Technology: A Conversation across Borders

Nature of Technology and its Evolution

Since the beginning of human culture, technology persists, the chief evidence being the practice of using techniques for shaping tools during early man era. Technology has been a strong powerful force responsible for the development of civilization. In the past, technology — like language, ritual values, commerce, and the arts constituted an intrinsic part of a cultural system, shaped and reflected the system’s value. But in today’s world, technology is a complex social enterprise that not only includes research, design, and crafts but also finance, manufacturing, management, labor, marketing and maintenance.

Technological and Social Systems Interact Strongly

Individual inventiveness is essential to technological innovation. Nonetheless, social and economic forces strongly influence what technologies will be undertaken, paid attention to, invested in, and used. Such decisions occur directly as a matter of government policy and indirectly as a consequence of the circumstances and values of a society at any particular time. In countries like India, decisions about which technological options will prevail are influenced by many factors, such as consumer acceptance, patent laws, the availability of risk capital, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, tax incentives, and scientific discoveries. The balance of such incentives and regulations usually bears differently on different technological systems, encouraging some and discouraging others.

Historically, some social theorists have believed that technological change (such as industrialization and mass production) causes social change, whereas others have believed that social change (such as political or religious changes) leads to technological change.

The Social System Imposes Some Restrictions on Openness in Technology

For the most part, the professional values of engineering are very similar to those of science, including the advantages seen in the open sharing of knowledge. Because of the economic value of technology, however, there are often constraints on the openness of science and engineering that are relevant to technological innovation. A large investment of time and money and considerable commercial risk are often required to develop a new technology and bring it to market. That investment might well be jeopardized if competitors had access to the new technology without making a similar investment, and hence companies are often reluctant to share technological knowledge. Commercial advantage is not the only motivation for secrecy and control. Some scientists and engineers are very uncomfortable with what they perceive as a compromise of the scientific ideal, and some refuse to work on projects that impose secrecy. Others, however, view the restrictions as appropriate.

The Journey from Invention to Innovation. Is it hard?

It can be argued that solutions for many of the challenged humanity faces have almost or already been developed, but since technologies and social system interact strongly with each other from time to time, the journey from invention to innovation takes a longer time. Investment for development of new technologies targeting the pressing challenges of the world is not executed due to non-profitable nature of business. Every decision to make an impact requires a cash-flow of billions of dollars whether inwards or outwards in some entity’s pocket, affecting and changing our lives forever.

But what are technologies of scales and impact? It is a product which can be used by everyone like solar energy generated or a service which offers jobs to millions of poor people? For me both are making an impact and somewhere involves the implementation of a simple conceptual idea with the help of technological tools we got today. I would like to cite two examples from Indian scenario that brought scale of changes in a country like India.

In 1970, when India was declared a milk deficient nation, Verghese Kurain, the chairman of the National Dairy Development Board came up with a simple idea of creating a national milk grid linking rural milk producers throughout the India with consumers in over 700 towns and cities, reducing seasonal and regional price variations while ensuring the producer gets a major share of the price consumers pay, by cutting out middlemen. A simple idea scaled for mass population targeting multiple goals creating a national revolution which we know by the name of ‘White Revolution’.

In Mumbai, most office workers prefer to eat home-cooked food in their workplace rather than eat outside at a food stand or at a local restaurant, using for reasons of taste and hygiene. Dabbahwallahs are a huge group of men who collect hot food in lunch boxes from the residences of workers in the late morning, deliver lunches to the workplace, predominately using bicycles and the railways trains and returns empty boxes to the worker’s residence that afternoon. These huge groups of men are now employed because of the formation of dabbahwallah network and hence contribute to the economy and employment index of the nation.

