Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart City mission may have proved a nonstarter, but researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business are hopeful about the Smart Village mission.
The premier B-school’s Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Meghalaya government to help develop smart villages.
The researchers believe the Smart City mission failed because it was all about building technology and technology has a very short shelf life, besides being expensive to maintain.
“Build people, give them access,” said Prof Solomon Darwin, executive director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, Haas School of Business.
“People in this world belong to the ecosystem,” he said. “There are 3.4 billion who are not part of the ecosystem and are not connected to the rest of the world. They are in places where one can’t reach out and no one hears them. Once they connected to the world, they become living resources that contribute to the whole ecosystem!”
The daylong Fourth US-India Conference, focused on ‘Reimagining US-India Ties: Investing in Mutual Strengths’, an annual event held Sept 27 in collaboration with the All-India Management Association and the consulate general of India in San Francisco, touched upon topics ranging from the Smart Village project and open innovation to artificial intelligence and economic transformation for sustainable growth. are.
In developing smart Indian villages, Prof Darwin said, “We have to go back to what Mahatma Gandhi said: “The soul of India lives in its villages. When we sit down for food, it comes from villages, not from high-rise buildings.”
In 2017, the professor had adopted village Mori, a tiny cashew-exporting village in Andhra Pradesh, as a pilot. He said the project was possible because the government was willing (the chief minister then was N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party, which got voted out of power earlier this year) and many global communities came to showcase their technology and to show that there is traction between villagers and technology.
“Now it is up to the given government to take that forward,” Prof Darwin told indica. “We can demonstrate what is possible and doable, but if the government doesn’t cooperate, we cannot do anything.”
Elaborating on his concept, the professor said Smart Village is about building up the people. Building infrastructure is useless because physical assets depreciate; when you empower people the effect is felt for generations. Knowledge builds on itself.
“We need to give people access to knowledge, tools, resources and markets they can create,” he said. His team trains people to go door to door, understand problems, and then introduce technology.
“The resources come when you show there is an opportunity and that’s what the Berkeley team does,” he said.
Talking of the challenges, he said, “The challenge with India right now is how do we take all these people and bring them online into an ecosystem where they can contribute. And we have a lot of people, 700 million, who are not connected and not active participants.”
He lauded Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, calling him an “inspiring leader”. “We need more leaders like that,” he said. “People will follow because of the vision he casts.”
Prof Darwin said to make Smart Village successful in Meghalaya, students are working on six projects on subjects such as water harvesting, eco-tourism and agricultural products.
Prof Darwin, who also serves as executive director, Center for Growth Market, at U C Berkeley, said, “India is one of the markets for growth and so is China. The center is going to focus on US-India and India is a huge growth market for the US.”
Henry Chesbrough, American organizational theorist, adjunct professor and faculty director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, said the Smart City project did not work out in many places and there is no guarantee it is going to work. But he was more hopeful about Smart Village.
“Smart Village still has a chance, the reason being it is based primarily on private money,” Prof Chesbrough told indica. At least 40 companies have made small investments and they keep track on costs, return on investment, and profit; they also measure village impact and things like that.
Sunil Munjal, chairman of Hero Enterprises who chaired the conference, told indica the idea of bringing the AIMA team from India was to expose it to goings-on in Silicon Valley and to have a dialogue.
“This conference looks at the intellectual side of trade, policies, opportunities, threats, challenges,” said Munjal. People from different walks of life come and address technology issues, like the panel on artificial intelligence, looking at the future of the world and what’s going on in education, and the speakers exchanging ideas from both India and the US are among the top thinkers in their respective fields.
The idea is to look at what is current and most relevant at this moment, he said.
As for the Indian economy, Munjal said, “We are in the middle of a slowdown right now and there are a series of reasons, like the banking system balance sheets getting stuck, non-performing loans.” He said improvement is only likely after the harvest early next year.