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India Stack: Revolutionizing Digital Infrastructure

Portrait of Sharad Sharma


Life as a Digital System: The Kernel Thinking Approach

Imagine for a moment that life is like a computer system, with the choices we make and our problems similar to the software applications. As we interact with the mere surface of our devices, there is always a deeper layer hidden from view, the operating system or the digital infrastructure. Similar to life, the depth of our experiences is not dependent on just the outward applications but also the digital infrastructure beneath. This refers to ‘kernel thinking,’ encouraging us to look beyond the surface to analyze life better.

"The modern-day entrepreneur is somebody who wants to dent or ding the universe and make money by dinging the universe." — Sharad Sharma

A Visionary's Journey

This mentality is what visionary Sharad Sharma uses to see the world. Sharad Sharma is the co-founder of the Indian Software Product Industry Table (iSPIRT). His background is one full of entrepreneurship and working with technology companies like Cisco, Yahoo, Veritas, AT&T, Lucent, and Bell Labs. Sharad’s journey is one of growth, and is being highlighted by his use of technology to inspire citizens and bring upon change not only to India but also the world.

Cultural Insight through Kernel Eyes

Sharad uses kernel eyes to help him analyze culture and language. To him, experiencing different cultures prompts self-reflection and helps us gain a deeper understanding of the human experience. This ability to navigate various cultures can also help individuals to engage in helpful dialogues about all the similarities that connect people across diverse backgrounds.

The Birth of iSPIRT

His kernel thinking helped him start up iSPIRT as well. A non-profit organization that focuses on technology-based entrepreneurship. When he looks at India, he sees issues that could be solved for the betterment of the country. However, solving these problems requires us to look beyond the surface, and they need to be fixed at an operating system level. To him, India has been trying to fix their problems at an app level, instead of an OS level, because of this, they are not able to reach the root issue.

"By decoupling the two roles, we were able to foster more innovation. We could have specialized players...we were able to create specialized startups that came up who could deal with the collection part, the permission collection part of this." — Sharad Sharma

Fostering Collaboration for Innovation

In order for Sharad to solve these problems in an innovative way, he needed to take a team approach. While he did have start-up and corporate experience, he had to co-op people that came from a policy background. Sharad created an ecosystem for his team, almost like a playground, where many innovative thinkers and policymakers can come together.

Vision of a 'Product Nation'

One of Sharad’s goals is to turn India into a “product nation.” Essentially where low-value parts of industries become dominant players in areas that make a lot of profit. Sharad notes that in the business world, there are only a few companies that make the most profit. While India provides great services, it doesn't get real profits. Hence, his organization iSPIRT is dedicated to sitting India up onto the world stage. Sharad outlines a vision for India to shift towards higher-value segments of the economy, which will lead to more profits and global influence.

Starting Points for Improvement

In terms of areas that can use improvements, Sharad explains that payments are a good place to start. For instance, instead of using Mastercard or Visa, they are emphasizing the importance of thinking from first principles and imagining the system from the ground up. For the Indian payment system (UPI), they separated roles of collecting payments permissions and holding the money, which allows for more innovation and startups. Sharad also believes this can apply to AI and creating responsible AIs. Sharad argues that technology should be value-based and that this can have a grave impact on how we view it.

"How do we create the benefits of digital identity where the agency is with the citizen, if it changes the balance of power in favor of the citizen, not in the favor of the state?" — Sharad Sharma

Digital Identity and Democratic Values

In terms of implications of this mindset, Sharad discusses the concept of digital identity within India’s technological landscape. The goal is to create a system that empowers citizens rather than just focusing on giving power to corporations. In order to achieve this, they designed a flexible and restrictive technological infrastructure that separates the digital identity permissions from the data. This is so even if the policies change, the infrastructure will remain strong. Sharad goes on to highlight the significance of trust and societal agreements in the technological systems. By looking at digital identity, the Indian supreme court played an important role in clarifying that privacy is a fundamental right, and that digital identity systems need to be accepted in line with democratic values.

In order to talk about India’s digital transformation, India Stack, which is a digital infrastructure system that has redefined how people, money, and information flow in the digital age. Sharad notes the parallels between India Stack and blockchain technology are immutability, programmability, and zero-knowledge proofs. In terms of looking ahead, India Stack also aims to launch a digital infrastructure that facilitates AI collaborations to help with healthcare and telecom infrastructure. To Sharad, reimagining the healthcare system in India is a top priority, which further demonstrates Sharad’s commitment to India’s societal transformation. The success that comes from India Stack and its initiatives like UPI are multifaceted. Success is not deprived by how many citizens can be reached but also by relying on a thriving private sector apps that serve and interact with citizens.

iSPIRT serves as a platform for people to contribute to society and create positive change without the primary motivation being profit. Many of iSPIRT's volunteers work part-time while having other jobs, and some other young volunteers go from full-time volunteering at iSPIRT to becoming successful entrepreneurs, applying the skills they've learned to tackle real-world problems.

Sharad Sharma’s journey from entrepreneur in the tech industry to becoming the co-founder of iSPIRT reflects his dedication to India’s transformation on the global scale. His efforts with India Stack and UPI emphasize reaching more citizens but also creating a thriving private sector. Sharad’s story is an inspiration to those who are looking for innovative solutions to complex challenges, in India but also around the world.


Further Insights on Data Governance: A SUERF Policy Note

Complementing the discussion on digital infrastructure and privacy, it's valuable to reference a SUERF Policy Note titled "The design of a data governance system," co-authored by Siddharth Tiwari, Sharad Sharma, Siddharth Shetty, and Frank Packer. This report, part of the esteemed European Money and Finance Forum's publications, delves into crucial aspects of data governance, proposing a system that restores control of data to its original creators - the consumers. It highlights the necessity for a consent-based system that is granular, auditable, and secure, drawing on the experience of India's Data Empowerment Protection Architecture (DEPA) to demonstrate these principles in action.

  1. Restoring Data Control: The proposed data governance system focuses on restoring control to data subjects regarding the collection, processing, and sharing of their data. It emphasizes consent prior to data use by service providers, aiming for a consent system that is open, revocable, granular, auditable, and secure.

  2. Experience with DEPA: India's Data Empowerment Protection Architecture (DEPA) is an example of such a system in action. It demonstrates that a consent-based system can operate at scale with low transaction costs, significantly enhancing trust and widespread adoption.

This policy note underscores the importance of effective data governance and consumer empowerment, resonating with Sharad Sharma's vision and contributions in the field. It's a compelling example of how policy and technology can converge to revolutionize data management and protection.

Further Reading: Tiwari, S., Sharma, S., Shetty, S., & Packer, F. (2022). The design of a data governance system. SUERF Policy Notes, No. 284. The European Money and Finance Forum.


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