There is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, as scores of vaccines get approved, and vaccination starts in earnest in most countries across the world, including India. India, in fact, is mobilizing the world’s largest vaccination movement, with more than a billion people to be vaccinated in record time. However, we cannot deny that Covid-19 has changed us and our world forever—the way we work, the way we look at healthcare, our jobs, education, and the criticality of being digital. While the world went into lockdown, services and products adapted almost instantaneously to enable business and life continuity. It is what I call the Covid-19 paradox: Covid-19 slowed down the world, yet accelerated change.
The Covid-19 paradox and the dawn of decentralisation
Perhaps the biggest change that happened around us was how everything decentralised. Organisations and governments realised that, much like in IT systems, decentralisation brings in resilience and ensures continuity. This phenomenon played itself everywhere – in work, healthcare, education, retail, hospitality.
Work from home is nothing but decentralised work. The future of work has always called for working from anywhere, not only from big, centralized offices. Covid-19 greatly accelerated the future of work. Millions of employees, primarily in knowledge companies like technology and services, started working from home, whichever geography home might be. What is interesting is that large and small corporations like Google, Twitter, TCS, and Udemy have declared that they will continue a large element of work from home even after the lockdowns are over. They have discovered the hitherto unknown advantages of this—cost reduction, productivity spikes, talent diversification—and resolved to continue a part of this forever.
The same is true of how the gig economy, which is nothing but decentralised work taken to a logical extreme, has come to save the day in the Great Lockdown. Across almost every country it was the food-delivery and ecommerce companies which kept the cities and homes running while every mall, restaurant and departmental store was closed due to contamination fears. What this means for industry is profound – companies will have to spread themselves out, or decentralize themselves, so as to get the labour and talent which is raw material for their operations. They might have to go to the people, the people might not come to them. Hopefully, this will have other benefits – less traffic, cleaner air, smaller commute times. I also believe that this will result in ‘decentralised offices’, where rather than having one massive central office building or campus, companies will have smaller offices or pods distributed across the city, distributed across where people actually live.
The same can be said of retail and how the kirana or mom-and-pop neighbourhood grocery stores came to the rescue. Armed with basic, but functional, technology like WhatsApp ordering and UPI payment they became the saviours, when the big malls and ecommerce ground to a halt. This super decentralised retail model is now attracting massive investment and attention, as corporations and tech companies look at how they can use technology to enhance the decentralised infrastructure. Education and healthcare decentralised also. Every child with broadband access and a device started learning from home. As hospitals became Covid-19-only facilities, most people started to consult doctors over video, decentralising healthcare to telemedicine. Much like work, the future is an online-offline hybrid for these industries too.
Digital infrastructure is the only way to enable this new way of life
But there is a flip side to this. The digital divide will get more pronounced—poor patients and students with less access to devices and connectivity. And this brings us to the crux of the issue: to enable this decentralisation boom, the country needs a much stronger and robust broadband infrastructure than what it has. It is well established that investment in digital infrastructure is estimated to have a 4x multiplier on GDP. With Covid-19 and the ensuing decentralisation of industries, this figure could be even more. The pandemic has accelerated digitalisation of the economy, and broadband fiber is the bedrock of this.
The role of the government is important
Other countries have recognized this massive potential, spending up to 2% of their GDP on digital infra. The U.K., China, and the E.U., learning from the Covid-19 disruption, have unveiled ambitious plans to create new ‘digital highways’. The Indian public spend on broadband fibre infrastructure, in comparison, is very insufficient. There was a hope that The Government recognised digital infrastructure as a core transformational area and have a special plan for it in the recent Budget exercise of 2021. To realise the Prime Minister’s vision of a $5 trillion economy, India will have to substantially up its digital infra spend from the $13 billion today to at least $35 billion per year. But, unfortunately, this opportunity was missed with no significant announcement in this Union Budget.
Earlier, I had written about how the U.S. became a superpower on the foundation of an unrivalled national highway system, created by President Eisenhower after WW2. It was a transformational move, and it catapulted the U.S. to become the economic, military, and technology superpower that it is today. India can take inspiration from this and create a digital highway system connecting every village and town in India with broadband and catapult itself to a superpower status in the New Decentralised Economy. The clock is ticking, it is time to grasp this opportunity.
Views are personal. The author is a digital transformation advisor.