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.
|- 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
|- 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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
Sampling and Methodology
We aimed to interrogate how organisations attempted to implement beliefs and practices of open source software movements and compared it with the new model we have defined as open innovation, taking into account infrastructure, platforms, policies and market standards that provided a context on which local innovators can build.
We looked at the role stakeholders play in highlighting how open innovation in the country works on the ground, and so we focussed on conducting five roundtable discussions across five sectors. Additionally we conducted interviews for those unable to attend the roundtables. In all, 25 respondents participated in the roundtables and interviews.
The sectors chosen were
- Tech for development sectors.
We chose these five sectors due to the large-scale push by the government to use systems such as India Stack in these sectors. India Stack’s stated aim is to promote open innovation. The research asks whether such systems can be deemed open from the axes of access, empowerment and opportunity.
Additionally the research also aims to understand the various stakeholders currently observed in the country today. The research focuses on three layers of technology dependence
- Undigitized enterprises in the sector,
- Semi-digitized enterprises in the sector, and finally
- Digitized enterprises in the sector.
We viewed undigitized enterprises as the final individuals that aim to implement a technology solution for their work. A semi digitized enterprise would have created certain tech-enabled solutions in the systems used for work, while also engaging with final stakeholders. And finally digitized enterprises were focussed on the production of tech-enabled goals and outcomes targeting specific populations in the country.
In doing so we aim to understand how different stakeholders in each sector perceive and respond to systems currently in place for the propagation of technology enabled solutions. Thus we felt that it was not only important to speak to startups and industries that focussed on the creation of tech solutions, but also stakeholders who had to put these solutions into practice for their work and individuals who worked with both digital tools and human interactions in the creation of services. We hoped that through this approach of broader participation with both sectoral understanding and a more nuanced stakeholder representation we would be able to adequately answer questions of accessibility, empowerment and opportunity for a broader range of citizens and enterprises in the country.
This is due to the fact that no technology enabled solution exists in isolation, they often depend on various stakeholders to provide data or firsthand experience in the creation of any type of technological innovation in the country. Thus we believe that by looking at the ecosystem and providing a topographical understanding of the stakeholders in place we can produce a more nuanced understanding of open innovation.
Once we identified the various stakeholders for the research, we organized roundtable discussions. The roundtables were recorded with the respondents’ consent and were transcribed. All participants remained anonymous and were coded with unique participant IDs. To highlight themes and provide accurate analysis, the transcripts were coded through the process of open coding focussing on the themes of access, empowerment and opportunity. The study used the definitions made by the Mozilla Foundation’s1 “Reimagine Open: Building Better Internet Experiences” under which the definitions were: a) Access: the capability to reach the network, information, audiences, markets, and each other. b) Opportunity: the chance to participate in the network as an individual with minimal restraint, without gatekeepers, and with the ability to resist centralized control. c) Empowerment: a broad-based ability to create, shape, and participate in online experiences – in contrast with the pre-existing model of broadcast TV, where the only choice was what to consume.
Thus with the combination of the sampling strategy, coding structure and themes in place we believe the research and this report will provide a nuanced understanding of open innovation in India. Allowing us to form a broader understanding of what can be deemed as open.
Baker, M., Davidson, A., Munyua, A., & Kak, A. (undated). Reimagine Open: Building Better Internet Experiences. Mozilla https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/foundation/reimagine-open/ ↩︎