India can lead the digital society and become a global leader in its own right, says Mukesh Ambani

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Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, Reliance Industries

The first two decades of this century have seen exponential growth in connectivity technology, computing technologies, next-generation silicon chips and the convergence of many technologies leading to great change. But this is just the beginning of an ‘even more incredible, even more exciting, and even more beneficial’ transformation, says Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries Ltd.  He was talking to Anjali Bansal, Founder of Avaana Capital and ex-Chair of Dena Bank virtually at International Financial Services Centres Authority and Bloomberg Asia’s InFinity Forum on December 3. Edited excerpts from the chat:

Q: As we all know, the world has come a long way from the age of computerisation and basic connectivity through the Internet. Actually, Covid has accelerated digitisation of all aspects of business and life. Enterprises have learnt to work remotely and increased their use of tech and people have learnt to consume everything digitally, even sectors like education, healthcare, and of course, financial and work transactions. So, how do you view the world’s transition towards digitisation? How is that set to impact the holistic development of India on the economic and social fronts?

My greetings to all in the Infinity forum. Let me at the very outset thank the Government of India, the International Financial Services Centre Authority, GIFT City and Bloomberg for organising the “InFinity Forum”.

I must especially thank and commend our visionary Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his inspiring leadership, which has made not only GIFT City, but the “InFinity Forum” possible.

This Forum is taking place virtually from the GIFT City and GIFT City will be a great place where digital technologies, finance and enabling policy framework merge together to create unique opportunities for technological innovations and new-age start-ups.

These are breakthrough opportunities not only for India, but I believe for the entire world.

Our prime minister thinks far ahead of the times. Long before Fintech became the buzzword around the globe, he not only conceptualised the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or the GIFT City, but also started work on its implementation. It has now become a reality. So congratulations to everybody in the GIFT City organisation who have converted this vision into reality at the right time.

Now, let me answer your question.

In my own lifetime, and I am now 63 years old, I have seen four technology transitions, each one more transformative than the previous one.

The first was the transition from the mainframe computer to where computers were only used by a few people to computers in use by thousands of people and this happened when I was a chemical engineering student in college in the 70s.

The second was the transition from this basic computer revolution to the ICT revolution, when mobile phones and the internet came into being —  as two separate developments.

The third was the transition from this mobile and computer – both converging into a digital revolution and when internet really came in force. And this is when mobile and the internet got merged. As a result, the number of users which started in thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands went to literally billions and now we are witnessing as we speak, what I believe is the fourth transition — from the digital revolution where billions of people across the world use digital technology to what I call the Digital First revolution. Where digital becomes first a way of life for 9 billion people who will be on earth (7 billion today and going to 9 billion) and for everything that is physical to be connected.

And this really has happened because, primarily, of the advent of exponential growth in connectivity technology, computing technologies and we have had next-generation silicon chips – so we’ve had at least five or six technologies converge at one time, which is happening in the first two decades of this century, which I think will transform the world. And what we will see in the next 20 years is what we have not seen in the last 100 years.

And this transformation is taking place as we see and I believe like any transformation unevenly across geographies and across social classes. But since the speed of transition is so breath-taking, I have no doubt that globally we are on the verge of building a Digital Society. And I believe that India – like China led manufacturing – can lead the digital society and become a global leader in its own right.

Let me explain, what, I mean by digital society. Everything in the physical world, almost every activity in the human world can now be digitised, digitally enabled, digitally enriched and digitally transformed.

Anything and everything that can go digital, is going digital at an exponential pace. This dramatic transformation is enabling people to perform tasks digitally, which traditionally were only meant to be performed using physical infrastructure.

For example, holding meetings or shopping or watching a movie or making a vendor payment – all these activities 10 years ago would have meant using physical infrastructure in different places. But today we all do them from the convenience of our home. Even common people are now making financial transactions at the click of a button on their smartphones.

But this is just the beginning of what is going to be even more incredible, even more exciting, and even more beneficial. This is because the world is going to be transformed by the digital first revolution. The physical world will become subordinate to the digital world.

Whatever product or service we desire is being first imagined and designed in the digital space, and then created in the physical space.

Whether you are building an airport or a township, whether you are manufacturing a car or something in consumer electronics, it is today possible to design it end-to-end first in the digital space, test it as per all possible parameters, and then translate it into reality.

What it achieves in terms of project execution is unprecedented velocity, quality, reliability, efficiency, customisation, and customer satisfaction.

There will also be drastic cost reduction and drastic reduction in resource wastage. Reduction in resource wastage is especially important because it will mean care for the planet.

