New Delhi: Sam Pitroda is a technocrat whose roles span heading start-ups created to profit from technologies used by the wealthy,?for?example,?a financial payment solution for mobile phones, to leading technology and knowledge-intensive government programmes. In a telephone conversation from his Chicago office, Pitroda draws from his keen sense of the history of technological progress to tell Mint how he expects India to come up with technology-driven business models for the rest of the world.
Tell us your world view of technology.
Technology, unfortunately, especially in India, has been always seen as fancy, foreign, elite, urban, expensive and, at times, intimidating. Technology, for me, is about what problems we are solving at this point in time. It’s pretty well known that 3G will be here, solar power will be cheaper, bitoech will advance more drugs...all that is a given. The key question is how is India going to turn the corner in addressing the questions of disparity and development. If we want wealth to percolate, we need to focus on tech for the masses.
Couple of the things that have attracted you—3G and photovoltaic cells—could be the answer to a lot of problems. For instance, 3G-enabled phones are going to be the first “computer” interface for a large section of India’s population.
Sure, but the missing link is applications. The world today just does not have applications. What do you do with it, besides watching TV? Desktop applications are primarily used today for word processing and email, which are already on the phone. What we’re doing is taking a technology of the past and using it to solve our current-day problems. Classical example: We’re computerizing age-old processes of the British Raj and calling it e-governance.
In every aspect of technology, this is the biggest problem, because there is no massive change of thinking.
Any examples you can talk about?
When you think of education today, it is always a blackboard, chalk, classroom, teacher, textbook, exam and all that. All of us are in that paradigm. But, the key really is to change that paradigm completely and say that you don’t need classrooms. And, you need to focus on the fact that teachers today spend 90% of their time in preparing and delivering content.
So, take the teacher out of preparing and delivering content. Content can be delivered on cellphones, kiosks and other modes anytime, anywhere and in any form. Then you create a whole new concept of learning that kids network themselves in groups; they don’t go to classes, but follow a schedule. The teacher then becomes a mentor and not just delivering content.
If you begin to think in terms of this paradigm, your cost structure dramatically changes.
More than one-third of our population lives in urban areas. Do you see a set of technologies emerging to meet the needs of the urban poor?
Until now, design has been only for the rich; the best brains are solving problems of the rich. I work with the Institute of Design (at the Illinois Institute of Technology) and I asked the director (Patrick Whitney) why don’t you go and design better slums?
He decided to visit Dharavi and was completely shocked at the opportunity for design. He put together a team of about 10 students and one simple design idea that came out was to help poor people who don’t have space to store water. Since they don’t have tap water, they have all kinds of drums, ‘dabbas’, cans and other things to store water. So, they (Whitney’s team members) said how about if we design an inexpensive plastic bag that can be used to store water and hung from the wall. You can save all the floor space that people can use to sleep, cook and all that.