While narratives around information technology and the internet often focus on its global, universal application and impact, local concerns and structural inequalities render these solutions less than ideal. The Mozilla Open Innovation project aims to place contextual understandings and lived experiences at the crux of any discussion regarding the status of the Open Source Software and the Free Software movement in the country. A deep-dive qualitative research project, Open Innovation spoke to organizations, practitioners and stakeholders in India on their needs, understanding, and use of free and open source software tools and technologies. Supported by the Mozilla Foundation, and designed and executed by Hasgeek Research team.
The Open Innovation project aims to place contextual understandings and lived experiences at the crux of any discussion regarding the status of the Open Source Software and the Free Software movement in the country. For this, we defined open innovation as the creation of technology enabled tools and products contextually relevant to the users of a geographic area that follows principles of the Open Source Software and Free Software movements.
We held roundtable discussions and interviews with 25 participants from four different sectors, representing digitized enterprises, tech adjacent or semi-digitized enterprises and non digitised stakeholders.
We viewed Open Innovation as a stepping stone towards adoption of Open Source and Free Software beliefs and principles. We argue that for many participants in the Global South following certain principles such as the use of legislative frameworks such as Creative Commons and the ability for different users to update the tools, can be seen as important steps that can eventually lead to better knowledge sharing practices in the country. For this definition we looked at four variables: geographical locations, funding, institutional support and role of players. From these angles we found consistent trends in the Indian tech ecosystem. Which we further divided by the principles of Access, opportunity and empowerment.
Almost all respondents to our study felt that tech innovation in the country was limited to urban centres and certain regions. We observed that ‘region’ (largely non-urban regions across different states in the country) were overlooked while ideating technology solutions. Most technology platforms and services were created assuming a one-solution-fit-all approach to solving problems. As participants highlighted, nuance is lost in the process. Often tech enabled solutions that worked with a set of people – used to technology – in a certain region, did not work for individuals even in the next district. And since these tech-aware centres were considered the first movers of the ecosystem, we observed a ‘blind’ tradition of creating products that mimicked or aped the existing services.
This was corroborated by participants who felt that technology enabled solutions often took no account to ground realities of rural spaces and infrastructure requirements of these tools. Thus resulting in a duplication of efforts for users. Large scale technology enabled solutions in the country – created for urban areas from tech hub regions – but were advertised as universal solutions for all groups across the country were consistently found lacking in providing context specific solutions. It also reduced opportunities for the creation of new technologies as many organisations were created to mimic or aid already successful tech enterprises.
As noted already, many in the tech ecosystem mimicked existing products rather than attempt to innovate new products for consumers within the country. This also reflected on funding opportunities for entrepreneurs in the country. A pattern of funding, focussed on profit making and market monopoly, was observed by respondents. Organisations that were focussed on context specific solutions and had begun creating tech enabled solutions for these specific groups were at a disadvantage in gaining substantial funding.
On the other hand, due to the nature of private funding in the country, organisations were incentivized to produce technology enabled tools and solutions that were considered universally applicable. However, from our learnings we have observed that such universal systems often fail. Thus many semi digitized enterprises used their on ground learning to create products that are more flexible and can provide context specific solutions to heterogeneous populations. In fact many respondents actually created tools in place that could be updated to fit different clients needs from administrative softwares to research tracking. Yet, many of these organisations felt that they weren’t supported enough to create awareness about their products, or adoption by more people.
In addition to the other two points, respondents said that policy driven incentivisation was acutely missing in the sector. This prevented more organisations from focusing on contextually driven technology solutions and promotion of open source software products in the market. Many for-profit tech organisations felt that due to the competitive nature of the ecosystem and VC funding there were limitations on how much individuals could be incentivised to create tools for open distribution and absorption by other organisations and individuals.
Similarly, though a few respondents had benefited from government policies in place through partnering with local governments or institutions, many felt that entry to larger projects were often barred for smaller players in the market. Some respondents connected this to funding constraints, as smaller organisations depended on projects for remuneration while larger organisations may be able to offset the cost through other sources of funding. Thus creating more opportunities for larger organisations to build larger networks increasing their hold in the market. There needs to be better policy and systems in place that allows for smaller players and upcoming players to actively participate in projects and see opportunities for the promotion of their work.
