The next leapfrog…

14 May, 2013

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining a select group of folks in San Francisco to celebrate Dlight Design being awarded the Zayed International Prize For The Environment, which is a large prize given to an SME that has truly transformed lives globally through use of clean technology. The group included the Dlight CEO, investors, NGOs, representatives from Facebook, Ideo and other participants in the energy and social impact ecosystem. The lunchtime conversation that followed was fantastic, with a brainstorm around catalysing impact, change and technology-transfer worldwide.

During the course of that interaction, I started thinking through the key challenges and opportunities for developed versus developing world. The obvious ah-ha moment was that “the developed world is precisely that…developed”, and therefore has a largely predictable physical infrastructure in place to provide for its communities and society. The developing world, however, is also just that…developing, with little infrastructural predictability (Bangalore traffic, for example). One of my favourite phrases is “turning flaw into a feature”, and that’s the crux of this particular submission. While the developing world is considered lagging behind in so many different ways, it has one very distinct advantage. It, by definition, has little to no legacy infrastructure in many cases, to extract, replace or upgrade, and therefore has the luxury of adopting new technologies much faster. Think about new airlines/aircraft and five star hotels throughout the emerging world, which are the best globally. Big reason for that is the fact that there was a clean slate to begin with.

The mobile revolution in India and the emerging world is an obvious and one of the most powerful examples of just that. With no real landline telecommunication infrastructure to speak of, India had not only no choice but at the same time the luxury to leapfrog, and given, thankfully, a combination of economic reform and wireless innovations globally (primarily in Silicon Valley), was able to leverage the latest technology in terms of capacity, cost and efficiency. Carriers were able to use economies of scale to create business models to revolutionise communications in India, but at the same time create multi-billion dollar enterprises.

As I thought more about the telecommunication leapfrog effect, I started wondering what other technology innovations might help catalyse true transformation in India. Clearly, infrastructure issues remain challenging, and while “beam me up, Scotty” means of transportation are unlikely in the near future, there are other infrastructure sectors where similar leapfrogs will take place, thanks to Moore, Metcalfe, Kurzweil and other pundits whose tech extrapolations and predictions continue to bear fruit. Let’s also keep in mind the second-order effects. For example, while the mobile revolution in a country like India was primarily voice centric for a number of years, the app economy and cloud leapfrog in the developed world have given rise to an amazing set of mobile applications that can truly change lives, whether it’s related to healthcare, education, agriculture or other information (being converted into knowledge). With reducing prices and freemium business models proliferating, India and other emerging economies will continue to be the hotbed of mobile uptake for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of predictions, here is one of mine. But before the punch line, let me digress slightly (you knew that teaser was coming). Recently, I found myself in the heart of Chandni Chowk, a colorful part (literally and figuratively) of Old Delhi after an eventful day visiting the Attero plant in Roorkee by bus (which is an entire submission all by itself). I was able to convince the other board members to continue the day by visiting old Delhi and its culinary delights, which is precisely what we did. We found ourselves at the famous Karim’s restaurant next to one of the oldest mosques in India, Jama Masjid at 10 pm on a Tuesday night. After a rich delicious dinner, I, along with fellow board members, decided to walk to find another famous landmark called “Paranthe Wali Gali” (literally, street of pan fried bread). The idea was to deter a bit from the health conscious daily routine to try a once-a-year truly culinary experience in terms of perhaps a paranthe or a jalebi (fried sugar) from the famous Jalebiwala in Chandni Chowk who has been around for almost forty years. During our fifteen-minute walk from Karim’s to the Gali, we were absolutely astonished by the site of hundreds of tangled, chaotic web of wires and cables dangling everywhere, some from poles, others from store fronts and other facades, probably accumulated over the past several decades. Many of them were low enough for little kids to effectively use as swings. The mishmash included higher voltage wires, telecommunication cables, fiber, cable TV connects and anything else that requires wire-line transport of electrons. I made the comment at that time that “only through the grace of God does this country work, and you don’t have major accidents”.

