Expert Talk: How Tech-for-Good is Transforming India’s Business Landscapes

In a rapidly evolving landscape, India finds itself at the crossroads of technological transformation and sustainable development. With NASSCOM’s recent call to action, the spotlight shines on India’s journey towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through innovative tech solutions. From combating corruption with blockchain to revolutionizing business operations, India’s tech narrative is one of both promise and urgency. So this week we have Tech-for-Good Expert Saurabh Nanda in an exclusive conversation conversation with our Editor-in-Chief Mahima Sharma to discuss the  “The Future of Tech4Good: Challenges, Opportunities, and Responsibility.” Saurabh Nanda is International Tech4good Mentor, Founder and Chief Mentor, Open Source Mentorship. 

Accelerating India’s SDG goals demands tech intervention: What’s your take on this recent statement from NASSCOM. And what kind of steps or Policy changes are required in India towards the same?

I am glad NASSCOM has made this statement, albeit I would have wanted it to be made some 5 years ago. I count myself as a fairly well read and aware person but it was not until 2019 in a lecture by a FAO director in Japan, that I stumbled upon the SDGs. While the advance economies were already implementing SDGs in their policies and everyday lives and also leading the way in “SDG washing”, we in India had hardly heard about them, even after 4 years of their announcement in 2015. 

I have always maintained that achieving the SDGs in a data collection exercise based on the on ground achievements. Unfortunately, India has never been known for excellent data collection or dissemination barring a few organisations. The Government of India struggled with this during the ambitious “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” as well. They had to come out with an ingenious plan of ‘geo-tagging’ toilets being constructed so corruption could be reduced and funds were channelised properly. So India had to use its most advanced technology – the satellites to make sure toilets were being constructed appropriately.

The only way we can make sure that a giant like India is able to achieve a lot of its goals under the SDG framework is through transparency, data integrity and feedback systems to improve policy implementation. 

There are multiple policy changes needed but the ones I am going to answer here relate to are proper technology based data sharing systems. Talking to development sector leaders like Manu Oberoi and Ramesh Balasundaram who both work with different state governments in improving our Public Education ecosystems, they both cite sharing knowledge, real time data as the biggest challenges they face. One of the most suited technologies for this is Blockchain which secures data shared by not allowing any kind of tampering with it. A few Police Departments in a couple of districts in Uttar Pradesh are trying out blockchain to secure FIRs to ensure the credibility of the Justice system.

The governments around the world are already pushing education and up-skilling to their populations. All centrally funded technical universities in India like IITs, NITs now have AI programs and specialisations available, AI and coding has been introduced in school curriculum, Singaporean Government recently subsidised AI education for its citizens. But the challenge is not the curriculum but good, experienced trainers and practitioners who can facilitate learning.

For a basic reader’s understanding, can you explain how tech-for-good positively affects these two – our lives and every kind of business operation? 

Recently, I heard an interview of a big corporate leader who also advises the government on matters related to Aadhar and UPI. He remembered how in one centre in Bihar, the official who is supposed to register people on the UIDAI system was asking for Rs 2000 for the registration. Like in most under-served districts in India, citizens have been forced to normalise these corrupt practices as part of doing business. The official was obviously suspended after being found out. So the world’s biggest citizen repository system still suffers from ‘human intervention’. One of the reasons that this was caught was because of the underlying policy framework around UIDAI which allows transparency and prevents corrupt practices. Implementing technology allows for better, more transparent policy frameworks which improve things overall by making them accessible and affordable. Hence, the giant push for digitisation in all state functionaries. 

The UIDAI system has reduced KYC which used to take days and weeks to a matter of a few hours which has made the business and financial services easier to access. This in turn has allowed Indians like myself to take clients from all over the country even though I am living in a small town. The fast transactions not only increase revenue but have also reduced the losses that used to happen due to inability to open a bank account.

Having said this, much more needs to be done to ensure transparency and ease of doing business. We have reached a place in India’s journey where we have the infrastructure, the policy precedents and the technology to bring about sea change in our lives. The only challenge is how much political will is behind it. We can learn from states in Southern India and UTs like Delhi and Chandigarh which are doing much better in everything from business to welfare. Just imagine if your life becomes less polluted, safer, healthier, more productive, more creative – all this is possible when we use technology for creating social good and not just filling the deep pockets of big tech giants of the world.

How can Tech for Good initiatives in India leverage local knowledge, resources, and partnerships to maximize their impact and sustainability?

