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Photo: ANI
Photo: ANI

Opinion | The Great Decentralization that coronavirus has heralded

We have already had intimations of this phenomenon in the migration of workers back to villages

Technology experts and administrators have always known that decentralized systems, while sometimes more unwieldy and expensive to manage, are far more resilient and resistant to disasters and disruptions. Redundancy is an inbuilt feature in these systems—cloud operations, for example, are always distributed across multiple locations, rather than being centered in one.

As the covid pandemic rages on, flattening and disrupting entire industries and societies in its wake, companies and countries are scrambling to figure out a way forward. Not only is it about recovering quickly from the onslaught, there is a great deal of thinking on how and what kind of organizational and operational design can make them more resilient. In this context, organizations will need to borrow a leaf out of the IT playbook, and make themselves more decentralized.

We have already seen the beginning of this phenomenon in several ways. Perhaps the most tragic and in-our-face example is the Great Migration. In scenes reminiscent of the 1947 Partition, millions of people, generally poor day-labourers, are walking Indian highways to get home. Our big cities had attracted them from far-flung villages with the economic opportunities they offered. This was the Big Centralization, as millions of people left their villages and congregated in a few large cities. Covid has reversed the equation, and many of those trudging home are swearing never to come back. What this means for industry is profound. They will have to spread themselves out, or decentralize, so as to get the labour and talent needed for their operations. They might have to go to the people, as the people might not come to them.

Change the collar’s colour to white, and you see the same phenomenon playing out. Work has got decentralized. Work from home and anywhere has suddenly become the corporate response to this disruption, one that millions of employees, primarily in knowledge companies like technology and services, have embraced. Our great centralized offices are barren. What is interesting is that large and small firms (Google, Twitter, TCS, Udemy) have declared that they will continue a large element of work from home even after the current lockdowns are lifted. They have discovered hitherto unknown advantages of this—cost reduction, a productivity spike, and talent diversification. The interview question, “Will you be willing to relocate to where we are?" suddenly looks passé`.

The same is true of how the gig economy, which is nothing but decentralized work taken to a logical extreme, has come to save the day under our Great Lockdown. This is not necessarily true in India, where haphazard regulations and controls did not allow it to happen. But globally, it was food-delivery and e-commerce companies that kept cities and homes running while every mall, restaurant and departmental store was closed in fear of contamination. Amazon, for example, added 100,000 employees in the US, and has declared it will add 50,000 in India now. The decentralized gig economy of e-commerce, food-tech and freelance work survived the disruption far better than the centralized “old economy".

In the Indian context, the same could be said of retail, and how kirana or mom-and-pop grocery stores came to the rescue. Armed with basic but functional technology like WhatsApp-ordering and UPI payments, they played saviours, even as big malls and e-commerce ground to a halt. This super-decentralized retail model has become the cynosure of all eyes, and is attracting massive investment, as companies look upon technology to enhance their decentralized infrastructure. The Facebook-Jio deal is a case in point.

This Great Decentralization that covid has wrought will extend itself to other sectors too. I can see how decentralized models can help disparate and distraught sectors like hospitality, restaurants, events, education, healthcare and even manufacturing. I will detail these one by one in my next few dispatches of Tech Whispers in Mint.

Taking a philosophical view, this was a long time coming. In many ways, the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns have taken us back to the way human beings lived and worked earlier: spread out, peer-to-peer, local (and vocal). If successful, the model could generate more employment, make our cities more livable, and clean up the air. It is ironic that it took a pandemic to make us realize this, but that is how it has always happened in history, and how it will now happen again.

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and co-founder of Unqbe

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