Indian Cities

Navigating the Consequences of India’s Tech Renaissance

By: Aseem Chandra, Vice President of Adobe Experience Manager and Adobe Target for Adobe’s Digital Marketing business

With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit late last year to Silicon Valley, the first Indian head of state to visit California in three decades, talk is still swirling about his efforts to cultivate India’s digital economy. With its population of 1.25 billion people, India is the world’s second most populous country after China, but without China’s government restrictions. The country is largely seen as the world’s next frontier for technology growth, solving not only India’s domestic problems but offering solutions with global relevance.

But, what some may not realize is that the business and economic reforms Modi is dedicated to nurturing are decades in the making. As a teenager growing up in India during the 1970s, I would have been hard-pressed to predict the flourishing innovation ecosystem present in India today. Back then, abject poverty and destitution were rampant, resources were scarce and the middle class was nearly non-existent. Our parents pushed us to pursue engineering or medicine —insisting these were the only professions that would lead toward a better life. This desire to survive, achieve and accomplish led many of us, myself included, to pursue higher education, and ultimately careers, in the West.

From my distant vantage point, I watched India institute sweeping economic liberalization measures in the early 1990s in an attempt to grow the economy through more open-market reforms. The government privatized many state-owned businesses, deregulated industries, and reduced restrictions on foreign trade. Considered widely successful, these calculated reforms were instrumental in creating more service-based jobs, increasing foreign investment, encouraging entrepreneurial ventures and changing the priorities and attitudes of Indian citizens toward money and spending. It was in the midst of these early economic changes that India became one of the world’s largest providers of information technology outsourcing, gaining a newfound credibility in the technology world.

Today, arising from the country’s initial technology boom, India’s middle class is said to be somewhere between 50 and 250 million according to varying reports. While it’s far from perfect and there are differing benchmarks to determine middle class status, you can’t argue that life over the past few decades has improved for many. There’s a growing group of citizens benefiting from more education, higher incomes and increased upward mobility than in generations past. And spending among this group has shifted beyond the basics or necessities to spending on aspirational lifestyle items in an economy now exploding with consumer goods and luxury brands.

While India’s societal bias toward traditional educational structures has not diminished, it has been embracing a “STEM to STEM” transition where Art and Design are now considered just as critical to innovation and progress as Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) have always been. Today’s college graduates have more varied ambitions than my peers and I did, with many aspiring to be artists, musicians, writers, or start their own businesses; all risks that past generations were not afforded before. Yet in today’s India, these are viable possibilities for a rising middle class whose primary objective is not to merely survive and feed one’s family, but who can explore new opportunities, expand one’s mind and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.

By 2020, India will be the youngest country in the world with a median age of 29 and the path toward progress for this overwhelmingly young nation has dramatically shifted. With a younger, more educated and empowered population, a natural optimism has arisen and given way to an entrepreneurial fever and technology startup boom that kicked off in the early 2000s. With parental attitudes changing as well, often it was family members who helped provide the early investment money for many of these fledgling companies. Coupled with government-led incentives to foster an entrepreneur-friendly business climate, the startup culture thrived toward the latter half of the decade and gave way to players such as Snapdeal, Flipkart and InMobi.

Throughout a recent business trip to India, I was inundated by billboards for mobile apps, talk of startups launching, and new companies focused on solving familiar problems like shopping online securely, streamlining the travel booking process and connecting and communicating with friends and family. Innovation in India is alive and well. In spite of the country’s restricted resources, many new entrants are creating technology solutions to the community’s biggest problems, and mobile is at the heart of it all.

Mobile Matters
While India ranks third globally in terms of internet users, mobile subscriber penetration is expected to surge to 100 percent of the population by 2020 partially due to the increased affordability of smartphones such as Google’s Android One. M-commerce in the country is also projected to reach $14 billion in 2017, up 133 percent from 2013.