Based on the above findings and the possible solutions suggested by our respondents, we have compiled the problems and proposed solutions in a tabular format for practitioners to review and respond. Using the definitions of access, opportunity and empowerment we have collated possible courses of action for government and private entities, to ensure better promotion of OSS and FS creation in the country.
|Larger themes||Subthemes||Specific problems||Possible solutions|
|Access||Hierarchical Structures||Infrastructural Irregularities||- Government Intervention: To invest further in telecommunication and electricity infrastructure in rural, semi rural and peri-urban areas in the country for easier absorption of technology solutions - Private Intervention: Organisations must be incentivised (either through schemes or funding requirements) to ensure that the tool can be used with a wide variety of infrastructures in place|
|Access||Hierarchical Structures||Digital Divide||- Government Intervention: There must be a policy incentivising further promotion of locally created technological tools that enable interaction based on the large heterogeneous population in the country. - Private Intervention: Product creation must take into account culturally relevant iconography as well as different languages and literacy levels while creating a product or tool for the Indian market.|
|Access||Funding Opportunities||Monopolistic Market Structures||- Government Intervention: There must be more programs and schemes focussed on the incubation of smaller firms in the same field. Similarly, there also needs to be more projects geared towards the financial capabilities of smaller firms to enable them to start building networks to help them in the longer run. - Private Intervention: Larger players in the markets must be incentivised (through legislation or policy) to create strategic partnerships with smaller players that can create more contextually relevant products. Thus ensuring that smaller players can avail network connections and projects.|
|Opportunity||Funding||Obstacles for Smaller Players||- Government Intervention: While creating pilot programs for the testing of new technological tool or attempting a fact finding mission of ground realities of a sector, the government must ensure that final stakeholder and smaller players in the market have reservations within the programs for them to test out the feasibility of a tech enabled solution.|
|Opportunity||Policy Ecosystem||Enhances Digital Divide||- Government Intervention: Create incentive mechanisms that promote organisations to release certain software or tools to the public. Either through tax reductions or through creating OSS as CSR funded projects. - Private Intervention: With government enabled benefits or schemes organisations can dedicate a wing to the OSS development and distribution across the country.|
|Empowerment||Hierarchical||Alienates Final Stakeholder||- Government Intervention: There must be a policy in place that ensures that final stakeholders must play a central role in technology tools promoted by the government, with direct representation and representative groups playing an integral part in the process. - Private Intervention: Final Stakeholders should be clearly highlighted while creating any type of technological solutions, taking into account the variations of such a group in a country like India. Thus a Anganwadi worker’s needs in Rajasthan will vary from a worker’s needs in Tamil Nadu, thus there needs to be tools to create further decentralised and updating of technology from the final stakeholder’s perspective. Final stakeholders must also play a larger role in the design process of any tools to be able to effectively absorbed into their work.|
|Empowerment||Funding||Monopolistic Market Structures||- Government Intervention: There must be government schemes that promotes smaller tech firms to avail government projects taking into account their capacity. Maybe more funds towards local government authorities to invest in local tech innovation in the country. There must also be incentives for philanthropic organisations to invest in smaller technology firms that specialise in industry.|
Individual chapters and sections of the report are presented as submissions. Scroll down to read them.
Bhavani S is a Research Associate at Hasgeek. She has previously worked for the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS), Microsoft Research India, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
We would like to thank the following individuals who provided feedback during different stages of the research. Their feedback helped fine-tune and bring rigour to the research process.
Srikanth Lakshman: is a public interest technologist who researches on digital platforms and data economy ecosystems, with a specific focus on fintech.
Hackergram, a network of individuals and groups working towards sustainable civic spaces.
Defining Open Innovation
In this section we review the concepts of commons based peer production by Benkler, and Kelty’s recursive public definitions to understand how it could be reformatted and updated to provide more of a contextual understanding in the global south. In Benkler and Nissenbaum’s work, they articulate that a commons based peer is a socio economic system of production based in the digital environment1 (Benkler & Nissenbaum, 2006). They provide examples of Linux and other open source software as examples and highlight the volunteering nature of the participants towards such softwares. Though, observed as a production model based on principles and virtues of the contributing groups of participants, the perception fails to understand the on ground realities of the participants. In its core it assumes that this model of participation production can be implemented globally in the exact same manner seen historically in the global north with the use of volunteers, clickworkers and other unpaid groups to produce digital innovations.