It has been an established fact that countries which are more democratic and decentralised do much better in terms of human development indices. People like Amit Shukla have been trying to bring more power to panchayats through technology for the same reasons. There have been startup platforms where people could register themselves as electoral candidates – some 70 lakh people wanted to be candidates in 2019 General Election through these apps – now the Election Commission has a platform like that. So when the citizen-consumers demand something, the systems shape around those ideas.

Today Indians can get their unique local products such as arts, crafts, handicrafts and even agricultural produce geo-tagged and branded for their authenticity. This gives them better returns for their traditional and cultural heritage related work. By creating easier fin-tech platforms for micro-loans which are secured with blockchain and their KYC (Know  Your Customer) is empowered by the UPI system, it’s easier to sell products. Already many apps which eliminate the middle-men to sell agricultural produce exist. In high income regions of the country, demand for organic produce is being met by citizens coming together using technology and financing whole farms. 

Unfortunately, these examples have yet to be implemented on scale which requires many bureaucratic hurdles to be eased out before tech4good social entrepreneurs can reach out to their audiences, educate them and provide the platforms which can improve their access to the markets beyond the local area.

Local innovations have always been more effective in solving sustainability challenges. In 2019, when I was in Japan, we created a beta version of a platform which could enable conversations between grass-root level innovators from across the world to connect with each other and solve problems. A farmer in Bolivia could connect with another in Haryana. With the current AI models, the language barriers can easily be overcome and innovation could be decentralised globally.

Given the diverse cultural and linguistic landscape of India, do you think can Tech for Good solutions be tailored to effectively address regional disparities and cater to the unique needs of different states and communities across the country? Please share this with examples the way you shared for medical fields.

Yes and absolutely. There are multiple AI startups in India working on bringing our hundreds of vernacular languages and dialects onto the internet and ease out the real-time translations. The real growth potential for commerce and content industries is also to leverage the vernacular and diverse landscape of India. Once these companies figure it out for their own unique problems that they are trying to solve, then those technologies will be used to bring in better education, more customised learning, better welfare, more democratic ways of interacting with authorities to people.

But here’s the thing, such startups receive funding because they have a rapid growth-oriented business model. However, social entrepreneurs do not need to wait for funding for their tech4good solutions because the Impact Investments have crossed the 3 trillion dollar mark globally and now funds are available relatively easily as compared to before. We don’t have to wait for a YouTube to rise before we understand that sharing information can be transformational. 

Technology can be used in whichever way one deems fit – commerce, education, propaganda or crime. The SDGs are not just the government’s responsibilities. Every citizen needs to contribute and now they can by using technology. Most Enactus chapters in universities are now focussing on tech-enabled projects. Project Pravaah from Enactus SSCBS in Delhi University made a low cost air purifier costing just Rs 4000, thereby democratising access to better air for lower income households which could not afford other air purifiers. However, still a huge population can not afford air purifiers. This example is not to undercut in any way the systemic pollution that we need to work on but an idea of how our youth can try to solve immediate challenges at a small scale.

The financial literacy principles combined with animated video technology is being used in underserved districts of Madhya Pradesh to educate tribal women and trangender populations. This creativity was not possible earlier at a much cheaper cost.

We have the talent, the creativity and the access to technology today which can change the landscape. If we do not make use of this today, then when will we?

Looking ahead to the future, what are the key trends and developments that you foresee shaping the landscape of Tech for Good in India, and how can stakeholders anticipate and adapt to these changes to maximize their positive impact on society?

I see more penetration of technology in our lives but less education around the usage of technology. Unless we make our citizens aware of how to use these tools productively, there would be lesser innovations around Tech4Good. So it is our collective responsibility at schools, universities, media organisations, civic society organisations and citizen collectives to run campaigns around this. These initiatives can not be run centrally. Unfortunately, our government has tried with many schemes such as Atal Innovation Mission to encourage innovations among our youth but the implementation at the school level is lacklustre to say the least. So more technically qualified lab managers are needed so schools can actually empower students. Startups like Kruu from Chennai are doing a much better job at encouraging ‘tinkering’ and undertaking projects by students. Career Mentors like myself are able to help our clients do some amazingly creative and innovative projects outside their schools. But to say that this impacts the rest of the country is false. It will take a few years of concentrated effort to encourage our youth to engage in tech4good.

The recent trends around disappearing employment at tech companies like TCS and Infosys should now wake up mass production universities, students and parents to actually focus on more innovation than clerical skills. Even students in our top institutes like IITs and NITs take up AI and Data Science to get a good job and not really become innovators.

