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Opinion | What tech has to do with inclusion

Technology has emerged as the most potent tool for creating social inclusion across the world

The problem of social exclusion is as old as humanity. At different times in history, and in different parts of the world, disadvantaged and excluded groups have always existed, and social reformers have always worked tirelessly for their inclusion. However, the awareness about social exclusion and the desire to create a more equitable world has never been as universal or as strong as it is now. Several organizations and individuals are at work to bring fringe groups into the mainstream.

While the term “digital divide" has been coined to show how the lack of access to digital technologies is a new form of social exclusion, it is both interesting and ironical that technology itself has emerged as the most potent tool for creating social inclusion.

Social exclusion is a complex problem and needs to be addressed at multiple levels. Pure market mechanisms have rarely been able to address problems where the incentive structures for addressing them cannot be easily aligned. Having said that, initiatives that are driven by a pure philanthropic motive or governmental support are neither efficient nor sustainable. Therefore, what is needed is a pragmatic combination of policy, public-private partnerships with part profit motive, ownership of a certain category of goods and services by the government in the form of public goods and platforms, and visionary philanthropists powered by technology.

Getting all these pieces right simultaneously has never been easy. However, there is unprecedented optimism today in society’s ability to address social exclusion for two reasons:

a) developments in digital technologies allow a solution to the problem even if all the other enablers of a solution identified earlier (policy, partnerships, etc.) do not necessarily come together; and b) some of the best brains in the world and some of the most committed and wealthy philanthropists are rallying round this problem and creating powerful coalitions and pressure groups.

One example of how technology has been deployed for social inclusion is in the government public distribution system. For more than 65 years, the public distribution system designed to provide basic necessities to low-income groups at highly subsidized prices did not deliver because of massive leakages and misappropriation. This was one of those wicked problems that seemed insurmountable. But technology in the form of Aadhaar enabled accurate identification of genuine beneficiaries and directly transferring the subsidies into their bank accounts. Suddenly a complex problem had a solution because technology brought in the capability to cut through everything else.

Similarly, marketplaces powered by technology for a variety of products and services, where the providers of products and services are micro-entrepreneurs and farmers, are taking shape. Some of them have teething issues but are progressing in the right direction in terms of providing relatively easy market access to those who had struggled with the same in the past.

Another example is of Pune-based organization, Samagra, which is working with municipalities in cities and using Internet of Things and artificial intelligence/machine learning to improve the quality of urban sanitation systems. Millions of public toilets have been built under the Clean India Mission, but in the absence of governance, accountability and monitoring, these have fallen into disrepair. The result: Millions of women and girls struggle as they did before. It is not that municipalities or government bodies are inefficient or lack commitment. The problem is simply too complex at scale. Lack of data and decision-making tools result in a feeling of helplessness that eventually reflects as apathy. Enabled by the right technologies, as in the case of Samagra’s smart sanitation operating system called SmartLoo, seemingly unsolvable problems suddenly come into the realm of “eminently solvable".

The urge to create social inclusion has occupied the minds of people in every generation. Liberal leaders and social reformers have always worked for it. The 21st century, however, has given us hope that we can expect to see a big leap in our own lifetime.

When technologists and tech entrepreneurs partner with progressive governments and non-profits, we can expect technology to be leveraged in the right ways to solve complex social problems.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. This column is part of Mint Visionaries: Conversations on new India.

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