So no, it is not hard to make a journey from invention to innovation. I would like to suggest few initiative steps

  • Technology as a tool to overcome human limits to make the application of these technologies as effective as possible.
  • Frontiers between humanity and technology to draw a new relation between human and technology ‘Human Technology’.
  • Beyond the technological frontier to be more open about technological knowledge to make it more affordable to those who need the most, to make information into useful knowledge.
  1. Build new relationships. A crucial first step in any process of effecting change is what David Mathews calls “banding together.” It means forming relationships, organizing, and claiming collective responsibility for a given issue or situation. This can range from highly organized community town meetings to a few neighbours getting together in someone’s living room to discuss their concerns. In some cases, building new relationships may only be possible by fundamentally changing relationships that are already in place. Banding together generates “a sense of the possibility for change,” Mathews writes. It is therefore an essential prerequisite to bringing about desired changes.
  2. Discuss and deliberate. All effective change strategies hinge on discussion and deliberation. At a minimum, discussion allows the issues to be named and framed. It also helps individuals develop a shared perspective. Dialogue helps to eliminate false divisions among people, builds common ground, and allows for the emergence of a more systemic perspective.
  3. Develop shared visions and goals. Setting new directions for the future is one of the most powerful ways of effecting change. When people come together “in such a way that their individual visions can start to interact,” as Peter Senge puts it, a creative tension is established that gives focus, direction, and context to changes as they occur. Some techniques for developing common visions include futures commissions, search conferences, and visioning meetings in which participants develop “best case” scenarios and articulate common goals.
  4. Foster social capital. Robert Putnam and others have used the term “social capital” to denote the networks and norms of trust and reciprocity that characterize healthy social orders. The term suggests that capital can be measured in social as well as economic terms, that relationships have an inherent value. Building networks and relationships within and between individuals and groups is not something that can be done overnight, but it is no doubt one of the most effective change strategies available to communities and civic organizations.
  5. Ensure broad participation and diversity. Fundamental change is impossible without the participation of everybody with a stake in the problem or issue. Without the full participation of all concerned, perspectives will be missing and there is a good chance that some of the issues involved will go unaddressed. Another aspect of this is the inherent value of diversity. Research in anthropology, sociology, and biology shows that homogeneity fosters stability, while diversity invariably produces change. It follows that planned change is best achieved by promoting diversity.
  6. Determine leadership roles. There are many types of leaders, from presidents and mayors to teachers, neighbourhood activists, and even parents. But no matter what form they take they lend cohesion to a group and act as spark-plugs for change. Their vision, drive and personal commitment can be keys to galvanizing a group into action. Leaders are also able to champion and protect those within groups who are most willing to risk change.
  7. Identify outside resources. Fundamental change tends to be difficult and painful and always involves uncertainty and risk. Since most communities and organizations that embark on the journey need outside help — from foundations, consultants, civic organizations, trade associations, government departments, etc. — they need to develop linkages to outside sources of capital and information. These linkages not only facilitate the process of change they often provide opportunities for lateral learning and growth.
  8. Draw on the examples of others. Change takes place in an infinite variety of ways and there is no single strategy that will work for every individual or group. Still, those seeking to effect change may take comfort and inspiration from the examples of others. Not only does this provide mentors from whom they can learn, it offers them conviction that their goal is attainable.
  9. Adopt a change mindset. Nothing precipitates change like a crisis. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. The question is whether it is possible to adopt a crisis-perspective without a crisis, or at least a mindset that is constantly attuned to change. Many innovators and change agents insist that it is possible. What is required, they say, is a shift of perception from seeing change as dis-equilibrium to seeing it as a constant. Strategizing for change ultimately comes down to whether individuals are motivated to change, learn, and grow.

I would like to conclude this article with an example from my workplace. Visually Impaired population in the world accounts of 13 percent of global population. Having partial or no vision have lead to major difficulties in education, employment and their acceptance in society or dependency over the society. To solve this problem, technologist developed refreshable Braille displays to help them read digital text on eBooks and website through Braille cells dots which are proprietary technologies of a few groups of scientists in Europe. They are so costly that the overall market or retail cost of device starts from Rs. 200,000 which leads to almost negligible penetration in developing countries like India and hence hindering the growth of visually impaired people every day. Indian Institute of Technology, came forward with the invention of affordable Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) based Braille cells reducing the overall market cost of the device to one-tenth of global market value (Rs. 20,000). The product will be launched globally in 2017 and will benefit to millions of visually impaired population in developing countries.

“Risk more than others think is safe. 
Dream more than others think is practical.”
- Howard Schultz