The other major trend I see is the race for control over technology. With many economists already predicting decreased global free trade and protectionist policies due to the actions of authoritarian countries like China and Russia, there is a race to secure technologies for defence and economic purposes.

Emerging countries like India have to race against China but also be careful of their own authoritarian tendencies by controlling flow of data and limiting freedom of expression. Media collectives which are being formed right before the general elections to counter fake news, AI generated propaganda and hate speech are the perfect examples of solving these challenges of technology by using technology.

Considering the pervasive influence of multinational tech corporations, how can Tech for Good initiatives in India maintain their independence and autonomy, and avoid being co-opted or dominated by corporate interests?

It’s not easy to do this in the current environment for sure. 40 cents on every dollar raised by tech startups goes back to Amazon, Meta, Google and sometimes Microsoft. Open AI, considered to be the harbinger of new innovation, has Microsoft as the main investor. Microsoft is already pushing its AI services to enterprise level users of its Azure business suites. 

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing because in order to bring down costs of these new technologies and push for rapid development of the technologies, you need the Big Tech companies to step in as they have the resources to do this better than anyone else. The problem starts when the vested interests of the stakeholders in these Mega corporations decide the direction where these innovations would be used. We have reached a stage in our modern civilization where giant corporations, be it technology, media, pharma, oil, military contractors, financial industry or very soon space technologies, are determining where the world is headed. 

The only way this can be managed is through very clear priorities set by governments the world over. The EU’s steps towards data privacy, right to repair are the torchbearers here. India’s use of data for public welfare and wealth distribution is another good example but these are also fragile frameworks prone to manipulation by big corporations. 

But technology is human ingenuity and humans can solve the competition with Big Tech as well. Blockchain technology is a big example here which disrupted the modern monetary frameworks. So if we keep innovating, we will be able to make sure tech4good innovations thrive independently. From an economic perspective, there have to be more ‘no strings attached’ grants to fund such research and deployment of tech4good innovations.

With the increasing militarization of technology and the potential for autonomous weapons systems, how can Tech for Good initiatives advocate for responsible innovation and prevent the weaponization of technology in conflicts and warfare?

Wars are essentially politically driven phenomena and nothing more. They do not make sense economically, they destroy precious human life and infrastructure all because one side wants to show the other that they are better. This political incentive has to be changed. Europe realised this and led to the formation of the EU which has led to greater peace and prosperity for the entire region. Brexit has left England in a much more exposed and worse off position during the global recession happening currently. Similarly, we have pockets of regional and economic cooperation all across the world, for example – Scandinavian/Nordic countries, ASEAN countries, Japan-SKorea-Taiwan, Australia-New Zealand, India-Nepal-Bhutan among others. 

Global citizenship is the answer. Shared responsibility is the foundational philosophy. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the motto. Technology is already helping foster stronger relations and exchanges in fields of education, sustainability, innovation and much more. Tech4Good solutions can help reduce identity politics while celebrating diversity.

Culture Connector is a great example of this. It’s an app developed by Richard Farkas in Helsinki which tells you which country’s culture your personality is closest to. It’s a tool used for corporate training, to help break ice and find shared interests.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, developers, and innovators looking to create Tech for Good solutions in India, based on your own experiences and insights?

You need to invest in 3 simultaneous things:

  1. Learn technological trends so you have a basic idea of what’s happening and what’s possible. 
  2. Develop problem solving skills which can include design thinking, systems thinking, human centric design among other things. Enhance your creative thinking skills which might have been stifled due to your education or work.
  3. Look around and you find a problem that makes you angry. You’re angry because its a major problem but no one seems to be bothered about it. It could be potholes in the road or corruption or discrimination or politics. 

You can read books, watch videos, take courses or enrol in college. When you start doing this, you automatically stumble upon change makers and opportunities to solve the society’s problems. The only question that would remain then is are you ready to take the plunge?

About Saurabh Nanda

Saurabh Nanda, Founder of SN Mentoring, leads a career guidance organization focusing on personalized services. He pioneered career decision-making models, copyrighted frameworks, and AI chatbots for career and mental health. Since 2012, he’s impacted 20,000+ individuals globally, mentoring for sustainability and tech4good projects. Engaged with Atal Innovation Mission, Huawei CSR, and more, he’s recognized for cyberbullying awareness with the Jagran Josh Education Award. Saurabh aims to prepare India for career guidance by 2030, contributing through media, podcasts, and TEDx talks, showcasing his commitment to education, mentorship, and societal well-being

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