Not too hi-tech for India: how we build products

There are two reactions to starting a technology company addressing India’s waste supply chain problems we often get:

  1. Isn’t this too hi-tech for India?
  2. Yeah, India really needs something like this. Developed countries do it so much better.

In crafting our response, we realized it would be best to do so across two separate blog posts. Here’s the first part of our response:

1. Isn’t this too hi-tech for India? Apart from the postcolonial inferiority complex diatribe I could go on, I think this speaks to the elitism associated with technology to which the majority of us (albeit, unknowingly) subscribe to. The type of phone you have, whether you have an accompanying iPad is often as much a status symbol as the type of car you drive.

So, understandably, we ignore the equalizing potential of technology, barring a few efforts like the Aadhar programme or startups like Babajobs that were one of the first tech companies to look at engaging blue collar workers through a mobile platform they could actually use. In our minds, technology is always complex, fancy, and aspirational. Sadly, we don’t consider usability, simplicity, and purpose as much as we could. Therefore, access is usually the last thing on our mind.

At Citizengage, one of our core beliefs is in the power of technology, applied at critical junctures, to unleash information flows across people who otherwise make decisions in the blind because they are under-served or ignored by most technology innovations. We flip typical assumptions and product development processes on their head, making “anyone, everyone should be able to participate” our guiding principle.

Our product developers aren’t staring at a screen of code and making up wireframes as we tell them what our technology should do. Our most powerful product engineers are our users who tell us how they use their phones, what information they would like to access, and the easiest, most intuitive, and efficient way to do this. We don’t build anything without prototyping and user testing in the field. We embrace the iterative approach and often find some of our most basic assumptions blown to pieces soon as our users are called upon to play and teach us. Often, we learn far more about how different brains process and interact with information within a few minutes of interacting with our users than we could debating internally for hours. We are surprised on a daily basis. And we love it!

Rather than copying+pasting foreign technology at home as part of our aspirations to “become like them”, we believe in innovating for our local challenges and growing out of this experience to offer something unique to the world. If you follow the next blog post on our favorite waste infographic, you’ll see that we’re building a better platform not just for India but one that will give responsible citizens, businesses, and processors across the world, more control over their waste operations and impact.

Our quest is deeply rooted in the belief that solving hyper-local civic service problems in Indian cities will provide new systems the world can leverage to better manage essential services with higher engagement across the supply chain . We’ve seen myriad cases where attempts to simply adapt technology from elsewhere have ended in utter failure. We’re still talking about technology to process mixed waste that yields 20% value at best when citizens have already shown the aptitude to segregate at source, especially when there’s transparency on what’s happening with their waste after they put it out. Perhaps the need for segregating at source should be a separate blog post but it’s clear that it is the only way forward if we are to manage our waste problem at scale.

And at Citizengage, we’re already demonstrating that model with engaged, responsible people craving for a better system. We were born in the world’s largest democracy. If we don’t build better models for governing public resources, shame on us.

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