Similarly, when looking at Kelty’s definition of Recursive Publics we see him articulate the concept of recursive publics as a reorientation of classical production models and systems historically observed2 (Kelty, 2008). As per his definitions recursive publics exists to create almost revolutionary models of production existing to destabilize institutions of power with the removal of hierarchical structures in place for the production of software shifting the nature of knowledge based economies observed before. Thus, a recursive public does not merely produce a product, but also a continuous effort to maintain and protect it legally from formal institutions. His argument states that a recursive public ensures a cultural shift away from normal work relations and hierarchical structures, thus creating its own cultural norms and practices.
Yet with both these theories it is important to understand that inherent cultural factors, socio-economic hierarchies, resources available and other factors continue to play an important role in individuals becoming parts of such production chains. Though the idea of both the commons based peer production and recursive publics are important in their roles of identifying alternatives to hegemonic practices in the digital ecosystem, there needs to be further introspection of the assumption that all such participants are the same and can contribute equally to the domain.
From our observations in the study we would like there to be a further introspection of the variations in participants’ needs and resources when observing both the Open Source Software and the Free Software movements. An individual’s ability to participate completely in such movements, we believe, is closely tied to their immediate circumstances due to the various practices in place in their respective contextual environments. We believe that Open Innovation must exist as a stepping stone to the complete absorption of the OSS or FS movements in any country.
We define open innovation as the creation of technology enabled tools and products contextually relevant to the users of a geographic area that follows certain principles of the Open Source Software and Free Software movements. We argue that for many participants in the global south, following principles such as the use of legislative frameworks like Creative Commons, the open distribution of products, and the ability of different users to update the tools to fit their needs and requirements, can be seen as important steps that can eventually lead to better knowledge sharing practices. For this definition we look at four variables: geographical location, funding, institutional support, and the role of players.
For the purpose of this study we articulate that open innovation takes further contextual understanding of the digital ecosystem and the technology enabled solutions produced by the sector. We believe that this is important as it must take into account participants’ geographical location in order to understand the various obstacles at play for those to enter the open source ecosystem. For example while looking at the Indian ecosystem it is important to take into account contextual realities that those from the country must face prior to becoming a contributing member of the digital ecosystem. While looking at the human development index, India ranks 131 out of 189 countries3 (PTI, 2020, The Economic Times).
Currently, the World Bank estimates that India has roughly 74 percent literacy rate of adults in the country6 (World Bank, 2021). Thus leaving almost a quarter of the country illiterate. Even within the country there is vast disparity in literacy rates with states like Kerala having 96.2 percent literacy and other states like Andhra Pradesh having 66.4% literacy5 (PTI, The Indian Express, 2021), we see further disparity again between male and female literacy.
Thus for citizens of the country to become a contributing member of the digital ecosystems there are vast hurdles to overcome with regards to access to basic education within the country, this is further compounded with other cultural factors that provide fewer opportunities for girls and members of scheduled castes, tribes and other minority groups. Thus to take part in the open source software movement and the free software movement the average Indian has more obstacles to overcome to actively participate.
Additionally, urban and rural disparities also create further barriers for individuals from the country to take part in such movements. With the lack of resources seen in rural areas which still make up the majority of where the population reside, roughly 65 percent of the population as per World Bank estimates6 (World Bank, 2021). With such disparity, the open source software movement currently caters to the few individuals who have been able to avail education and access to technological devices and adequate public infrastructure.
Hence, we believe it is important to understand the contextual understanding of the participants when critiquing the lack of open source software and free software movements in the country.
Another important aspect that we believe governs the likelihood of participation in the OSS and FS movements is access to funding and prominent funding mechanisms in the current digital and technological ecosystems in place. As seen in the previous sections some OSS and FS produced softwares were funded by private organisations such as IBM that believed that there were certain benefits with the creation of such softwares to the larger public. Similarly, other avenues such as schemes or well funded institutions enabled the promotion of such software practices seen in the global north.
However, in the case of India we do not see a concerted effort by large corporations to push for further open source software development in the country. Despite producing large digital corporations in the country and considered one of the leading countries for the incubation of startups, the focus of all corporations remains profit driven. Due to the nature of venture capitalist funding that permeates in many organisation in the technology ecosystem in the country, there exists a focus on the repayment of investments7 (Bhattacharya, 2021, Scroll.in,). India is home to over 55 unicorn startups currently8 (Venture Intelligence, 2021) and is considered the third largest country to host startups in the world9 (Patwardhan & Raghavan, LiveMint.com, 2021).
Yet despite the significant growth of this market, startups still depend on VC funding which creates focus on market monopolisation and protection of investments over the large sharing of software to the general public. Thus funding and the type of majority funding in the ecosystem plays a large role in the likelihood of participants focussing on the open source software movement in the country.
