Fourth Industrial Revolution

From innovation to integration: the role of collective action in institutionalising 4IR technologies

A drone in flight, illustrating the potential of 4IR technology

Drones illustrate the potential of 4IR technology. Image: Unsplash/Alessio Soggetti

Vignesh Santhanam
India Lead, Drones and Tomorrow's Airspace, World Economic Forum
Piyush Gupta
Project Specialist, World Economic Forum
Vivek HP
Special Secretary Health, Government of Arunachal Pradesh
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  • 4IR technologies are seen are torchbearers of innovation, but they need to be deployed with social responsibility in mind.
  • 4IR technologies have helped to revolutionise the delivery of health services to remote areas of India.
  • The implementation of 4IR technologies requires a collective effort from multiple stakeholders, by involving these stakeholders in the development and deployment of these technologies we can harness their potential for creating social impact.

Let's go back to 1995. That was the year that saw the launch of India's first commercialised TCP/IP-connected internet service hosted by a government-owned enterprise. A year later, the country had its first .com portal, offering free email services and an online electronics marketplace. As India's telecom sector deregulated, by the year 2000, the country had around 315 internet service providers and around 366,000 internet subscribers. The decade after this witnessed explosive growth in IT and the software sector rose up the value chain.

This sequence of events resulted in India’s prominence and competitiveness as the world’s office. India played a facilitative role at the centre and subnational level to ensure global needs were responded to, whether through the systematic development of IT parks or educational clusters, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and National Institutes of Technology (NITs). This was an initiation point where entrepreneurs became role models against the backdrop of consultative efforts by the union government. This phenomenon witnessed a rise in wages and a premium on skills in the sector.

4IR Technology for collaboration

Following on, the last decade's development has been deeply characterised by rising digital trends. Digital technologies have been at the vanguard of opportunities on many levels. In public governance, for example, unified platforms for civic services with cloud and AI at the core have been responsible for bringing civil society, government and agencies together to solve public grievances.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, digital tools enabled an 'everyone-in-the-loop' scenario. Digital governance, telemedicine, banking, drones and advanced air mobility solutions were seamlessly applied for the benefit of citizens. Having assumed the G20 Presidency earlier this year, India has been on a war footing to develop strong foundations for a transition into the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

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Digitising public governance

India's robust digital public infrastructure plays a pivotal role in enabling the country's digital transformation, providing citizen-centric and transparent governance services and facilitating breakthroughs in various fields, such as the DigiLocker, an online repository of citizens' documents. Furthermore, the digital infrastructure played a significant role in enabling the country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Aarogya Setu and CoWin apps helping to track and contain the spread of the virus and facilitate the vaccination of many people in a short time.

G20 – An India-led grand collaboration

To build inclusive economies and create equity for access to public goods, the government of India has aptly identified technologies that would catalyse this transition agenda. India took over the G20 presidency in 2022 with a focus on the theme of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.' This translates to 'One Earth. One Family. One Future.' It is derived from an ancient Sanskrit text of the Maha Upanishad.

The theme underscores the importance of all forms of life, including humans, animals, plants and microorganisms and their interdependence on planet Earth and the broader universe. The G20 brings together the most significant and systemically important economies globally, with member countries representing 85% of the world's GDP, 75% of international trade and two-thirds of the global population.

With the world's most populous country assuming the G20 presidency, we are witnessing long strides towards a well-rounded digital infrastructure that will enable IoT, AI, blockchain and drone-enabled systems to transform legacy sectors in India and the region at large. However, it is key to draw our collective efforts down to science. Given the complex nature of 4IR technologies, implementation plans are rarely single-entity solutions. The linear rise in India's technology dexterity has been its 'ecosystem approach' to mainstreaming.

Drones in healthcare – an example of collaborative efforts reaching fruition

India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is known for its rugged terrain, dense forests and diverse ethnic groups. It is also known for its healthcare challenges, as many of its remote and inaccessible areas are often subject to landslides and natural hazards and rendered isolated for extended periods. In early 2020, when the Government of Arunachal Pradesh embarked on its journey towards futurisation, several technologies were deliberated upon.

Given the undulating terrain and the disaster-prone nature of the state, the problem statement was clear – accessibility at all costs. At a workshop chaired by the Government of Arunachal Pradesh involving diverse stakeholders, including drone manufacturers, service providers, regulators and end-users, to explore the possibilities and challenges of deploying drones for various applications in the state, the then Deputy Commissioner of East Kameng articulated the need to add drones to the logistics repertoire of the state. Citing the example of a recent landslide, he described how a van carrying testing samples in his district was stranded overnight due to a landslide rendering these samples unfit for testing given the time span between obtaining and reaching the pathology laboratory.

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How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the responsible use of technology?

The zero point was dialogue. The workshop fostered a shared vision of the advantages and risks of drones, as well as the legal and ethical norms that needed to be established. Consequently, the workshop laid the foundations for the execution of a pilot project that leverages drones for delivering vital medicines and vaccines to remote areas.

