‘India must become a tech nation, not just a talent nation’
New Delhi : “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative”, the prophetic social critic H.G. Wells wrote in “A Short History of the World” in 1922.A century later, this is the reality that stares at India as the connections between “seemingly disparate events” – for instance what ties the Ladakh standoff to the global technological struggle for dominance? Is there a link between the investment of billions of dollars in Reliance Jio at the height of the Covid crisis and the US-China trade and technology wars? How does any of this matter to any of us? Will it affect our personal lives, our jobs and our future?It most certainly will, venture capitalist, technology entrepreneur and policy advisor Anirudh Suri writes in “The Great Tech Game – Shaping Geopolitics And The Destinies Of Nations” (HarperCollins), who admits that he “cannot claim to have all the answers” but “strongly feels that a much broader and deeper conversation needs to take place about the impact of technology on our world and the choices we need to make, urgently”.
After agriculture, trade, industrialisation, colonisation and capitalism, the book says technology is arguably the next big shaper of geopolitics in the world. It is increasingly a major determinant of the destiny of nations today and is creating a new set of winners and losers on the global stage.The author provides a coherent framework outlining the key drivers that will determine the ability of a nation to succeed in this technology-dominant era, laying down a roadmap for how any country must develop its own strategic plan for success.Leaders must inculcate a new set of capabilities to understand and take advantage of these trends, and create enabling environments for their nations to not be left behind. A particularly challenging aspect will be the ability of countries to define and manage the roles of state and non-state actors in a global race for technological leadership and success.The book goes on to evaluate whether digital colonialism is an inevitable reality, or whether new frameworks will emerge to govern relationships between technology-rich and technology-poor nations.In “such a fast-evolving game, what grand strategy or game plan should a country like India adopt”, asks Suri, who has worked with the Indian government, McKinsey and Company in New York, the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC and Goldman Sachs in London.
For starters, India “must become a tech nation, not just a talent nation”, he asserts.”A strategy of labour arbitrage will not suffice; we cannot rely on providing cheap talent to the world. We must also develop a strategy of technology arbitrage. India has to develop a culture – and a well-funded ecosystem – of fundamental scientific and technological research and build core tech IP across sectors. Even if it takes several years or a couple of decades – as it most likely will – India must take calculated bets and increasingly seek to be in the ‘Circle of Five’ for several strategic technology sectors. Only then will greater value accrue to its companies and its people,” Suri maintains.Therefore, India must focus its energy on building out its digital economy rapidly – and not just on the tech sector.”Technology and data – as factors of production – must permeate all sectors to boost productivity. India must adopt a mix of approaches and strategies to create its own defensive competitive positioning within the global ecosystem. A globally competitive India will need to maintain global leadership in higher value-added IT services as well as excellence in software-enabled manufacturing.”Identification of SaaS products and other, deeper layers of software, and doubling down on tech innovation in sectors such as agriculture, education and healthcare can form the foundation of its global niche,” Suri writes.
Developments of digital entrepots within India – along the lines of Singapore or Estonia – can help attract talent and capital as timely adaptation of its governance, rules and institutions for the tech era and the country must keep an “unstinted focus on the future, and not just reactively attempt to compete in existing large technology ecosystems such as consumer internet”, the author contends.Militarily, India must “continue to build its strengths in the emerging domains of cyber and space. Building strong cyber-defence and offence capabilities will help secure and deter any crippling attacks. As the nature of war, and the tools required to win, evolve, India must accordingly evolve its capabilities and military doctrines”, Suri argues.Geopolitically, India must ensure security of its digital and tech infrastructure – whether it is the underwater fibre optic cables connecting the country to the world or the multitude of data centres and cloud networks hosted within the country – using the traditional tools of diplomacy and foreign policy to further its domestic economic objectives.Finally, India must seek to “better understand how the new technological revolution is shaping its own societal structures, values, identities and preferences.
The current technological revolution will – much like the others that preceded it – unleash forces that threaten to upend the existing political, social and economic order. Like earlier Great Games, the Great Tech Game shall also create a new set of opportunities and winners, but also challenges and losers. Managing this transition will be one of the biggest challenges facing government and society”, the author maintains.Thus, public debates around the “core values that society holds dear – such as freedom, privacy, openness, transparency, equitable and sustainable development – must be encouraged. The design and use of technology must be in sync with those values. Adapting our socio-economic policies and institutions to uphold these values will require a whole-of-society effort, and not just a whole-of-government one”, Suri concludes.India has weathered many a critical storm in the recent past – the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the global meltdown of 2008 and even the coronavirus pandemic that at one stage seemed unstoppable – but none of these has been as challenging as the one that is now upon us. It’s time to girdle up for a prolonged haul.