A blueprint for Kerala to enter the Digital Age

The Digital Age, if implemented aggressively, would prevent the destruction of Kerala’s fragile eco systems of air, water and forest, as is happening in China and some parts of the world due to unbridled industrial growth and urbanization. Photo credit: http://www.dic.kerala.gov.in
The Digital Age, if implemented aggressively, would prevent the destruction of Kerala’s fragile eco systems of air, water and forest, as is happening in China and some parts of the world due to unbridled industrial growth and urbanization. Photo credit: http://www.dic.kerala.gov.in

Digital revolution would bring in great opportunities for the state, but it might also have adverse impact without right interventions.

By Javad K. Hassan

Javad K. HassanThe digital age, to which the entire world is getting transformed today, has created a new era of realities, which no one would have ever imagined, except probably in some of the highly sophisticated science fictions of recent times. While these fictions would have created in some readers a momentary thrill, no one would have ever imagined that these fictional characters would become true life experiences even among the various people groups of our times. Now that they are smiling at us, let us look at these realities more objectively and try to understand how it would affect the lives of the people of Kerala.

Here I am trying to portray a real picture of Kerala today to bring more focus on this subject:

  • Kerala is the “Longest Shopping Mall of the World,” where one can buy and consume everything everywhere unlike many other Indian states, where the consumption centers are towns and cities.
  • Kerala’s educated people live across the state and one will find them everywhere even among the less-privileged groups.
  • Wealth is also spread across the state and even the so-called “commoner” is able to afford everything that a rich person is able to have, except the fact that the brand may be of lesser value.
  • The cities are not only highly over-populated, they are also highly polluted when compared to rest of the areas, all because of automobile and factory emissions and indiscriminatory garbage dumping by all sections of the society.
  • Every river in the state is polluted heavily due to the shameful dumping of waste by the most educated people of the subcontinent. Unless coordinated efforts to clean these rivers are undertaken, they would remain non-usable even for transportation purposes.
  • Continuous exodus of educated youth from the villages to the cities is truly a matter of great concern.
  • In cities, acute shortage of land is being felt for the construction of dwelling units and other related expansion requirements; curtailing the unprecedented migration from villages to cities has become one of the most critical government level interventions of the present times.
  • All homes, whether they are in the cities, or in the towns, or in the villages, are furnished with latest gadgets and these gadgets have become a part of our daily essentials.
  • Due to the snail pace at which bikes, cars and trucks are moving these days in the congested highways of Kerala, the day is not far when the state would get the rare distinction of becoming the longest “Parking lot for Vehicles” in the world.

While we, the Keralites, are to be solely blamed for all of the above challenges, the advent of the Digital Age in Kerala is also equally or more worrisome, posing some of the bigger challenges for the state. The only comforting factor is that the Digital Age would bring in great opportunities more than ever before to the state, but its implications are going to be adverse, if right interventions do not happen immediately.

Unless every section of the society, especially the government and lawmakers, understand consequences of the Digital Age in the right perspective and start intervening now, this transformation to the Digital Age would anyway swallow us and as a result a chaotic society would emerge soon leaving us high and dry. It would then be too late to take any corrective actions, leave alone preventive actions.

Let us now try to understand what this Digital Age is all about. The internet explosion has resulted in a new world of communications and change through the advent of bandwidth explosion and intelligence in machines. Every machine or thing would soon have a name and an internet identity. They would communicate among themselves as well as with people. This is now referred to as the Internet of Things (IOT) or the Internet of Everything.

This transformation of communication between machines and machine to people through the internet is called as the “Digital Age.” This transformation will be just as powerful as a force as the information age was to the industrial age and as industrial age was to the agricultural age. While the human evolution, especially in the Western world and Japan, from hunting to settled agricultural age took several thousands of years, the change from agricultural to the industrial age took only hundreds of years. Now the shift from the industrial to the information age has taken only between 10 and 30 years while the transformation to the upcoming Digital Age will be much more revolutionary than the transformation to the information age but will happen much faster, or in a much shorter span of time.

What needs to happen and what would become the foundation for the explosion of bandwidth — the most important prerequisite for the advent of the Digital Age — would be the conversion of backbone of wired communication network from the present copper cables to fiber cables and implementation of additional wireless communication network where it is difficult to penetrate through fiber cables.

It is already happening in the United States through huge programmes like FIOS by Verizon and other telecom operators, as well as through new entrants like Google in optical fiber communications with their initiatives like Google Fiber. This photonics technology, combined with the semiconductor-driven electronics technology, will be the foundation for this new Digital Age through the wide spread of the internet and world wide web.

With the fiber back bone already in place in the state, rather than waiting for the evolutionary process of the Western world described above to automatically happen, we should work towards enabling the last mile connectivity immediately so that the bandwidth explosion required for the Digital Age is accomplished immediately in the state.

Let us now explore the possible scenarios in major human activities such as healthcare, communication, transportation, home, education and commerce.

Healthcare:

  • Shift to point of care diagnostic capabilities from huge MRI, Ultrasound, X Ray machines in today’s hospitals;
  • Use wearable health devices like FITBIT to monitor and control wellness parameters like glucose levels to heartbeat, caloric consumption etc.;
  • Establish connectivity from wearable devices to established care-givers like doctors and specialty hospitals for timely delivery of care and cure;
  • Introduce ambulances that function as micro hospitals to quickly take care of emergency needs for individuals and required care during massive natural disasters;
  • Launch specialty hospitals to provide specialized and cost effective care for villagers and deal with new diseases, or incurable diseases, through the applications of SMART Phones, Telemedicine etc.;
  • Make portable all health data on a global basis for travelling public to provide accurate health-related information on a timely basis to doctors in the geography or elsewhere for the intervention on need basis; and
  • Make available world class healthcare to remote villagers now affordable only to the upper strata of the society.