In cases of countries such as Brazil, an important push towards the absorption of open source software and free software was through government intervention that promoted the use of open source software for all their administrative tasks11 (Shaw, 2011). It was led through the push of members of the Open Source community in the country that enabled the overarching use of OSS for the public sector in the country. In doing so opportunities were created to not only support the community by the government but to also promote such practices for the population overall.
In India the government has not enabled programs or policies to promote the use of open source software for the public sector, instead the Indian government has invested in large scale digital platforms using data collected by the government to enable both public and private players to create technology enabled solutions for the public (This can be read in further detail in the section titled Large Scale Public Digital Platforms). However, though the government argues that such platforms promote the notion of open source software in the country, what makes it different is the lack of access such platforms actually provide on the ground. Thus failing the purpose of providing open source software enabled tools and technologies.
Finally, we must also take into consideration the individual needs of the participants under such production chains. As highlighted in the previous sections there are already multiple obstacles in place for individuals in the country to participate in the movement consistently. With the lack of institutional support, lack of private funding and existing power structures, many in India already struggle to even enter the open source software movement. Though, both Kelty and Benkler look at the movement’s participation to be done with a focus on volunteer participation, can that be considered a sustainable model for individuals struggling to make ends meet is another question that must be taken into account.
India is currently seeing some of its highest unemployment rates in the last decade or so with further unemployment observed in both rural and urban spaces in the county10 (Beniwal, 2021, Bloomberg.com). With a further decrease in formal employment thus creating further difficulties in steady incomes and consistent employment many in India are forced to enter informal job markets to make ends meet, which was accelerated by the pandemic12 (Mohanty, 2021,FortuneIndia.com,). Yet despite this the IT Sector in the country continues to grow and continues to hire new employees13 (Shinde, 2021, Business Standard,). However, even within the IT sector the growth continues to lean towards IT Services and e-commerce products, on the other hand engineering and R&D divisions actually fell since the pandemic and the growth of software development only rising by 2.7 percent in the last year.
Thus, we see that even under the job creation under these markets there is no clear focus towards the hiring of individuals to focus on software development or research and development within the sector. And with the precarious situation in availing jobs we believe that individuals are given lesser incentives to focus on these services due to the lack of employment opportunities. Thus for the promotion of both the OSS and FS movements there are no initiatives by any parties to promote such growth within the country.
Though definitions of commons based peer production and recursive publics assumes that all who participate in the movements contribute with their own individual skills that are integral for the creation of such software, at its core it fails to consider the multiple obstacles existing for an individual to enter such movements, not taking into account geographical and cultural differences, difficulties in gaining external aid, lack of institutional support and the difference of participants’ needs for the production of such technological enabled solutions. Thus we hope that by having the term open innovation that aims to provide a more nuanced understanding of the contextual limitations of participation in such movements we can analyse and understand how to update systems in place that can eventually lead to better participation and innovations from different countries around the world. Open innovation also aims to understand the steps that organisations in these ecosystems attempt to implement to follow such beliefs and principles despite the constraints observed overall.
Benkler, Y., & Nissenbaum, H. (2006). Commons-based peer production and virtue. The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 14. ↩
Kelty, C. M. (2008). Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Duke University Press. ↩
PTI. (2020). India ranks 131 in United Nations’ human development index. The Economic Times. ↩
UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (2021). Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above) - India. The World Bank. ↩
PTI. (2020, September 8). Literacy day: At 96.2%, Kerala tops literacy rate chart Andhra Pradesh Worst Performer at 66.4%. The Indian Express. ↩
Venture Intelligence. (2021). Unicorn Startups in India: Venture intelligence. Unicorn Startups in India | Venture Intelligence. ↩
Patwardhan, N., & Raghavan, R. (2021, December 21). After blockbuster year, will the Indian startup boom continue? Mint. ↩
Beniwal, V. (2021). India Unemployment Rate Rises in October on Rural Joblessness. Bloomberg. ↩
Shaw, A. (2011). Insurgent expertise: The politics of free/livre and open source software in Brazil. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 8(3), 253-272. ↩
Mohanty, P. (2021, December 9). Rising informal employment eclipses GDP recovery. Fortune India. ↩
Shinde, S. (2021, February 15). It sector to grow by 2% to $194 bn, add 138,000 employees in FY21: NASSCOM. Business Standard. ↩