This initiative emulates how NASSCOM, the industry association of IT companies in India, catalyzed the IT revolution in the 1990s by engaging bureaucrats in industry dialogue and highlighting the potential of IT for economic growth and social welfare.

At this point, a clear-cut case emerged for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the district. However, the transition from concept to take-off was complex and elaborate, solved over an eighteen-month period through curated multilateral discussions spearheaded by the state. A frequent element that emerged was a focus on the cost-benefit analysis. How could efficiency be quantified through an economic lens?

A facilitative multi-stakeholder group would help orient the solution towards social outcomes, employment, value adds in the health network and a power-up of the distribution chains.

Further, the question of 'why drones and not bikes?' would be holistically examined around the economic benefits and the trade-offs between environmental impact, expenses incurred by the beneficiaries and redux time aligned with the greater vision of future-proofing rural quarters of India.

As discussions progressed, it became clear that there were several benefits to using drones over bikes or vans. The first was their ability to reach inaccessible geographical locations. The second was that they could be used as a means of communication and data collection for tracking vulnerable populations and they offered the potential of reverse logistics.

A host of questions, both fundamental and complex, came to the fore:

“Are drones legal in India?”

“Aren’t we operating in a ‘red-zone’?”

“Won’t we need special approvals to operate here?”

“How sustainable will this programme be without a catalytic budget?”

“How much can the drones carry?”

“Do we have drones capable of carrying much more?”

“Where else has this succeeded?”

“Why here, why now, why you?”

4IR. Vivek HP,  Special Health Secretary, Arunachal Pradesh, shares his insights at a community event hosted by the World Economic Forum and NITI Aayog.
Vivek HP, Special Health Secretary, Arunachal Pradesh, shares his insights at a community event hosted by the World Economic Forum and NITI Aayog.

The intervention in Arunachal Pradesh is a fitting example of how technology solves a healthcare problem and of an integrated approach to policy problems. In this case, different stakeholders, including the state health department, technology service providers, the federal government and local communities, came together to solve Arunachal Pradesh's healthcare challenges and advance sustainable development.

This also marked a departure from maverick demonstrations in the region, where a take-off landing sequence would be deemed sufficient for a judgement call on success. Instead, it became a sustained pilot programme that would build confidence and invoke a host of impact angles and ask: 'what is in it for the local health worker? The answer, first, the opportunity to indent medicines from sub-centres to ensure a continuous supply of on-demand medicines. Second, preventing a situation where treatment is not possible due to the lack of medicines. And, third, a reduction in patient expenses.

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How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the responsible use of technology?

What insights were we seeking from this six-month programme? Above and beyond equating traditional means of accessing the last mile to drones, an extended, community-centric pilot programme would set the stage for systematising the technology. The recent budget allocation of over $1 million to drone-based initiatives in the state indicates the success of the programme.

Technology can be a powerful tool for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 17, which aims to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. Emerging technologies can provide information and communication technology solutions that support evidence-based decision-making, ensure transparency and accountability in government operations, boost public participation and strengthen institutions at all levels.

4IR at the grassroots

To harness the potential of 4IR technologies for creating social impact, it is important to involve multiple stakeholders in the development and deployment of these technologies. Governments can provide regulatory frameworks that promote innovation and protect citizens from potential harm.

The private sector can invest in research and development of these technologies and ensure that their deployment is aligned with social and environmental goals. Civil society organizations can advocate for the inclusion of marginalised communities in the development and deployment of these technologies. Finally, communities themselves can be active participants in the development and deployment of emerging technologies, ensuring that they meet their needs and reflect their values.

Local communities have a unique perspective and experience of their own issues. They need to be supported with the necessary tools to enable them to find solutions. In this case – drones. The ideal sensitisation is a consortium-enabled pilot where they are around the technology, made part of the process. Not only does this invoke interest from youth, but it also creates a sense of ownership. Fast-forwarding to 2030, a fully ‘drone-enabled’ Arunachal with remote controllers in the hands of the local youth is the perfect end game for an initiative that began with pads, sticky notes and ideas in a room full of decision-makers.

Drones fly overhead in Arunachal Pradesh as local children look on. 4IR
Drones fly overhead in Arunachal Pradesh as local children look on.

In conclusion, India's journey towards a digital transformation has been marked by significant achievements, from the early days of TCP/IP connectivity to the current developments in IoT, AI, blockchain and drone technologies. The country's focus on building a robust digital infrastructure has enabled it to provide citizen-centric and transparent governance services, facilitate breakthroughs in various fields and respond effectively to crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

India's leadership in the G20 also highlights its commitment to inclusive growth and sustainable development, with a focus on creating equity for access to public goods. India's experience in leveraging digital technologies for inclusive development and its leadership role in the G20 provides valuable insights and lessons for other countries looking to harness the potential of 4IR technologies for social impact.

The implementation of 4IR technologies requires a collective effort from multiple stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society organizations and communities. By involving these stakeholders in the development and deployment of these technologies, we can harness their potential for creating social impact and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. As India continues its journey towards a digital transformation, it must remain focused on building an ecosystem that is inclusive, sustainable and responsive to the needs of all its citizens.

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