India historically had not been in a position to develop a widespread and affordable desktop-centric computing infrastructure, unlike the U.S. and U.K. for example. In the developed world, businesses depended on the desktop, making our shift to tablet and mobile computing, most notably for the enterprise, still a work in progress. In contrast, once India’s economic climate was ripe for more technological advances and more were able to afford personal technology, the country immediately leapfrogged to a mobile-centric computing ecosystem. India’s mobile network has quickly empowered the masses with inexpensive access to technology wherever they are. Unsurprisingly, Indian businesses are also increasingly focused on the mobile world.

Earlier this year, Myntra, a fashion retailer, shuttered its website and mobile commerce site in favor of a mobile app-only approach. The company defended these moves, citing almost all of its online traffic and nearly three-fourths of its sales as coming from smartphones. Myntra’s parent company, Flipkart, India’s leading ecommerce marketplace, also adopted an app-only approach naming similar reasons and Ola, an Uber competitor, has since followed the retailers’ lead. Central to all of their strategies is creating a seamless user experience optimized for smaller screens and offering app-only incentives and deals to entice users to download.

Tech innovators can similarly find success in other developing markets by focusing on providing simple, mobile-centric solutions to address basic pain points. For example, offering access to personal banking, health services or even education, all which were previously unavailable to low income (by global standards) consumers who are now widely equipped with mobile devices.

Localizing Innovation
Sometimes innovation can successfully capitalize on a local custom. In the U.S., a missed call most often signifies a missed opportunity to connect, but in India, missed calls are counter intuitively used as a way to communicate with friends and family. Based on the historically high telecom and SMS charges, Indian citizens have long been accustomed to dialing and hanging up before incurring airtime and used different scenarios such as the number of rings to contextualize the missed call.

Despite the country’s rapidly declining telecom rates today, the custom remains prevalent and sparked the idea for ZipDial. The company was launched in 2010 by a Californian living in India who was fascinated by the missed call culture. Brand advertisers can use unique phone numbers assigned by ZipDial in their ad campaigns, which consumers can call and hang up quickly before being charged airtime. The missed call fulfills a specific call to action such as a request for a special offer or coupons, entry into a contest or a request for information, allowing users to complete typical online actions without the need to incur data charges.

An idea originally designed to solve for the prohibitive cost of data and unreliable Internet connectivity in developing nations morphed into a brilliant mobile marketing platform that even the likes of Twitter could not overlook. The company acquired ZipDial earlier this year and plans to leverage the platform to deliver its content in an affordable and accessible way to mobile consumers around the world.

Growing up (Too?) Fast
It would be naive to not recognize that India’s rapid economic growth and innovation brings with it numerous challenges, many of which the U.S. has also experienced throughout its history.

For example, environmental implications loom large as Indian buyers use their growing discretionary income to consume more. As Indians have become increasingly able to purchase their own cars, air pollution has risen to record levels, further compromising India’s already stressed transportation infrastructure. Recent trials have sought to restrict the number of cars on the road at any given time, and while early results of reduced pollution have been minimal, the increased awareness among everyday citizens is a big step in the right direction. These ongoing environmental challenges will also open up new opportunities for Indian innovators to leverage technology to solve some of the very problems it helped create, which can also be applied across the developing world.

In school programs and the workforce, males greatly outnumber female engineers and entrepreneurs, resulting in a dearth of female mentors and role models for India’s future generations. While this is also still an ongoing challenge in the U.S., India can model some of the efforts underway here to expose girls at younger ages to STEM education, through building-centric toys such as GoldieBlox and science-based extra-curriculars, and to create more formal mentorship programs in the math and science fields.

The bottom line is that the U.S. actually has a lot more in common with India than first meets the eye. The double-edged sword of progress and innovation has served to improve the quality of life for each country’s citizens, while also bringing previously unanticipated challenges to the forefront. Rather than assume that we have it all figured out, we should observe as India continues its efforts to educate, empower and inspire its citizens while growing its economy and fostering a culture of innovation. While still in its early days of development, but with unimaginable potential, India has the power to inspire the rest of the world. Now it’s about bringing it from fad to future. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

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