Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | How to realize value from digital markets in 2019

A balanced vision for digital markets must reflect the centrality of incentivizing innovation

Digitalization has rapidly altered the contours of the Indian economy, especially in terms of improved consumer access to goods and services. Tens of millions of new participants have been added to digital markets through the expansion of telecom and internet services in 2018. In the midst of this feverish activity, confusion persists over what constitutes a definitive and durable vision for a digital India—exemplified by debates on why Indian companies struggle to generate value within domestic digital markets.

China has about 15 times as many unicorns—billion-dollar startups—as India does, despite the fact that the Chinese economy is 2.5 times that of India’s in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) adjusted to purchasing power parity. Such asymmetry of outcomes reflects in global comparisons too. India has some of the lowest average revenues per user in telecom markets despite some of the highest data consumption volumes in the world, and a tiny subscription market for digital products such as audiovisual services, which is dwarfed by small countries such as Singapore.

Value creation tends to involve innovation in the production of goods and services that people are willing to pay for. Naturally, intellectual property must lie at the heart of this process, finely balanced alongside consumer access. However, a form of “digital socialism" seems to have manifested itself in India’s digital economy discourse as a panacea for the lack of value. This school of thought seems to emphasize a large role for state intervention in redistributing the value created in digital markets, which largely resides in data.

The desire for state intervention is most visible in regulatory consultations on areas such as data protection and licensing of online applications, parts of which focus on treating all data as a public good. Ongoing discussions lack nuance in differentiating between the implications of unrestricted access to government data and private data. China is naturally a source of inspiration for those who evangelise the benefits of state-intervention to actualise what is essentially an over-broad interpretation of the notion of “open data".

Admittedly, China’s micromanaged market growth has been nothing short of astonishing. The country accounted for just under 4% of world GDP in 1991 and now accounts for 15%. Mandating data-sharing is not dissimilar to mandated joint ventures in China’s industrial ecosystem. However, both dilute incentives to innovation and lower chances of safeguarding privately held intellectual property. It is important to recall that China appropriated space in the global economy from emerging markets such as India. Conversely, countries with a strong culture for innovation and monetization of intellectual property such as the US have held on to their share. The US has consistently accounted for around 25% of global GDP despite China’s swift rise over the last three decades.

It is likely that if India lowers its focus on incentivizing and safeguarding innovation in favour of creating an unqualified and unfettered open data ecosystem, China will be its biggest beneficiary.

Chinese firms are already dominating India’s digital markets, from devices to online applications. And the modus operandi of China’s digital giants strongly resembles that of its manufacturing giants. China’s industry majors are offloading their excess capacity in India and focusing on extracting incremental value. For instance, Chinese smartphone brands account for a two-third market share in India—and seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of India’s aspirational consumption. Similarly, the imposition of digital socialism will not deter China’s cash-rich online giants from extracting value from India’s digital markets— consonant with its expansionist Belt and Road Initiative.

The fact is that Chinese businesses will willingly acquiesce in over-regulation in return for a captive market. They have had more than a practice run at embracing the notion of state-controlled digital economy. So, how should India prevent Chinese colonisation of its digital markets, and build focus on creating competitive IP-based digital ecosystem that delivers both access and value?

Value creation will require a fresh policy mindset in 2019. A point of departure could be to better understand how countries such as the US have retained their economic strength in times of global flux. Part of the answer lies in the correlation between trade and intellectual property (IP). The US accounts for around one-third share of global IP exports—far outpacing China, which does not even figure in the top ten IP exporters despite frenetic patenting activity. While China has understood the need for more IP, its markets remain state-controlled.

Nevertheless, it is axiomatic that innovation-centricity impacts the realization of economic value. In 2018, researchers found that while less than 10% of US manufacturing firms made IP filings, those that did accounted for 90% of its total merchandise exports. The nexus between innovation and competitiveness is universal. A balanced vision for domestic digital markets must therefore reflect the centrality of incentivizing and protecting innovation. And to be clear, this will require active state support in the entire spectrum of innovation, from engendering a culture of research to stronger enforcement of IP.

Vivan Sharan is a technology policy expert and partner at Koan Advisory Group, New Delhi.