The abundance algorithm: Technology is re-wiring economic prospects for all

According to the World Bank, achieving universal broadband access by 2030 could add $2 trillion to the GDP of developing countries.
According to the World Bank, achieving universal broadband access by 2030 could add $2 trillion to the GDP of developing countries.

Summary

  • Plenty for all sounded like a utopian dream till new digital tools emerged to reveal their wonders. Free and fair abundance by design now seems possible, thanks to open-source technologies.

Stephen Covey propounded the abundance mindset, the basic proposition of which is that the world has more than enough resources to satisfy one’s needs. Today’s average person enjoys daily luxuries that the royalty of yore could not imagine: instant communication, broadcast TV, global travel and antibiotics.

Abundance has long been part of the human discourse. Think of the Garden of Eden, Field of Reeds in Egyptian afterlife, or Sukhavati, the Land of Bliss in Buddhism. An ideal world has been a common theme in many ancient cultures. More recently, Adam Smith and David Hume discussed economic abundance through division of labour and free trade. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler explored technology-enabled abundance in Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.

Does that mean we have no scarcity anymore? In truth, abundance and scarcity coexist, and economic paradoxes support this. One notable example is Adam Smith’s ‘diamond-water paradox’ or the ‘paradox of value.’ It highlights the oddness of high value placed on diamonds that have little practical use and the relatively low value placed on water, which is essential for life. The scarcity of diamonds drives up their perceived value, while the abundance of water explains its lower price.

So, can utopian abundance extend further? Can we have universal access to essential goods and services, especially in developing countries? How do we genuinely create abundance for all?

BCG studies state that a 10% increase in digital payments adoption could add $1.5 trillion to global GDP by 2025. Reducing the gender gap in the workforce could add upwards of $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025, says McKinsey. According to the World Bank, achieving universal broadband access by 2030 could add $2 trillion to the GDP of developing countries. The list goes on.

So, abundance for all is an excellent old-fashioned selfish idea with monetary benefits. But how to execute it? One prerequisite is scale. Change needs to happen at scale and fast. No room for incremental gains.

As per the Bank for International Settlements, India achieved 80% financial inclusion in 7 years; it would have taken 47 years by traditional means. India’s tele-density went from 37% to 93% in 8 years, thanks to eKYC, while the cost of data plummeted to 0.17 cents per gigabyte. We now have a track record and have become an exponent of the digital public infrastructure (DPI) movement.

What about other emerging markets? Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), a not-for-profit founded in 2018, helps governments conceive, develop and implement ID systems. It has covered over 100 million individuals in 17 countries. Its cost of running a pilot? Zero. Ushahidi, another open-source platform, has empowered 25 million plus users to gather, analyse, respond and act swiftly on data. 50-in-5 is another campaign to help at least 50 countries design, implement and scale at least one DPI component in a safe, inclusive and interoperable manner by the end of 2028. It hopes to radically shorten implementation journeys by sharing learnings, best practices and built-for-purpose open technologies that can reduce costs and maximize the impact for all; 13 countries, including Bangladesh, Norway, Senegal and Sri Lanka, are already on board.

Back to India. Commercial inclusion is as important as financial inclusion for true abundance to become a reality. We remain a country of fragmented micro-economies with high transaction costs. Only 5-6% of about 100 million MSMEs sell their wares on digital platforms. Ride-hailing serves account for less than 6 million of 100 million-plus daily public trips. Despite modern technology, 87% of retail is still unorganized and digital inclusion is just 7% of the market. This is so for most of the world.

Of late, centralized platforms and online marketplaces have taken us away from the promise of equal-opportunity commerce. Timothy May, in his Crypto Anarchist Manifesto (which may have inspired Bitcoin), talks about total freedom to trade as essential to breaking away from centralized control.

So, how do we decentralize e-commerce? Open operating models, perhaps? Data suggests that more inclusive business models aimed at low-income populations could generate $1.3 trillion in market opportunities by 2030.

The Beckn Protocol (championed by Nandan Nilekani, Pramod Varma and Sujith Nair) could answer these woes. It is a set of open specifications that lets buyers and sellers conduct transactions without intermediaries. The results are Beckn powers the Open Network for Digital Commerce, which processes 200,000 orders per day within a year of launch, and Namma Yatri in Bengaluru (125,000 daily trips), with numerous other implementations in progress. Internationally, governments in Brazil (Belem), Gambia (OGa) and cities like Amsterdam, Zurich and Paris (interoperable urban mobility) are leveraging Beckn.

Free and fair abundance by design now seems possible, thanks to the D3 of open-source tech (decentralized, democratic networks and DPI) and thinking at scale.

As Harry Bosch says, “Everybody counts, or nobody counts."

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