Webinar talk: Feminist perspective on the Future of Work

I was invited to speak at a webinar on “The digital economy in Asia: feminist perspectives” organized by the Women and future of work working group of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Asia, in cooperation with WIDE+ on 22nd April. This webinar provided an interesting and much-needed discussion on how feminism in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting the present and future of women’s work in Asian economies. The kinds of issues we discussed was about the gender digital divide and implications of platformisation and automation of value chains on women’s work and livelihoods, to reflect on future priorities for feminist action in the region. I enjoyed the back and forth discussion mediated by Farzana Nawaz, at Laudes Foundation in Bangkok, between myself, Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change, India, Nadine Siregard, Gojek, Indonesia and Verna Dinah Viajar, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of the Philippines Diliman studying labour issues and the future of work.

In my opening statement, I tried to steer away from the gender-divide framing, reminding the audience of the age of problematization of the divide discourse that implicates an evolutionary and deterministic direction. I also spoke about the feminist data dilemmas along the lines of misrepresentation as deliberate vs imposed obfuscation where women’s dominance in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and other such markets are masked as the popular trope of these fields being masculine circulate in the media and policy reports. This is partly due to the subsistence and collective/cooperative models of sustainability that women choose over that of market driven. In the COVID times, this makes them invisible and ineligible for bailouts, creating further inequality between the sexes. I also talk about the value of privacy versus the amplification of voice being the perennial and hard to resolve tensions that women grapple with especially in this datafication age. Overall, I advocate for shifting focus from the user to the design of socio-technical systems if we are to move forward towards a more just society.

The COVID effect: Webinars, Virtual keynotes…

With the cascading cancellations and postponement of talks due to COVID, some organizations are rising to the challenge and leveraging on webinars to continue the conversation. I took part in a webinar panel discussion organized by DesignUP to discuss the future of design, remote working, re-skilling, ethics and responsible design by delving deeper into their Deconstruct Report.

It was interesting to be speaking with design leaders such as Jamie Myrold, VP of Design at Adobe, Anjali Desai, Design Leader and Coach, Intuit, Surya Vanka, Founder and Chief Designer, Authentic, Abhijit Thosar, Product Strategy & Design Leader at VMware, and Brenda Sanderson, CGD Executive Director IxDA. I noticed a couple of orientations when speaking with designers – the conversation on failure is still focused on the designer and not on who pays for the cost of failure – aka, the user. We spoke about what kind of metrics should be used to gauge impact and how that should be beyond just the bottom line – we need to incorporate sustainable practice for instance as a parallel bottom line. Lots of these interesting snippets have been captured in this conversation that has been recorded for those interested and accessible via their website.


I also gave a keynote on privacy by design for the next billion for The 11th International Development Informatics Association conference (IDIA2020) organized by the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society under the theme “The more things change …” I spoke about how the COVID times have re-configured the notions of surveillance and privacy as we face unprecedented and draconian measures in terms of trade-offs to survive and get through this, especially for the vast informal sector in the global south.

My Next Billion Users book wins the 2019 PROSE Award: Business Category

Got fantastic news that my ‘Next Billion Users‘ book by Harvard Press has won the PROSE Award under the Business, Management, Finance category. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) unveiled their Subject Category Winners for the 2020 PROSE Awards honoring the best scholarly works published in 2019. These winners were selected by a panel of 19 judges from the 157 finalists previously identified from the more than 630 entries in this year’s PROSE Awards competition.

What is particularly exciting is to see how digital anthropology on a population that has long been ignored by the market and the state is finally of interest to a broader audience and more importantly, the business and tech sector who is now taking notice of this next billion demographic as legitimate consumers.

While there is concern of hyper commodification of the next billion market, my book actually challenges that blanket and passive approach. Instead, it reframes this engagement and builds nuance and incentive for tech and businesses at large to broaden their ways of understanding and meaningfully catering to the next billion user market which will expand their choices, keep them safe and optimize for civility, trust and pleasure instead of just profit and efficiency.

Keynote at the ITStrategy Hamburg Summit

Had a fascinating experience at the IT Strategy Days Summit that was held on the 12-14 February at the Grand Elysse in Hamburg. Some of the most influential IT and business CEOs, CIOs, and other experts and policy makers from Germany came together to tackle key formidable challenges in their business. You had CEOs/CIOs from Lufthansa, SAP, BMW, Adobe, Siemens and more out there discussing these issues. The buzz terms for the summit was “agility, resilience and innovation” framed as drivers of digital business. 

