, and only one had a non-cash option. In short, the transition is far from complete.

The link :

http://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2017/01/03/after-day-50-the-results-from-indias-demonetization-campaign-are-in/2/#5c0d2777412f

I am also working on a longer read on the lived experience of Demonetization and the frictions at the intersection of social justice, technology and governance.

Reclaiming the Narrative Against Hyperbole

In my conversations with the tech wrapped class in Urban India, have a blind spot regarding the members of the informal economy. The informal economy is something to be not considered at all. If Autowallah and Taxi Wallah’s have a union, which is irrelevant in the era of Uber, that tech is a silver bullet against predatory, discretionary pricing, but surge pricing is market economics.

The bank employee who has a stable job is lazy versus a start up employee who is entrepreneurial. We, have something very imprecise in our aesthetics, which seeks to celebrate jobless growth, no medical coverage and one pay check away from homelessness. We have some how allowed Economic Times to frame our discourse. Read some EPW, or even OPEN for a change. The language of activism needs to reclaimed or reframed in this digital era. The food that we eat is still grown by a farmer in the hinterland.

Conversation on Digital Disruption with an Auto Wallah

I was sadly stuck in a terrible traffic snarl today in an auto rickshaw, where I decide to ignite a chat in Bhojpuri infected Hindi. The crux of the conversation was to understand the adaptation of the non digital auto wallah, against their smart phone connected counterparts in OLA or Uber. The auto wallah said, you do not waste time, waiting for the OLA or Uber driver as he is not usually a local from this area. These drivers ask us for directions all the time. We are cheaper and own the roads.

When I asked about air conditioner and other comforts, the middle aged gentlemen quipped ‘there was no OLA five years back, and there were summers in Delhi then as well’ 

He complained about the traffic during the peak hours, as these are the times where they get rides or ‘bhada’. Where the OLA driver can fetch a ride at midnight in a jungle.

The Auto Wallah is strategising against digital disruption. I would like to understand more narratives on the ground of evolving livelihoods on the front lines of automation. Life is not only about numbers in a World Economic Forum Report. Local knowledge is a key USP.

Tech Hype Cycles : A Quick Thought

For industry peers, especially fresh grads buying into the current Big Data/AI/Machine Learning hype cycle, partially underway, at a very macro level (as technologies take time to permeate through institutional structures, cultures and need to switch personal behaviour as per the Social Construction of Technology thesis and other technology diffusion frameworks) that Big Data, is more a process to turn everyday processes in to ‘data points’ and is not a silver bullet as Biotechnology a decade back and Sustainability a few years ago.

Every hype cycle fades away, with the realization that profits are not delivered and the next big thing on the horizon crops up. Our fetish with the future of the future and evolving values of the constantly modern, breathes life in to these ‘new’ technologies. The questions will be answered by big data or small. The proof of the pudding will be when any off this Big or small data will solve entrenched issues of the day deeply intertwined in vested power structures.

New Work Rules for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Economy

Start ups are serious engines of economic progress. They hire in a recession and lend neighborhoods a good vibe. There are people investing their lives, and especially their youth on an idea. They are not places to get your pre MBA work ex. These are not places for folks with no risk appetite. The era of the public sector job in India is a relic of my Father’s generation. In this fourth industrial revolution era, one needs to re-skill and re-imagine the future as a perennial negotiation, and not an annual review activity. Stay healthy and save for a rainy day are good old school values to follow although investing in reskilling is to add value. Your job is to be replaced two financial years away if you are in consulting. Creative destruction at its neoliberal best.

Downloading the ‘Social Justice’ App: Rebooting the emerging technologies conversation

Technology is aspirational as well as embedded in the micro practice of everyday life.  Technology has enveloped and ensconced us in its bear hug embrace. Technology has inherent values of its founders which drive its proliferation and its outreach of this sociotechnical construct. Apple, the maker of the now less than iconic iPhone, with its repeated ‘static’ variations believes in the working philosophy of dishing out the cutting edge even if the consumer is not ready, as it creates a white space and then waits for the audience to pick up the tab, such as the headless jack in its latest variant. The product managers at Apple are not the biggest fans of user centric ethnography certainly.

Smart Phones are getting more sophisticated by the day with AR/VR (Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality for the uninitiated such as the latest Samsung Device) external add ons, which redefine the user experience. The digital revolution is the outcome of the twin drivers of a ‘Flat World’ and Globalization (although due to Brexit, the reverse de-globalization is now fashionable), which a less than USD 50 smartphone available in the global south. Prices of data packages have hit rock bottom, due to telecom price wars such as in India with Reliance Jio triggering a market consolidation. As investor Naval Ravikant had quipped in a lengthy narrative journalistic article in The New Yorker, that Uber happened due to ecosystem effects of GPS, market demand and the smart phone, all of which was not Uber’s contribution [1]. Uber was simply at the right time, at the right place as a transportation technology company. ICT4D or leveraging the power of Information and Communication Technology for Development for bridging the digital divide or for bringing the power of Web 2.0 to the unserved communities in the global south, is carried out as a Bottom of the Pyramid market expansion strategy as the developed markets are not rendering the right margins on the NYSE. Profits are the cornerstone for unleashing the tamed spirits of neoliberal capitalism (pun intended).

As Phillip Mirowski states, neoliberalism is a constructivist political project as it needs the government to actively curate the market space (Mirowski, 2009 in Davies, 2016).

The purpose of this article is not to sing uncritical paeans to the myth and magic of unfettered Silicon Valley style techno capitalism but to breathe back the spirit of social justice into this testosterone fueled paradigm (think about the film Social Network about the founding of Facebook for a cultural analogue). Emerging technologies as a cognitive framework is driving the conversation on ‘Smart Cities’ to ‘Digital India’ in its namesake India to the ‘Smart Nation’ narrative in Singapore. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan writes eloquently that an idea of a smart city amputates the idea of a city in to an amputated grid of IT technologies without integrating the informal sector of the economy such as the migrants and the scavengers [2].

Prof Visvanathan captures the pulse of the narrative that frames ‘aggressive’ emerging technologies paradigm as a silver bullet to the issues of the day. When political solutions to governance problems dry up, the emerging technologies messaging comes in handy as a smoke screen. Emerging Technology as a concept ties in the growth mindset of neoliberal thought which weaves in with modernity and profit motive very well. The angel investor behind a technology would not share the same egalitarian values as a principal investigator of a National Research Foundation research project. The values of solidarity, liberty and equity are in contradiction with emerging technologies that find resonance in the valuation imperative. The unicorns are the stuff of legends while millions struggle to drink clean water. The market is an exceptional adopter of good ideas whose time has arrived such as financial inclusion through digital resources such as blockchain as physical retail banking assets shall not be required to serve the unbanked consumer, but digital healthcare would still need to be aligned with incumbent public health systems with real doctors to heal the sick.

The context is critical for emerging technologies to be mapped as a social good with embedded values of social inclusion. Science is a social institution and the mainstreaming of an ‘emerging technology’ in the marketplace would require the ethic of social justice, as the consumer who pays for the product or service is ultimately as much a member of the socioeconomic community as the startup founder.

References:

[1] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/tomorrows-advance-man (information retrieved on 28th September 2016)

[2]          http://www.dailyo.in/politics/indian-media-cities-sewage-chikungunya-swachh-bharat-dalits-demolition/story/1/12971.html (information retrieved on 28th September 2016)