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What’s your Zero?

Anand Rajan

Zero is an incredible number. It has a long and varied history, dating back to ancient times. It is a number that has been used in many different cultures and has become essential not only to mathematics and science but also in our daily lives. 

The article you’re now reading on your computer runs on a string of zeros and ones. Without zero: the decimal system, algebra, calculus, modern electronics, engineering and automations would not have been possible. Calculus, particularly, is important to systems and Societal Thinkers like us because with it, we can measure change and gauge interconnectedness as stocks and flows. 

Zero is a foundational building block. It represents the lack of anything and is the starting point from which all things can be created. Click To Tweet One might even argue that Zero’s context-neutral nature (neither positive nor negative) and its centrality in enabling us to  unlock many advancements makes it an important ‘Mathematical Infrastructure’.  But, for the most part of our history, we did not intuitively understand the number Zero (unlike other numbers which can be experienced tangibly). We had to invent it.

Infrastructures have many similar characteristics. They are usually slow to emerge but once created, lead to a lot of interactions, value exchanges and innovations. 

‘Physical Infrastructure’ enables the flow of goods and services. A road, for example, enabled the flow of traffic between two points, leading to better performing vehicles and in turn, to the formation of bigger deeply connected communities and townships. Telecom infrastructure enabled communication between people through fixed line phones and, over time, evolved to mobile phones and smartphones, a steam engine led to efficient assembly lines and now, robotic automation!

‘Digital Infrastructure’ enables similar connectivity and extension  but with greater speed and at scale. Physical goods are replaced by their ‘digital twins’ that enable near real-time interactions. This leads to exponential growth and innovation diffusion to the edges of any network. A cloud computing infrastructure, for example, has unleashed the creation of new startups and disruptive business models that were previously not possible. What took months or even years to design and develop can now be done in a few weeks! