The wise words of author and thinker William Gibson, “Future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed” often come to my mind when discussing technology. At its best, technology is a high-impact growth accelerator: It increases efficiency, creates new possibilities, and helps us make a better world. The adoption of technology, however, can be painfully slow, resulting in an uneven distribution of its benefits across different regions and populations.
This uneven distribution of technology has played a pivotal role in shaping our world. Access to and mastery of technology separated the superpowers from the rest… the developed from the developing nations. In the Iron Age, mastery of the metal forged the Assyrian empire; Industrial Revolution catapulted the British to the fore; and the invention of the internet and the continued mastery of internet businesses, help the US maintain a lead in the modern digital era.
But history has also shown that nations have punched above their weight and transformed themselves by thoughtfully adopting technology. The remoulding of the island state of Singapore into a world-class financial center and the arid lands of Israel into a vibrant hub of startups and technology center comes to my mind. India is another shining example of a nation leveraging technology to bring about transformational change.
Cut off from the advancements of the West, Indian scientists and innovators relied on ingenuity and perseverance to develop nuclear power, securing the nation’s economic and strategic growth. And when the world was in the throes of an arms race to space, Indian scientists developed satellites to improve the everyday lives of millions.
These scientific achievements were complemented by a concerted effort by Indian leaders to turn the country into a knowledge hub. India has more engineering colleges and universities than any other comparable nation, introduced computer languages to high-school students, and established computer centers in small towns to take technology to the masses. Efforts like these bridged the gap that otherwise slow the adoption of technology, and helped create a nation of engineers and startup founders.
Today, India is a success story the world looks up to. In just over a decade, through UPI and Aadhaar, we have transformed the financial experience of everyday Indians. Transactions worth nearly 55% of India’s GDP now happen over UPI. Combining these population-scale projects with applications such as DigiLocker, India has not just leapfrogged Western powers on payments and identity management, but also laid the foundation for a digital economy of the future. And now, India has built an open e-commerce stack called ONDC to add to the triumvirate.
If technological progress was to be measured in terms of impact on the number of people, then India is today a step or two ahead of even developed nations. Be it the national technology stack such as UPI and Aadhaar or the apps and services built by Indian startups, a common thread is the simplification of complex technologies and taking it to a scale that benefits millions, and not just a niche set of users.
This is the Indian school of thought at work. The challenge now is to stay on course for the big technological revolution ahead, as artificial intelligence and blockchain are poised to be integrated into more and more business use cases. Both AI and blockchain are transformative technologies, promising to radically alter how we build and use the Internet of tomorrow. While generative AI tools such as the ChatGPT has already shown how they could drastically improve the user experience of the internet, Web3 tools promise to restore user ownership of the internet.
Adoption and mastery of these technologies would separate the tech superpowers of tomorrow from the rest. This is an opportunity India cannot miss—not with the calibre and ambitions of its people.
As Gibson said, “The future is already here.” It’s up to us to ensure that it’s distributed equitably.
A version of this article was first published in The Economic Times.