Transforming Kerala to a Knowledge Economy

23 January 2020
International Consultation Webinar by GIFT

Closing Plenary
Post Budget International Consultation on Transforming Kerala to a Knowledge Economy

The recent Kerala budget has placed the creation of a knowledge economy as its centerpiece.  I am in particular very glad to see a focus on higher education that is foundational to a competitive knowledge economy. The proposed creation of the knowledge economy fund, ensuring ubiquitous net access, fostering the growth of AI and IOT, are all transformational initiatives in the recent budget.

Many talks today reflected the fact that the quality of thinking and innovation in Kerala is already many steps ahead of other parts of the country and many parts of the world. So many good ideas were covered today, and quite comprehensively, that my remarks will be in the nature of highlighting just a few thoughts on Kerala’s efforts to establish and successfully execute its ambition to be a knowledge economy.

First, I want to highlight the importance of, and applaud, the state’s efforts to promote an ecosystem that fosters the digital industry. The ecosystem should help the state ride the wave of the fourth industrial revolution that is well upon us.

The ubiquitous availability of connectivity is leading to the democratisation of technology; Dr Thomas Isaac asserted his commitment that there shall be no digital divide in Kerala. The state, with its high human development indicators, is uniquely poised to take advantage of the paradigm shift of the fourth industrial revolution.

The adoption of 5G technology, expected over the next 3-4 years, will be a force multiplier for the kind of talent and skill sets that Kerala can provide in abundance. 5G is expected to provide a great fillip to geographically dispersed value-creation, which is ideal for Kerala, given its combined rural-urban settlement pattern.

The state is a pioneer in terms of creating a proactive policy environment, being the first in the country to formulate a policy for the development of technological startups and incubation centers. It is important to continue to evolve the enabling ecosystem. Tom Thomas’s presentation today provided an impressive story. Efforts need to be sustained in this direction, in partnership with the private sector.

Many successful Kerala entrepreneurs who have made their mark globally, nationally and regionally, can help lead in this endeavor. Mention was made today of the important need for mentors. Successful entrepreneurs and experienced industry executives should be tapped in this regard, possibly with incentives for their participation.

My second point has to do with data. Along with ubiquitous connectivity, we are amid the big-data revolution: the ability that we now possess to collect, curate, and utilize what has been called a ‘tsunami of data’. The potential of data was mentioned by speakers earlier today.

To unleash the power that this presents, Kerala could consider embracing open data concepts, which will allow its citizens to review, compare, visualize and analyze government data online and share their findings in real time. In my tenure in the U.S. Government, I saw how President Obama’s policies on open data led to a host of new businesses that grew up to use such data.

Open data policies can also help the Kerala Government in many ways.

The use of big data culled from implanted IoT devices can facilitate cost-effective innovation in the use of natural resources like water for irrigation, or energy for pumping water.  AI has the potential to radically transform areas such as healthcare using techniques like non-linear analysis, probabilistic interpretation, and dynamic reasoning. Predictive analytics can improve safety thresholds in public infrastructure, while enabling economies of use.

Which brings me to my next point- revamping of the skilling ecosystem, to take advantage of the disruptions brought about by technology and big data.

Talent is becoming increasingly critical, in proportion to capital, as a factor of production, while robotics and AI are displacing human endeavour and repetitive work across sectors. Studies conducted by the World Economic Forum have predicted that up to 50% of the current tasks and skills would be replaced by AI, and that nearly two-thirds of children who start school now will go on to jobs that don’t exist yet. In this regard, it is important to understand the near term and long term changes that are likely to happen and shape the skilling ecosystem accordingly.

A critical requirement is to collapse the barriers between the specialized skilling institutions like the ITIs, universities, and industry. The legacy paradigm is that of training institutions that deliver courses anticipating the needs of industry, and then supplying graduates annually. I have seen this as a challenge in the United States as well. In this new era, skilling can no longer be episodic or modular, and we must embrace a new paradigm of flexible, customized, and contextual lifelong learning. This means that all the actors – skilling institutions, communities, and firms must work together as a coalition. Moreover, skilling delivery models can be asset-light, transmitting learning and skills even remotely, through media like the mobile phone.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed two other disruptive trends that we need to be prepared for:increasing talent and price arbitration arising from the ease with which skills and work can be delivered remotely to clients worldwide, and the rising popularity of what is called ‘gig-working’, where services are increasingly being  delivered to firms exogenously, and not by staff on the payroll.  Kerala should tap into these opportunities and serve global clients working from Kerala, at a scale that surpasses what is already happening. 

These trends will raise the need for the efficient delivery of high-quality skills and create much-needed jobs. I greatly appreciated the insights that Mr Santhosh Kurup shared in this regard.

And last, but not the least – leveraging the educated women population of Kerala. Kerala has a significant number of qualified women, Dr Isaac mentioned the number as 5 million, who are not in formal jobs. On account of COVID-19, a number of remote execution jobs, from data analytics and predictive modeling, to design services for various industries, that are suitable for women are emerging.  The state government’s recent initiative to provide ubiquitous net connectivity, as well as laptops for every household, will empower women to access these emerging job requirements .  A  focused attempt to make such opportunities available, along with a well-targeted  upskilling initiative, can potentially double the formal working population of women. in Kerala

A new moment for Kerala is well within sight – and the state can build on its favourable socio-economic base to transform into a highly productive knowledge economy based on skills, technology and innovation – and a commitment to inclusivity.