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: Understanding Innovation in the Indian Tech Ecosystem #
Executive Summary #
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.
Summary of Findings #
Hierarchical Approach #
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.
Funding Opportunities #
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.
Lack of Policy Interventions #
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.
About the principal researcher #
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.
Support team #
*[OSS]: Open Source Software
*[FS]: Free Software
*[CSR]: Corporate Social Responsibility
Findings: Policy ecosystem in the country
Another point raised by the respondents was the lack of policy enabled systems in place for the protection of smaller players in the market. In fact participants had highlighted that their own personal experience showed the creation of obstacles under the policy requirements to avail access to projects in the country.
Obstacles for smaller entrepreneurs #
An important angle of the policy requirement is the lack of understanding of the barebones requirement of a project, instead grants and schemes often go to individuals with access to more resources thus enabling for the continuation of larger players capturing the market. As a participant based out of a rural area in India said,
But, if you want to apply for [government schemes], I mean, you are already running the same kind of training centre in that area and you want to apply for this. So, they need like, some kind of infrastructure you have like you have AC in your room for cooling that system, this kind of computer systems or this much of infrastructure you have then, for everything they needed to have some sort of list. And if you don’t have like that much of big system, because in the rural area, we are not creating like such a big two or three floors Training Centre, it is just a single floor with minimum 10 or 12 computers with a seating arrangement and a simple classroom like that. So they do not allow you to come and participate in that. That kind of training.
Thus by requiring large scale investments for smaller organisations, the policy structures in place effectively removes them from the larger grants and schemes available perpetuating hierarchical cycles already in place in the tech ecosystem in the country. Similarly, there are no policy systems in place that allows for open communication models between different stakeholders in any ecosystem to create tech enabled solutions. A participant working for a firm in the health sector that produced technological tools said,
You will get technologists who want to create, but then you don’t soak in the problem enough. And people who are soaked in the problems don’t understand the technologies. And unless you spend that time together, and you translate the language, you could have a policy saying Open Source, but open source is available even now, why doesn’t it get used? Because it still somebody still needs to adapt it, contextualise it and at a certain point, does it work? Does it scale? Does it give you what it needs to be done? Somebody has to assess and decide and say that, right? So I don’t know if policy is necessarily a requirement.
This lack of matchmaking is further incentivised by the fact that policy frameworks do not focus on the open communication between different stakeholders. Without the enforcement of such models there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure that solutions are being created using the multiple learnings of different stakeholders in the tech ecosystem today.
Understanding Ground Realities: #
This is a continuous problem in the tech ecosystem with the enforced belief that large scale infrastructure remains in place for all participants in the country, to effectively engage with all stakeholders. As undigitized stakeholders had highlighted earlier despite being an integral resource for the creation of tech enabled solutions, tech products often deny them access or require duplication of efforts to perform their work. A large issue for this is the lack of public infrastructure in place such as electricity or telephone connectivity in the region. However, the current design processes in place does not take into account such variations, as a participant working with different participants in the health sector explained,
But a lot of CSR say we will build tools for you. But the tools are retrofitted off from their already existing tools, like the app that [Program C] is using has a lot of glitches, because of retrofitting, and is not built to ground up. That’s one but but at the same time, I think that there’s a lot of I see a lot of possibilities based on so there are these smaller pockets of community networks coming in and the conversations that we have had is the challenge there is to sustain it, economically sustain it. And unless there is there is a sort of it feeds into weaves into local economy there is there is not much of ways to sustain it. And and that’s where I see I see that the promise is.
From this we are able to understand that different participants in the tech ecosystem often deal with a lack of innovation at a problem solving level in the country. Thus it is often smaller entrepreneurs that must create tools and products that takes the complex structures in place for final stakeholders to use the products appropriately. This was further built into the system with larger entities outsourcing work to smaller companies to provide technology solutions. Yet as we mentioned earlier the main contract for larger projects would go to the larger entities in the system. A participant working in Design and Tech explained,
When [Company P] societal platforms had asked us to kind of write a kind of audit their research practices, and come up with a platform design for what they kept calling as society platforms as being an abstract notion. So they wanted to give some more grounding to what they were calling abstract…So we started out by kind of looking at the current state of things in terms of how they kind of articulated certain concepts, how some of those actually exist. Because there seemed to be larger gaps between what was being imagined in these spaces where technology seemed to be a great solver, but by the time labor was put into it, and it was being moved from, like dreamed out abstraction to something that was implemented, there were a lot of things that was quite exploited.
By doing so the current systems in place do not take into account the expertise of the enterprises in the sector and instead focus on larger organisations to produce final reports despite the fact that it appears to be an open secret that there exists a secondary industry of using smaller tech entities to provide further enumeration of ground realities for the tech enabled solutions, with the larger entities choosing which suggestion to use for their final product.
Lack of Incentivisation: #
According to our respondents one of the reasons this system continues to stay in place is due to the lack of incentivisation for the community to enable open communications and interactions between peers and stakeholders in the industry. As previously mentioned by respondents, with the growth of VC culture there is pressure on startups and other organisations to focus first on the individual growth of the company and ensure profits for the funders. Yet India is home to many organisations that have grown a considerable amount and have gone beyond such fears, yet these organisations have not invested resources towards the production of open source software products to be repurposed by other stakeholders in the markets. As one respondent who had experiences in the fintech space observed,
So my view and, and albeit, our very limited visibility into this is that if I’ve seen what’s happening in the West, it turns the other way around, somebody creates an open source project, build something, and then says, “You know what, maybe I can build a commercial thing on top of it, as opposed to the other way around” I mean, I don’t see founders starting out by saying, I’m going to build this company, and I’m going to open source everything. I think that’s much rarer than the other way around. You know, that you build a Mongo, and then you build a company. I mean, Linux happens, and then red hat comes around, right? So I don’t know if the sequencing is that way, as opposed to the other way around. And I don’t see founders putting out open source really, once they grew up
The participant also highlighted how larger companies such as Uber and Google also promoted open source software in their later years. Yet India is home to enterprises competing at large scales, is it possible that these companies are still too young and are worried about market competition that they continue to work with the mindset of a lack of resources for multiple organisations to compete in the same field. Other respondents from startups have also highlighted that India is a poor country and the tech ecosystem, especially for startups and other for profit enterprises, is at a nascent stage of development. Due to which only once such a company is cemented in the field could they provide open source software solutions for society at large.