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
Bhavani Seetharaman

Bhavani Seetharaman

@Bhavani-21 Researcher

Understanding Innovation in the Indian Tech Ecosystem: Introduction to the research

Submitted Mar 10, 2022

The Open Innovation Project aims to broaden the understanding of how open source beliefs and principles can be implemented in the Global South, specifically looking at the Indian Tech Ecosystem. In doing so we seek to understand how multiple players in India are currently availing or hope to avail resources in the country that can enable certain aspects of the open source software movement. Specifically, we observe how different organisations are attempting to follow the principles of the Open Source Software (OSS) movement and the free software (FS) movement in India. We also attempt to understand how large scale public digital infrastructure and platforms affect opportunities for the OSS and FS production in the country. As highlighted in the proposal the purpose of the study is to observe whether systems that were deemed “open” are actually structurally formed keeping in mind themes of access, empowerment and opportunity. Additionally, we seek to understand the realities and experiences of different stakeholders in the sector to gauge the current state of innovation practices in the country.

Thus we first begin by defining open innovation in a manner that is contextually relevant to India. For this study 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. These could be using legislative frameworks such as Creative Commons, the open distribution of the products, and the ability for different users to update the tools to fit their needs and requirements.

We believe that this definition of open innovation is important, because geographical and cultural contexts affect the way in which innovation is promoted. Due to its geographical inception in the global north OSS and FS frameworks need to be further calibrated when looking at different countries with different access to resources, different cultural norms and different government reforms and aid. Thus we believe that with this definition we aim to create a tangent in the discourse of OSS and FS movements to ensure that geographical and cultural considerations are taken into account while looking at the concept of open source software and providing countries to aim towards open source principles and beliefs depending on the constraints observed in their immediate environment.

We also believe that innovation is an integral part of how OSS and FS movements have functioned in the past with the creation of software and tools that aim to solve a larger problem, or create a product that benefits a wide variety of stakeholders. We believe that given the heterogeneity of the population in a country like India, innovation must also include understanding the nuances of different stakeholders in the country. Unlike innovation built for a large homogenous audience with similar uses, innovation in India must also include the building of technology enabled services and tools geared towards respecting the heterogeneity of the populace. With this broad definition we aim to understand how such types of innovation practices function in the country today.

To understand the multiple nuances at play while looking at the tech ecosystem in the country, we began to observe a heterogeneous group of stakeholders who provided different perspectives in understanding the on-ground difficulties of enabling a robust open source ecosystem that reduced the digital divide in the country. We hoped to understand if there needed to be a recalibration of what must constitute open innovation for countries like India in particular, and the global south in general. Whether the original definitions and environments that enabled the movement to be successful in the global north could be reproduced in developing countries, specifically one as heterogeneous as India. Or whether there required a completely different approach to reduce the gaps enforced not only by lack of access to resources but also cultural tendencies and biases by the population affecting different social groups.

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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