July 2016

Using technology to speed up community development

Technology, wisely selected, applied and accepted by the local culture, ensures improved economic and social infrastructure, says Ganesh Neelam, Head, Innovations, at Tata Trusts

For any successful economy, technology becomes a catalyst for social change. The role of technology in community development is to give power and a voice to people within the larger ecosystem. It enables citizens to create a better future for themselves.

Though the widespread use of technology has transformed almost every part of our lives, there are still huge gaps to be filled. For instance, the state of digital literacy among women is dismal. Of India's 350 million Internet users, only 10 million are women. Moreover, 100 million of the total users live in rural areas. However, digital literacy programmes show promise towards overcoming these hurdles.

Simple solutions, such as providing information to the community through Internet-enabled devices, highlight the role technology plays in accelerating development. Replicating these ideas with due involvement of community members will multiply the reach. This, coupled with developmental interventions, also improves the quality of their life. Therefore, it is imperative that philanthropic organizations, government and civic bodies embed technology as a critical intervention into their developmental programmes.

Since Internet penetration is directly proportional to increasing economic growth, it has the potential to improve our economic standing within the world economy. Disruptive innovation technologies play a critical role in addressing the challenges faced by communities in areas such as education and healthcare. It is important to develop technological innovations that are suitable to solve problems faced by the community. Seeking regular feedback from them helps develop real disruptive technologies, which can be ultimately scaled up with maximum adoption.

In education, for instance, creating pathways to incorporate technology into educational practices is highly critical to the stakeholders within the education system. Affordable technology-driven opportunities could be scaled up rapidly across the country. India could be transformed into a knowledge haven by implementing innovative ideas that enable students to have access to new and interactive learning experiences. Technology can also engage teachers in professional development. However, one of the key things to learn here is to see how we reuse existing technology, and put it to use through collaborative efforts.

In the development sector, technology accelerates change that would otherwise occur at a slow pace. To cite an example, let's talk about agriculture. The lack of information is often crippling farmers who do not have access to weather reports or information on new varieties of seeds. Real-time updates on weather, soil conditions, plant pests, crops availability and best practices, not to mention market prices, is crucial content that is currently in very short supply.

Technology along with a local connect can play a critical role in addressing these challenges and keep the farmers prepared to handle any vagaries promptly. This connect will pave a future of scalable progress for a vast number of communities, and offer platforms for the exchange of knowledge and practices to best develop farming.

Though technology is an excellent enabler of community development, there are serious challenges when putting it to use. To begin with, in India, we have observed that the literacy levels of the rural communities are often low. As a result, integrating technology into their everyday lives gets difficult. Secondly, Internet and mobile connectivity in many rural areas is still a major problem. This hinders the connection of the community with the larger world.

Additionally, these areas also suffer from excessive power shortages, making it difficult to use or even keep the equipment charged. Thirdly, finances of the community towards purchasing these technologies are a matter of concern.

Promoting quality and affordable technology products and services thus becomes very important. Another challenge is developing technologies which are based on the needs and demands of the community. Understanding user behaviour and acceptance is highly important and most of the technology firms put a limited focus on the same. If India has to advance in the real sense, then these challenges have to be resolved—tech has to be harnessed to its fullest capacity.

Undoubtedly, technology has already had a transformative effect on the development sector. Perhaps, it should be done in a way that the communities are able to sustain themselves, without the organizational support in the long run, in addition to the efforts of the intervening organizations to scale it up.

Technology, wisely selected, applied and accepted by the local culture, ensures improved economic and social infrastructure. It serves as an ideal support system that can leapfrog community development programmes, for the betterment of the society at large.

The article was first published in Livemint on July 15, 2016