Perspectives

Can Digital resolve the paradox of four competing agendas?

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If you find the topic debatable, so do I; and this article is just an initiation of that debate

There is no doubt that the future is about doing business or delivering governance services the digital way. It would be an era where innovative digital capabilities would be built and a smart economy would evolve, comprising agile and integrated value chains. Many traditional businesses are likely to become extinct and many industries will undergo transformation.

However, even as we prepare to go digital, the focus of discussions has still largely remained centered around the economic parameters of topline, bottomline, profits, costs, RoI, et al. Can it move beyond and focus on some of the perennial problems of a developing nation like India?

The country’s real problems are the vast gap between the top-end and the bottom-end of the socioeconomic pyramid—between the urban rich and the rural poor, or between the haves and the have nots.

The wide gaps are visible across sectors such as consumer goods, FMCG, banking, and media & entertainment, and are even more pronounced in healthcare and education, which have an important (even if indirect) impact on the economic growth. While there are attempts at addressing the untapped demand among the rural and urban low and middle income groups (LMIG), these can at best be seen as experiments and exceptions. Many social experiments are being carried out in the healthcare sector and many business experiments are being conducted in the FMCG and banking sectors. Still, these are few and far between.

These gaps can be effectively addressed only if we are able to address four key growth aspects—affordability, accessibility, sustainability and profitability—all at the same time. Interestingly, these aspects also represent a paradox of competing agendas. Can digital help create a balance across these four competing agendas and resolve the paradox?

If yes, then we could finally succeed at creating a business model to tap the potential at the bottom of the pyramid, in a truly inclusive manner.

But let’s first take a closer look at these agendas and understand these better:

Affordability

The traditional economics does not work when the existing business models are tweaked and applied for addressing the needs of the LMIG. The usual costs of corporate overheads, production, real estate and distribution logistics may be managed but just not enough to make them really affordable, especially when serving the LMIG demand is not just a corporate social responsibility (CSR) act but pure business. The opportunities can be huge, if tapped effectively enough.

Accessibility

Most of the new investments in healthcare and education (especially primary and secondary education) are concentrated in the urban locations, and that too in and around the bigger cities. A majority of the country’s population still doesn’t even have access to these basic services. In fact, the lack of accessibility is not just for the users, but also for the prospective employees. The fruits of economic growth are not reaching out to the millions of individuals and professionals.

Sustainability

An expansion of the manufacturing base, an increased investment in computing, and anything that grows our carbon footprints has an adverse impact on the ecology. What is being done with the waste, how it is recycled and where it is dumped has a long term impact on our planet. Can a huge demand be met without further damaging the ecology?

Profitability

It is a general belief that addressing the first three needs has an adverse impact on profitability. A business is mandated to recover costs of production, corporate expenses, marketing overheads, real-estate costs, and transportation & logistics expenses, which often does not allow its products and services to become affordable for the masses. Take, for example, banking. The cost of maintaining an account makes it difficult for the bank to profitably operate the no-frills, zero-balance accounts under the financial inclusiveness initiative. Similarly, taking healthcare and education to the LMIG and still remaining profitable becomes a dream.

It high time we discussed how digital programs and frameworks like smart industries, smart cities and smart governance could help address the quad paradoxes of affordability, accessibility, sustainability and profitability, all at once?

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