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.

Recommendations

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.

Acknowledgements

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

David Timethy and Zainab Bawa were project managers for producing this report. Kiran Jonnalagadda and Zainab Bawa advised on research design and execution. Anish TP illustrated the report.

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A deep dive into the Free, Open Source Software movement via the idea of Open Innovation, looking at how access, opportunity, support and geographic location enables adoption of FOSS in India. more

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Bhavani Seetharaman

Bhavani Seetharaman

@Bhavani-21 Researcher

Innovation and the Global South

Submitted Mar 10, 2022

The concept of innovation, specifically the notion of technology as a tool for the further propagation of innovation in society has been promoted extensively since the rise of the IT sector around the world1 (Johannessen, 1994). Firms that were seen as technology based or technology focussed often were seen as creating and enabling an innovation value chain, by virtue of their sector alone2 (Ganotakis & Love, 2012). Though steadily growing since the 1990s the tech industry, surviving the dot com crash in the early 2000s, truly began its dominance over other sectors post the 2008 recession leading to a large-scale assumption that technology was an insulated sector promoting employment in times where other industries were faltering (3, Rosenberg, 2018, Axios.com;4 Evans, 2019, Techcrunch.com). The overwhelming belief that exists today is that technology is an innovation enabler for all around the world. Fountain in 1998 had noted how the collaborative model of different institutions from educational institutions, government contracts and private players had enabled a collaborative ecosystem for the nascent Silicon Valley enabling further innovation in the tech sector (Fountain, 1998)5.

However, in recent years this theory has been refuted, with experts arguing that the tech ecosystem continued to propagate what other sectors had implemented before – enforcing social and class hierarchies observed around the world. Hyman reports that in the 1980’s, the manufacture of tech products such as Apple’s Macintosh computers happened in a factory model or a piece work setup, often relying on female migrant workers to create products that were seen as revolutionary to the larger public6 (Hyman, 2018). Though once situated in the Silicon Valley, production centres have since moved to different countries around the world, predominantly Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines7 (Costello, 2021 Lifewire.com). We see in recent years that despite the larger global reliance on technology and technology enabled services or solutions, there is a monopolisation of technology by companies referred to as bigtech, specifically Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google8 (Clayton, 2020).

Yet, as early as the 1970s there had begun a movement for the free and fair distribution and ownership for software9 (Bretthauer, 2001). This movement eventually gave rise to ideas and people, such as Stallman’s copyleft which repurposes the existing copyright frameworks for the larger use of software among the general public (Bretthauer, 2001). Eventually, the movement began to diverge, with free software seen as how technology practices could be more open to users with different needs and requirements. Stallman likened it to free speech and not free beer 10 (Stallman, 2009). These movements also led to the understanding of who the stakeholders were in the tech ecosystem. Eventually, with the complexity of the internet leading towards Benkler’s definition of commons based peer production, where individuals were provided equal opportunities for participation, and the community assessing skills and distribution of tasks which were seen as a revolt against hegemonic practices in play11 (Papadimitropoulos, 2019). Other concepts like the recursive publics also looked at the stakeholders under the movement12 (Kelty, 2008). Here, stakeholders were not merely the creators and users of the software but were also integral in pushing for the maintenance, improvements and the creation of a legal protection for the larger use of such systems.

Since its inception, the open source software and the free software movements were largely centered in the global north, and often aided by big tech companies such as IBM and Intel13 (Cammaerts, 2011). However, neoliberal globalisation once observed as the absorption of improved technologies and services and free market ideologies14 (Fourcade- Gourinchas, M. & Babb, S.L., 2002) had a different effect in different countries around the world. Many argue that the failure of the open source movement coincides with the rise of the sharing economy which focussed on the peer to peer transfer of knowledge and information curtailing the open frameworks highlighted by the movement11, 15 (Papadimitropoulos, 2019, Keller & Tarkowski).

FOSS participation in the global south doesn’t necessarily work in the same manner. Large scale digital divide, seen not only in countries as a whole but between different communities within those countries, based on geographical locations, infrastructural variations and other factors have had an impact on FOSS participation16 (Dunn, 2010). Scholars have argued that the very model and thinking produced by the technology systems remain entrenched in the worldview of the global north, thus requiring a decolonial shift in the creation and distribution of technology in the global south17 (Moyo, 2017). Yet certain countries from the global south have adapted the open source movement through push by governments in those countries18 (Camara & Fonseca, 2007). A highlight is Brazil which saw how technology experts gave a rise to a counter-hegemonic structure to the knowledge economy, with the government enforcing the use of open source software for the public sector19 (Shaw, 2011).

Thus we see, the practices that worked in the global north have slowly been diluted by the rise of other types of tech based organisations, focussed on peer to peer networks relationships. We also observe from the literature that the global south has often utilised and enabled tools of the government for the promotion of FLOSS software in the country. Thus it comes as no surprise that the Indian government has also begun to exercise stronger controls of platform innovation in the country20 (Raghavan, et al, 2019). India was often seen as a consumer of FOSS services and not the creator or contributor to the movement21 (Joseph, 2010). According to Github, India now ranks as the third largest user of FOSS, with more developers preferring to use FOSS libraries and solutions. However there is a lack of homegrown FOSS innovations in the country despite employing a large skilled population in the IT sector22 (Mittal & Godhwani, 2021, The Hindu BusinessLine).

Cultural hierarchies such as caste and class continue to play a role in education and training in tech and tech enabled services even today, even when experiments were created to reduce the digital divide and enable more participation in technology sectors23 (Sarkar, 2016). This can also be seen in tech startups and the demographics of individuals often leading such projects24 (Bhattacharya, 2018, Scroll.in). Similarly, critics argue that the government’s investments towards public platforms that were supposed to enable innovation in the Indian market instead continue to provide further obstacles for those without social capital to be a part of the fray25 (Dharmakumar R, 2017, TheKen.com). Highlighting the monopolising of data of the population for personal gains rather than public good. Many also argue that such platforms, due to the manner in which they are governed, fail the test of open source.

Therefore there exists two large questions that need to be answered while trying to wrestle with the concept of innovation in India, the first being if government intervention had promoted open source software in other countries, what was the Indian government’s role in the promotion of the movement in the country. And the second question that needed to be raised was how is the digital divide in the country further destabilizing opportunities for open source software development in the country.


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  3. Rosenberg, S. (2018) How the Great Recession teed off tech’s long boom. Axios.com 

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  13. Cammaerts, B. (2011). Disruptive sharing in a digital age: Rejecting neoliberalism?. Continuum, 25(1), 47-62. 

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  16. Dunn, H. S. (2010). Information literacy and the digital divide: Challenging e-exclusion in the global south. In Handbook of research on overcoming digital divides: Constructing an equitable and competitive information society (pp. 326-344). IGI Global. 

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  18. Camara, G., & Fonseca, F. (2007). Information policies and open source software in developing countries. Journal of the American society for information science and technology, 58(1), 121-132. 

  19. 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. 

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  24. Bhattacharya, A. (2018, March 16). There’s an unspoken class system in Indian Startups: First comes IIT and then everyone else. Scroll.in

  25. Dharmakumar, R. (2018, April 16). For whom does the India Stack Bell Toll? The Ken 

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Hosted by

A deep dive into the Free, Open Source Software movement via the idea of Open Innovation, looking at how access, opportunity, support and geographic location enables adoption of FOSS in India. more

Supported by

The Mozilla project is a global community of people who believe that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the internet. more