Navroop Sahdev: “Converging Tech is Leading a Global Transformation”

ARYZE spoke with Navroop Sahdev of the Digital Economist and MIT to discuss divergent thinking, converging tech and the resulting emergent economic transformation. 

ARYZE had the opportunity to talk with MIT’s Navroop Sahdev, whose new platform, The Digital Economist, aims to place humans at the center of technological convergence. Friendly and down-to-earth, Sahdev’s passion and sharp intellect shone through her bright eyes and perceptive smile. Her answers to questions on tech, convergence, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and blockchain spanned from the practicalities of finance to the intricacies of human nature. They reveal her hope that cultivating a human-centered approach can unleash the radically transformative power of technology.

The Digital Economist is a ‘global impact organization’ with the mission to drive technological convergence and build a digitally-driven economy with humans at its core by harnessing existing and emerging technologies around the United Nations’ SDGs. The Digital Economist provides a platform for divergent technologies, entrepreneurs, experts and investors to converse, converge and create new solutions. Says Sahdev:

The core thesis of The Digital Economist is that we need a human-centered approach to technological convergence. Ultimately, tech needs to serve that human utility, and I think the fastest way to achieve that is by investing in existing or new solutions that might be out there. Converging tech is leading a global transformation: the “creative destruction of the economy”. It is about old systems dying out and new ones replacing them. 

Navroop Sahdev’s Ted Talk

Technological convergence is the gradual amalgamation of separately developed technologies. A technological whole is more than a sum of its parts, and combining those parts creates new value. Convergence, Sahdev asserts, is an emergent property of increased communication and global interdependence, and it seems to be happening faster than ever. Sahdev uses the rate of technological adoption as a proxy for convergence rates: 

We see from what is called the Diffusion of Innovations theory, it took decades for everyone in society to have televisions, but a few years for everyone to have iPads. We know adoption is happening ever-faster, so we know convergence is happening much faster. What took fifty years to happen in the past now takes five years.

As an example, she cites the smartphone, an item which combines countless technologies – from the telephone to the camera and beyond – that took years to develop individually:

Smartphones are a great example of convergence: every technology that went into your smartphone existed before the smartphone did. Combining these technologies in new ways is tremendously innovative, and it has unleashed productivity and connectivity like never before, because now, all those technologies are right in your pocket. 

Despite this potential, there are several drawbacks to increased technological convergence. One major downside is a growing reliance on global interdependence: as integrating systems rely upon each other to function, our technology becomes susceptible to any failing within those systems. The global coronavirus outbreak has highlighted this weakness, as major companies like Apple, Hyundai and many more have had production shortages or pauses due to globally distributed supply chains. If technological systems are not strategically built to avoid this, increased interdependence results in extreme fragility:

Without enough robust mechanisms and networks in place, if there’s any stressor on that system, it will break down. The structure of the network is critical; it’s important to build networks that are resilient and antifragile.

All of this breeds uncertainty among the lay population, which Sahdev argues is an expected outcome of such an interdependent and ever-evolving system.

Despite these drawbacks, technological convergence has enormous potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. As Sahdev asserts, significant change is necessary for the SDGs to be met. Emerging technologies provide a different set of incentives and infrastructure than our current system. However, unleashing their potential depends on how they are applied: 

Technologies like blockchain are enablers, but it is difficult to move from one system to another. There are upfront costs, there is new tech that needs to be built, money that goes in it, new investments that are needed – a lot of things need to happen. Is it worth spending money on changing the system, or is it more profitable to keep business as usual? Right now, blockchain is expensive, and many companies don’t see why they should spend money on it, so we still have inertia within our current system.

Sahdev believes there are several important obstacles to technological convergence: old technological infrastructure, high costs, sustainability and diversity. Old technological infrastructures are extremely siloed and insulated, and difficult and expensive to replace. Further, operating new technologies within outdated infrastructures saps their innovative benefits. The costs of developing, maintaining and replacing those tech infrastructures can be prohibitively expensive, and the competition for resources, both financial and physical, is significant. There are a finite amount of natural resources, making sustainability a limiting factor to emerging and converging tech. Another is the lack of diversity across the tech space:

You need divergent thinking in order to create new ideas. Without people in the room that can creatively think about new ways to deploy or build tech, or new tech itself, you won’t be as innovative; you need a sufficiently diverse group to work on these problems.

This is particularly true with regards to women, who, she argues, are more collaborative and community-minded, and therefore play a key role in developing human-centered technology.

With all these obstacles, drawbacks and hindrances in mind, Sahdev has created a platform to maximise the potential of converging technologies to make real changes, especially by facilitating investment opportunities:

Investment is a great way to quickly steer the ship. Money moves the world around, for better or for worse. The fact is that we need a human-centered approach to tech, and investing in it is the fastest way to get there. 

Sahdev does not believe that technology can solve everything on its own. However, as she told Forbes, if human-driven, she hopes it can be harnessed to solve the big global problems:

Ultimately, all problems are created by humans somewhere somehow, and humans alone have the capacity to solve those problems. And if you can hack human behavior with tech, you are in a rocket ship. The thing about emerging tech is that opportunity is created, and not discovered.

The Digital Economist works to conscientiously steer the new tech-driven digital economy, and to ensure that emerging technologies operate in a manner acceptable for their societies and users. Guided by the SDGs, The Digital Economist seeks to connect tech innovators, experts and investors to streamline, consolidate and unite the fight against our world’s biggest problems.

For more information on The Digital Economist and Navroop Sahdev, please visit its website or follow her on LinkedIn. For more insights into innovative tech and entrepreneurship, please visit ARYZE’s blog. To see how ARYZE plans to leverage technology to solve the SDG 9, 10 and 16, please visit our website.

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