This year there was much targeted interest in Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, and the digital and global logistics of operations that could help design the most optimal platforms through which innovations can quickly reach the entire organization and ultimately customers. There were 3 main strands of focus: 1) Digital Frameworks – Which architectures make IT resilient and agile 2) Innovation on fire – How companies successfully reinvent themselves 3) Artificial Intelligence – Why AI and ML do not make you intelligent alone: All systems down – Which security strategies help to avoid disasters.

My keynote was focused on designing these digital platforms for a global consumer and that global consumer is a whole new novel consumer base for many of these organizations – they are the next billion users who are fast coming online and radically reconstituting business models and digital platforms. The CIO magazine wrote a critical summary of my talk for those interested (in German) on ‘Diversity shouldn’t be an obstacle’

Am really enjoying floating through these different worlds – designers, product managers, business leaders, and media experts. Makes you realize how essential and timely these bridges are in todays complex business world.

Kick off for 2020 with the India book tour

What a way to begin 2020 – full of spice and color and drama! Basically it felt like a year of celebration was starting. I embarked on my book tour in Pune for the India Science Fest which drew a crowd of about 15,000 people! And what a demographic – from kids with their parents to engineering and philosophy students to elderly folks curious about these topics, they managed to truly create a spirit of democratizing science for the public. This was the brainchild and product of Varun Aggarwal of Aspiring Minds . I spoke about designing for the next billion and also was on a panel on the future of science with AI. I headed to Bangalore right after to speak at the IIIT-Bangalore Centre for Information Technology and Public Policy lecture series  and gave a Keynote at the IIM-B for the Software Product Management Summit on re-centering the human in design. Was a fascinating conversation as we delved into how product management as a field is changing dramatically and in recent years is putting the user values at the center to create responsible design. After Bangalore, I went for a week to the legendary Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest such literature festival in the world. Was on multiple panels – Consumer Intelligence, the Art of Innovation and the Next Billion Users. Now this was just an unforgettable experience with the quality of speakers, the energy, the food and color and most importantly the passionate and sizable and young audience that was glued on every word and engaged with the ideas – what a gift for any author! Last but not least, went to Hyderabad to launch the IDRC grant with Usha Raman and meet the superb team to brainstorm on the steps ahead for our 3 year project on feminism, laborers and the future of work in the global south.

Keynote for the Privacy and Identity Conference

I was invited to give a keynote for the members of the Privacy and Identity Lab, an interesting group of privacy scholars at the Kings Ballroom in the Hague. 

What was particularly fascinating about this group was their cross disciplinary backgrounds as they delved into a spectrum of issues from accountability issues in smart city planning to healthcare data security and regulation to the legal challenges of applying the General Data Protection Laws and the spectrum of interpretations these laws seem to evoke, which brings to question the extent of the efficacy of these laws to reign in poor and unethical market behaviors in the tech arena.

I spoke about the implications of these laws universalizing and its globalizing potential and challenges.  The fact is that as technology companies expand their reach worldwide, the notion of privacy continues to be viewed through a market-based and ethnocentric lens, disproportionately drawing from empirical evidence of perceptions and behaviors of Western-based, white, and middle-class demographics. We need to break away from the market-driven neoliberal ideology and the Development paradigm long dictating digital media studies in the global South if we are to foster a global standard for privacy regulation worldwide.

Overall an eye opening experience.

Keynote at the DesignUp conference on ‘Irrational Design’

DesignUp, a Design-in-Tech conference in Bangalore, brought together an amazing and forward thinking group of designers, UX researchers, data scientists, policy makers, business leaders and entrepreneurs together over the course of 4 days on Nov 12-16. This year, the theme was about plurality in design. DesignUp is the largest Design & Tech event in Asia (excluding China), labelled by YourStory as the Definitive Design-in-Tech conference and listed by Quartz.com among the World’s 20 most Exciting Design Events. 

I gave the keynote on the ‘Next Billion Users and Irrational Design’ that offered a new template to understanding the user behaviors and preferences of the next billion. 

After all, the failures of tech –the graveyard of apps – FB Zero, Secret and such, rests on the premise of negating the role of the cultures from below. Those at the margins of our imagination who have now become the norm – the next billion –  are pushing ahead with novel demands on interfacing, design preferences, and aspirational consumption, demanding in turn that we rethink what we deem as rational, efficient, and thereby –  good design.

