Economic Growth

Here's how technology can work for everyone

A man uses a cell phone in a building earmarked for demolition in the Mathare neighbourhood of Nairobi, Kenya, May 17, 2016.

The winning entry in May's Global Shaper essay competition sees tech as a tool for inclusive growth Image: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Alok Medikepura Anil
Founder and Managing Director, Next Big Innovation Labs
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Innovation has always had a top down approach to solving problems. The top-level management are the first to benefit from new technological advances at the workplace. This is a trend which must change. Added advantages due to technological advances need to impact the masses and be a tool to bridge economic gaps between the rich and the poor.

Inclusive growth is the need of the hour to ensure that the gaps in economic disparity are closed so that countries maintain strong GDP per capita growth rates. Technology has had exponential growth in the past decade and is playing a key role in the lives of today’s millennials. The way we communicate, entertain ourselves and work, has changed for the good, thanks to technological advances; is what an average city based millennial would say today. Are the technological advances that we enjoy, endorse and help bring to the market, exclusive to the rich and privileged? Or should we be deploying these technological advances to uplift the strata at the bottom of the pyramid?

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are buzzwords used today in coffee-shop conversations on self-driving cars. In our quest to achieve singularity, where man and machine are one: are we forgetting to focus our technology to solve a much larger and pressing real world problem – food shortage? Satellite image data along with predictive analytical tools could potentially help farmers foresee disease onset and give governments a heads up on an approaching season of drought. AI and machine learning can thus reduce the burden for the farmer in the fields and help governments better handle the global food crisis.

Nanotechnology is constantly diminishing the size of our computer chips and ensuring new innovations in materials which are lightweight and strong for space applications. More importantly, nanotechnology can help solve a macro problem in developing and underdeveloped countries – provide drinkable water to those who lack it. Nanotechnology solutions can help create a low-cost filtration membrane system to make water drinkable and disease free, available across the world, even in the remotest regions. This technology can significantly multiply the philanthropic work of organizations like the United Nations.

Biotech advances from billions of dollars spent on research and development, are limited to the four walls of Fortune 500 biotech companies. Even in instances of hybrid seeds from biotech research, known to achieve higher yield and being disease resistant, the common farmer views it as a double-edged sword. Expensive prices of seeds and difficulty to access such products keep the overall benefit to society, low. Governments should invest a considerable percentage of our taxes into biotech research, specifically, to solve farming problems. This would be an investment for a better future and a reduced burden for tomorrow’s generations who could otherwise face soaring prices for food from expensive genetically modified seeds sold by large corporations.

Energy storage is suddenly the need of the hour thanks to the fast growth of solar technology. Solar panels have been around for decades but a recent drop in production prices has made countries rethink their energy choices.

We have reached an inception point and the wind is blowing in favour of renewable sources such as solar, thanks to comparative per-unit energy generation prices with non-renewable coal. Supply and demand is however a big issue, since the sun shines 10-12 hours a day, but energy consumption is 24/7. Governments must equip all power grids, urban and rural, to accept electricity generated from rooftop solar panels and offer low-interest carbon tax savings benefits for those who move to solar energy. This will push the sector and encourage mass adoption. Large barren, unused farmlands generating solar power for neighbouring energy-guzzling cities seems like a good business model to generate money for those whose only source of livelihood, previously, was farming.

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As we pollute more lakes, generate more garbage, let out more effluents from our vehicles and factories, those at the bottom of the social pyramid suffer the most. Using the internet of things to control and monitor macro-level city problems such as garbage and pollution is a necessity. Smart trashcans that alert the local garbage truck driver when full; sensors that track excessive pollutants in waste water from housing communities and relay warning messages to local authorities; and inbuilt sensors in vehicles to track elevated levels of pollutants from the tail pipe emissions; could help us take corrective action to make all lives, privileged and not so privileged, more liveable.

A big problem citizens in many countries face is the lack of transparency in financial systems that disperse loans and the dreaded red tape. Governments often announce benefit schemes for those who need it the most but the money and benefits rarely reach them. Using cutting edge technology such as blockchains and using quantum processing to handle the huge volume of transactions on the blockchain, governments can help take their benefits directly to the people and keep the process transparent, thus avoiding the greedy middlemen who are omnipresent at every level of disbursement.

Technology will evolve over the course of time but how we channel it to maximise the benefit to those in need, for whom it is a matter of plain survival or solving someone’s life-threatening crisis: is what will ensure inclusive growth in our communities.

About this article: Alok Medikepura Anil is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper with the Bangalore hub. His article is this month's winner in the Global Shaper essay contest, on the theme of inclusive growth.

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