Care for the planet is happening because of another related development.

Energy systems are also being digitised, data-driven and AI-enabled. The transition to energy saving, decarbonisation, and clean and green energy is happening at an astonishing pace. We will therefore be seeing something unbelievable in the near future. There will be tremendous value creation in the virtual world, as there is value creation in the physical world.

For example, people will begin to buy, sell and use virtual real estate.

Ideas and innovations will become more valuable than how much physical and financial capital an entrepreneur has.

Therefore, the coming digital first revolution is going to make our world — and make India — more inclusively prosperous than we can now imagine.

I can say with absolute confidence that the digital first world will be a more equal world, without the traditional and unacceptable disparities and deprivations we see in our societies at present.

The digital first world will be a people-first world. No one will be last, and no human being will be left behind. The digital first world will also be a planet-first world. Care for the Planet and Care for the People — these two mantras will guide the technological transformation of the world in the 21th century.

 You have often said that data is the new oil. If data is the new oil, then digital infrastructure is the new pipeline. And for us to put a people first, planet first world, a lot of the global growth will depend on nations building and leveraging that infrastructure for providing better, faster, and more cost-effective services to citizens in a way that minimises the physical and indeed the planetary environmental footprint. India has led the way, I think India has been an immense innovator in creating public digital goods. We started with Aadhar (1.3 billion people with a unique biometric ID), we have the ability through Jan Dhan accounts to actually reach people at the last mile, UPI has enabled the average person to transact with each other without using physical currency. And now of course we are going into the realm of open networks for digital commerce, the UPI for e-commerce, the National Digital Health unique ID and so on. As a passionate business leader in this process of transition, where your company has played such a seminal role, could you please share your views and vision on this next generation of digital infrastructure, where we are minimising the planetary footprint by maximising the gain to people?

Data is indeed the new oil, but the new oil is fundamentally different from the traditional oil. Traditional oil was extracted only at select places – thus, it created wealth only for a few countries.

In contrast, the new oil — that is data — can be generated and consumed everywhere and by everybody. It has the potential to create value equitably, across sectors, across geographies, and across economic classes. Every person can be a user, creator and owner of data. Therefore, the new oil has been completely democratised and decentralised.

And here, India has a unique advantage — demography. We are a nation of 1.35 billion people, and will soon become the world’s most populous nation, overtaking China; and also the world’s youngest nation.

Our second major strength is that India has built the digital pipeline — a world-class digital infrastructure — that has reached all our cities and towns, and almost all our 600,000 villages. Again thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s digital India vision.

A person in the remotest village can today learn from the latest developments around the world, consult and collaborate with people across continents and share her views or his views on global platforms.

Jio, I am proud to say, has taken the lead in this. Jio has ensured affordable high-speed data connectivity, which is a pre-requisite to digital revolution. Today, the entire country is transitioning fully from 2G era to 4G era. We are in the process of creating an equally affordable ecosystem of devices to enable greater adoption, supported by a faster rollout of optic fibre, cloud, and data centre infrastructure.

The next step will be connectivity of machines, devices and vehicles, which is the Internet of Things (IoT). This will involve many components like different kinds of sensors, smart devices, edge computing, cloud computing and AI.

And with 5G rollout next year in India, we are well on our way to have one of the most advanced digital infrastructures in any economy in the world.

As the underlying technologies mature, we will be able to reinvent all sectors of our economy digitally – whether it is financial services, commerce, manufacturing, agriculture, education and healthcare.

Most importantly, in addition to the fintech, the grassroots sectors such as agriculture, education and healthcare will transform into more efficient, more affordable and more accessible to all Indians, thanks to the digital technologies.

So, with this India will make great strides in fintech, edtech, health-tech and Industry 4.0.

Digital technology I believe is a great leveller, a great democratiser. It is the greatest ‘gift’ to humanity. s the name of this Forum suggests, its future possibilities are truly ‘infinite’.

As an avid science fiction reader I feel like the future is already here. So, from then to now, the ubiquitous digitisation, the creation of high quality public and private digital infrastructures. This boundary-less world that we are going into, which is the digital and not physical in nature, it creates a sense of balance requirement. So while at one hand it is boundary-less, at the same time both data and physical infrastructure have strategic national importance which all countries would like to protect and for the right reasons. How can we balance out protecting countries’ self-interest and at the same time reap the benefits of globally connected young population with their ideas and take advantage of the global transfer and collaboration of ideas and solutions? 

Both data and digital infrastructure, are strategically important, not only for India but for every other nation in the world. Because all 7 billion (people) are in it together, as we have seen with all the multiple phases of COVID-19 that we have gone through over the last two years.