Additionally, the panel on ‘Roti, Kapda, aur Mobile’ generated an excellent discussion on data as currency, whether it is enough to design ethical policies and products from the corporate end, the moral panics of creating a new tech monster and more…

The most memorable part of this whole event was at my book signing where I got to talk one on one with each person who bought the book and find out about them. It is so rare for authors to get this kind of immediate feedback about their readers and being India, it was delivered with a tremendous amount of warmth and affection. Was thrilled to hear that my books were sold out at the event. Makes this writing process really worth it!

Re-imagining Spotify for the Next Billion Users

It was fantastic to give a talk at Spotify in Stockholm on my book ‘The Next Billion Users’ 
Am a fan of this company as they really personally transformed my ways of listening and experiencing music.

It was so gratifying to be able to speak with their team on how to re-conceptualize their platform for a new market to best service them – their listening tastes, behaviors, sharing patterns, curated genres, and more.

The fact is that their business model as it stands needs some significant rethinking as they move into these new terrains and markets. Am glad to be part of this journey. 

Keynote and panel discussion at Deutsche Welle in Bonn

Brilliant experience in the last two days at Deutsche Welle (DW) at the FOME Symposium organized in Bonn on Rethinking media development – New actors, new technologies and new strategies. I gave my keynote on how the rise of the Next Billion users , low-income users in the global south coming online for the first time, is transforming the media sphere and how we need to center them in our imagination as we proceed to tackle the challenges on how to build a sustainable information ecosystem. Couple of take aways here for the field of journalism and media development when going global with these strategies:

1.  Let us not discount SMS and WhatsApp as the prime and often the sole media distribution outlet. WhatsApp and Facebook is the internet to the NBU market. We need to keep that in mind while we write content for the NBU market and how they will experience it on these devices

2. The internet is the poor person’s leisure economy – thereby, for getting them interested in the media content, speak to issues that interest them and not just about the usual topics on poverty – the poor are more than their economic status.

3. Governments are often the main advertising revenue source for media outlets and Development agencies have specific agendas which are rooted in classic development paradigms of poverty and needs based alleviation strategies. Media outlets due to these constraints tend to write the same kind of narratives and stories which thereby create a tremendous gap between what people want to read and what is written. This explains the rise of non formal media actors and influencers online. We need more than ever a diversity of stories beyond the usual stereotypes and cliches of the NBU

4. Journalists should build their brands as it gives them more freedom to express themselves and be a little more independent from their organizations; this also is a win-win for media outlets as they can safely distance themselves from these opinions and yet allow for their expression under the growing censorship regime

5. Fake news per se does not kill democracy as that would imply that information is a key instrument for decision-making. Not quite so as its more affective and people are willing to let a few lies go for the pursuit of a bigger truth (that they have been neglected by the state, media, etc. and its time they fight back and that the means does justify the ends); moreover membership to a group in this age of lonliness matters more so and thereby we need to build empathy of why people are attending to certain kinds of misinformation and reacting in particular ways and what are the broader reasons that is pushing this kind of disruption

Keynote at Digital Fortress Europe in Brussels

I delivered a keynote on ‘Amplified activism from afar” in addressing border-making through social media and how diasporas can be powerful forces to contend with in the shaping of national agendas, policies and even grassroots social movements.

This was for the ECREA organized event called “Digital Fortress Europe: Exploring Boundaries between Media, Migration and Technology” held in Brussels end October.

The two-day conference served as a forum to “reflect on the relations between media, migration, and technology. These relations demand our fullest attention because they touch on the essence of what migration means in societies that are undergoing democratic challenges. Research shows that media and technologies play a vital role for people who migrate, but that the same media and technologies serve to spread xenophobia, increase societal polarization and enable elaborate surveillance possibilities. With its intensifying anti-migration populist discourses, humanitarian border crises and efforts to secure borders through technological solutions, the European context provides a pulsating scene to examine such deepening relations. Taking place in the heart of Europe’s political capital, this conference aims to critically reflect on what the much-debated notion of “Fortress Europe” means in the digital age and how it can guide our future thinking on media and migration. As such, scholars of media, communication, migration and technology will be stimulated to contribute to critical discussions on border politics and migration debates.”

Got great questions on how we can track online social movements and the ethics of inserting ourselves as researchers into these highly sensitive content based forums online. Other questions were about elaborating on who gets representing in these diasporas (as they are not monolithic groups) and how they balance diversity within a group fighting for self-actualization with being united for a singular cause.

Overall, wonderful forum that brought together academics, policy makers and journalists and artists in search of how to best inform and enable freedoms across board.