Just as I uttered those words, we saw something truly remarkable. It was pitch dark, since there was no electricity in the neighbourhood at that time, except for some kerosene lamps that were dimly lit. We were still in awe of the tangled web when we saw a fire truck of all things coming down the street. While, typically it would not be an unusual site, this seemed a little out of place, especially since the street was barely wide enough to accommodate the truck just by itself. Try putting yourself in the moment. It’s 11 pm, in the inner alleys of Chandni Chowk, perhaps one of the highest population (and infrastructure) density places on the planet; it’s dark, and down the alley comes a fire truck (there was no fire that we could notice, by the way), without either its headlights or sirens turned on (I wasn’t sure if the lights simply didn’t work, it was an effort to conserve energy while driving, or the driver didn’t want to disturb people who were sleeping on the sidewalks by shining bright halogens on their sleep-deprived faces). Even that by itself, might not have been all that extraordinary.

But then came the surprise. We realised that the truck during one of its turns through the alley had gotten a few of the cables tangled around the water spout on top of the truck, without the driver realising it. So, as it made its way down the street, the truck was dismantling the entire electrical, cable and swing infrastructure of Chandni Chowk from either side of the street. Amazingly though, there were no sparks flying which led us to believe that perhaps there were no electrons actually flowing through the cables (this is when lack of power may actually be a boon). But a fire truck causing a fire and then dousing it might have been interesting example of complete vertical integration. As the truck approached, I put my hands up trying to get him to stop, as did a couple of other people. Finally, the truck driver did realise that he had single-handedly caused a major infrastructural disaster in Old Delhi. In a typical “it only happens in India” fashion, the fireman/driver simply climbed on top of the truck and started untangling the wires and cables by hand. Not wanting to see a civic servant get fried on the job, we decided to move on quickly, using our phones as flashlights to maneuver through the dark alleys in our ongoing quest to still find Paranthe Wali Gali. While we did eventually find the street, we were disappointed by the fact that the shops were shutting down (it was, after all, 11:30 pm on a Tuesday night). Again, turning the flaw into a feature, we used the time to pay visit to one of the main Sikh temples (Sis Ganj) in that same neighborhood, which was a first for my colleagues.

The reason for the above digression was to simply highlight the absolute mess that exists around something as fundamental as power infrastructure, which is the foundation for any economy aspiring to be a leader. In India, I don’t see either the political will or the economic flexibility for the government to invest hundreds of billions of dollars needed to upgrade the grid and bring power to the hundreds of millions without it. As a result, the next major leapfrog that I anticipate over the next couple of decades will be in the power infrastructure, and specifically with distributed power (solar primarily, but also wind and bio), and through a strong partnership potentially between government and private sector, specifically entrepreneurs. For example, India is blessed with significant sunlight during most of the year, and with the costs of panels, energy storage and other related power conditioning equipment decreasing over time with higher efficiencies, this presents an amazing leapfrog opportunity of the century potentially for not only India but other sun drenched parts of the world, where terrestrial power infrastructure is either highly unlikely or outright impossible.

While companies like Dlight Design are trying to eradicate kerosene-based lighting solutions, and replace them with cleaner solar lanterns, companies like Bharat Light and Power, Husk Power, Azure and others will clearly leverage clean technologies at a much larger and increasingly distributed scale to bypass the need for creating or upgrading existing physical infrastructure for power distribution. I, for one, am really looking forward to the monumental change in store for India. And in so doing, not only bring power to the masses (literally and figuratively) currently without it, but also remove the significant power infrastructure hazards that currently exist in places like Chandni Chowk.

(Mohanjit Jolly is the managing director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. The views expressed are strictly personal. They do not represent the views of the organization he represents.)

To become a guest contributor with VCCircle, write to shrija@vccircle.com.


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1 Comment
Santosh Verma . 4 years ago

Mohanjit,

You have the ability to say something that can be said in 100 words in 5,000 words. Congrats on a well written article.

Santosh.

The next leapfrog…

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