Coming to data, I think every country has the right to build and protect its own strategic digital infrastructure. However, this revolution is inherently global. It has made the entire world more inter-connected and inter-dependent than ever before and I believe that collectively as a human race, we can progress much more by being inter-connected and inter-dependent.

Therefore, I believe that we need uniform global standards, so that cross-border transactions, collaborations and partnerships are not hampered. We need, ultimately, and I hope India can lead the way, to uniform UPI or a uniform payments interface. India’s Aadhaar can lead the way to a uniform Aadhaar for all 7 billion people, so that every person on this Earth is uniquely identified. And India leads the way, and that’s the opportunity.

The third thing that I think is very important is every citizen’s right to privacy which has to be safeguarded.

Therefore, we have to have the right policies and the right regulatory framework to balance the imperatives of creating next-generation infrastructure, of harmonising it and integrating it with the world. And regulating it in a way that we don’t stifle innovation, but protect the end user, and all the citizens of the country and citizens of the world.

And again, I have to say that India, is putting all the most forward-looking policies and regulations in place. As you said, we have Aadhaar, we have Jan Dhan accounts and we have our UPI interface.

We are on the verge of introducing a Data Privacy Bill, which I look forward to, and also the Cryptocurrency Bill, which will come here. So, I think that we are on the right track and what impresses me the most is that as a society we are proactive, we are open and we are vibrant.

And as a democracy we can really be at par with the most developed economies in terms of our thinking and in terms of benefit to all our citizens. India, I believe is now well on its way to transform itself into a leading Digital Society, having put digital infrastructure in place, having put the regulatory framework in place. Armed with these two enablers, India’s young and super-talented entrepreneurs are now ready to fly.

And I believe that they can achieve a much, much faster economic growth, progress and prosperity for all our people and contribute to the rest of the world.

We have seen despite the difficult times through COVID-19, the acceleration of digitisation and the convergence of finance, retail and logistics, e-commerce is just a tip of the iceberg. The InFinity Forum is focussing on fintechs. What do you think will be the next convergence? What do you think will propel the growth of fintech or ‘human’-tech?

I think that the opportunity in terms of convergence…in my view, finance is at the heart of everything and we have not digitised finance to its full potential. I believe we are at very early stages of sporadic digitisation and the opportunity as I see, all these technologies emerging, is the opportunity to make sure we actually adopt a decentralised model of finance.

We have evolved over the last hundred years in organised finance in a very centralised model, and I still believe that there will be centralised government and central bank policies, but there will a path to a very decentralised technological solutions where finance will be enabled and available to everybody. Today we have a world where still a world where large companies get finance, small companies don’t get easier finance, same thing with people. And I think that will change. I also think that convergence as I see, real-time technologies are there and it is great that we have moved from T+7, to T+2 and T+1, but I am a big believer in real time. So everything will settle in real time. Smart contracts will become real.

Blockchain is a technology I believe in and it’s different from crypto and I think that smart tokens, making sure that you are creating transactions that can never be changed is a very important framework for a just and trust-based transactions and trust-based society. Which is a pre-requisite for all of us.

So, I think the convergence of real-time, the convergence of the distributed ledger and blockchain technology (smart tokens), the convergence of physical and digital through IoT will enable and will re-define the decentralised financial sector in a way that we have never imagined. And I think that this is happening in the coming 10 years. And again, this will be a pre-requisite to great economic growth, because this is how, and we have just said this in terms of you know, we could have never imagined that India would have startups that would be funded – even five years ago if you had asked me. Today there is more money and they are chasing people and they are short of ideas and I’m sure all our young people will come up with more and more ideas because there are still many, many problems to be solved in the world.

And I think that it is time for GIFT City – the infrastructure and the vision with which GIFT City was created, not only to enable technology and innovation in India; but also to be gateway to the rest of the world. In terms of trying to take innovation in India and export it to the rest of the world. And I’m sure that our young people will do that.

I am always inspired by what I learn when I interact with our 30-year-olds at Reliance. And Reliance is just a proxy of what is happening in India. I really see a bright future ahead.

So, through the medium of Bloomberg and the InFinity Forum, I would like to convey my very best wishes to every aspiring young Indian entrepreneur, innovator, and digital change-agent, to really bring India to its full potential and wish you and all the viewers a very happy, safe and prosperous 2022. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Disclaimer: MoneyControl is a part of the Network18 group. Network18 is controlled by Independent Media Trust, of which Reliance Industries is the sole beneficiary.

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