Transportation

  • Introduce driverless or robot-assisted cars and trucks both for human transportation and goods and services.


Lighting

  • Street lights and lighting in homes would be predominantly based on alternate energy sources like the solar energy and LED panels and would be remotely controlled in the digital era.


Home

Have remote controls transform homes. The areas remote controls can be used include:

  • Remotely controllable gadgets in home including kitchenware, TV, AC, washing machine, refrigerator, using SMART devices and phones;
  • Electricity, water and gas connections all being controlled remotely; and
  • Remotely monitored and assisted old age helps, assistance for the physically challenged and children.


Education

  • Smart class rooms fitted with video conference facilities, remotely controllable labs etc. ,enabling lesser direct class room sessions and more of home-based study facilities
  • 24×7 availability of well-documented information, making self-learning the order of the day with less dependence on school-based education except for lower grades.


Commerce

  • E-commerce will help reduce visits to shops and malls for regular shopping activities.

In Kerala, we are quickly moving ahead and everywhere the bandwidth explosion is round the corner. Our educated and entrepreneurial youth are taking the lead in the transformation, and soon all will have to follow them.

From the perspective of the inevitable digital transformation of Kerala, here are some recommendations for today’s key decision-makers in the state on how to embrace it:

  1. Our priority should be to prevent the exodus of villagers into the cities. There are stories going viral these days of how agrarian communities in the villages of China have employed the digital transformation and e-commerce of Alibaba to sell their commodities and locally manufactured products to other Chinese geographies, as well as to other parts of the world, thus enhancing their standard of living. Such models can be adapted easily by us to transform our village youth and people to entrepreneurs in their own villages that would prevent their exodus to cities easily while they would gain from better living. The healthcare dimension of the Digital Age should be effectively made available to villages and remote areas so as to prevent the movement of people to cities for medical requirements. Home automation would definitely make the chores of kitchen work for women much easier, releasing them to focus more on entrepreneurial activities.
  2. With the Digital Age’s advent enabling driverless cars and trucks, we should build well-lighted highways and infrastructure which would suit this key requirement and hence our planning activities should incorporate such not priorities.
  3. The banks and financial institutions should reinvent their role as service providers for e-commerce and digital age services.
  4. The last mile and last meter connectivity requirements for bandwidth explosion has to be addressed as topmost priority to enable FFTH and SMART Home Digital Age requirements.
  5. Hospitals and healthcare centers have to be digitally networked to suit the new environment.
  6. Service providers like electricity departments, water and gas services are to be transformed to take on the new automated and digitally enabled devices and they have to be networked suitably to facilitate the new age situations.
  7. Water transportation to remote villages through alternate route of networked rivers across the state with digitally enabled barges, boats and transportation vehicles have to be planned and executed to cater to the increased need of e-commerce to and from the villages for goods and services. This means that cleaning up of rivers and networking them is a priority for the state.
  8. Alternate source of energy like solar energy production at SMART homes has to be encouraged and feeding back excess energy produced at homes into state grid has to be enabled through suitable revision of law and infrastructure.
  9. To stay ahead in technology, a lot of research work has to be encouraged with the government support in all of the above areas at our learning centers. The research community in the state has to be equipped to develop advanced applications to meet with the above demands of the Digital Age.

What I am hinting at with this futuristic explanation of “Shape of Things to Come” is a lot of work for all at the helm of affairs in the state. A paradigm shift has to happen in their thinking from building Technoparks and Infoparks concentrated in cities to build Digital Villages all over Kerala, where the commoner would feel wholesome and this would fulfill his dream of becoming a valuable contributor to his family and to the society.

I am not making a farfetched cry here. The sooner we wake up, the faster we would benefit from this Digital Age. The key would be to rapidly build access networks (FTTH) to connect homes, hospitals, businesses, educational institutions and utility service providers to enable them to have best in class broadband capabilities. As mentioned earlier, this can be easily achieved by connecting core fiber cable network running throughout the state with last mile connectivity solutions.

This would enable entrepreneurial activities at every remote village to blossom quickly, empowering them to participate in IT and other digital services across the world as well as their home made products to be sold anywhere in the world through e-commerce.

Quick action on this front by the government would soon enable a new digital society in Kerala where those who aspire to be entrepreneurs would help themselves while rest of them would find an interesting job in their own villages. And the exodus from villages to cities would nearly stop and better highways and infrastructure would be one of the key driving factors. Aiding this quick transformation has to be the determination to clean up rivers and network them for delivery of goods up and down villages, combined with improving the education system to empower the skills of village youth to be entrepreneurs at home would soon enhance our capability to draw multifaceted benefits out of digital transformation. One of the tangible secondary benefits would be that Kerala would be deprived of its world recognition as the “Longest Parking Lot of Vehicles” since highways would be freed of congestion as people would be more “home centered” in their activities.

Most importantly, individual wealth creation would be the ultimate outcome of this wonderful initiative. By embracing such a strategy, we can truly work toward fulfilling the dream of Mahatma Gandhi who advocated a village-based wealth creation strategy when he said, “the future of India lies in its villages” and went on to practically demonstrate it by the great example of the “Charka Movement.”

The dawn of the Digital Age, if implemented aggressively, would become the catalyst to realize Gandhiji’s great vision during our times and prevent the destruction of Kerala’s fragile eco systems of air, water and forest, as is happening in China and some parts of the world due to unbridled industrial growth and urbanization. The 21st century Digital Village with global business capabilities and entrepreneurship throughout Kerala would be the surprising realization of this unique initiative in the near future.

(The writer, based in McLean, Virginia, is the Chairman of the NeST Group, a global conglomerate of more than a dozen companies spread across several continents. He is a former president of AMP.)

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