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Rohini Nilekani: Digital Dependencies

Civil Society | Strategic Philanthropy | Feb 7, 2018

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s comments on the “Digital Dependencies” panel at Digital Impact Mumbai Conference presented by the Stanford PACS on Feb 7, 2018. The panel discussion on “Digital Dependencies” was conducted by Lucy Bernholz, Director, Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. They discussed ways that digital data and infrastructure create new possibilities for working across sectors and the new demands of these relationships – including governance challenges, challenges to the social contract, and the need for new institutional capacities.

The issue of digital dependencies is very critical for the coming generations. India’s very young population is going to mature in this new digital age, and I think it opens up certain concerns for society. This is especially true for civil society, and how it will react and create a whole new era of functioning in a democracy. From what I’ve seen of India’s civil society organisations, some of them have quickly learnt and joined this digital universe very effectively, but the bulk of the organisations probably are just waking up to its immense potential. However, there are some organisations that are almost technophobic, and I think we need to address the fears that some of them have about participating in a digital universe that is controlled by large corporations. Perhaps they might also fear surveillance by the government. So how do we bring them to the discourse table?

One of the things I believe is that the same technologies that allow for surveillance equally allow for participation and sousveillance, which means looking at power structures from below. We really need to see how we can employ that potential in civil society’s work. In the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkar, i.e. society, the markets, and the state, it is important to understand that we can not hide too much from this digital world. So how can civil society organisations act as a check and balance on this potential of technology to amplify everything, both bad and good? Can we think of a new design for civil society itself?

In 2005 I had set up my foundation, Arghyam, to work on water and sanitation. When we developed the India Water Portal, which was envisaged as a knowledge platform on water, it was born in an area where some of these fascinating new technologies were not being deployed. Instead it has an old fashion idea of a digital presence. We found that we can’t take something that was designed back then and retrofit it. So we now have to rethink it completely.

On the other hand, the learning platform that Nandan and I set up two and a half years ago, EkStep, is already born in an age where so many digital technologies have converged and combined. So the way this organisation is born is very different. My husband and I had a sharp learning curve from our earlier work. Therefore, this organisation is developed as a new child of the digital age and incorporates a value structure which I believe is dear to my heart — the platform will be completely open and shareable. It will not hide behind proprietary walls, will use simple to use toolkits, and will allow many actors to collaborate. It is also mobile-friendly.

We are talking about things like offline internet for those with poor access to the internet. We also plan on creating three layers — a shared digital infrastructure, toolkits co-created by many of the actors in that sector, and an amplification layer. There’s so much tremendous potential for civil society organisations to scale their work, to find new partners across geographies, to de-risk from any local conditions, and to pull in the power of collaboration and co-creation. I hope we can enable India’s thriving civil society to participate more fully in this inevitable digital universe.

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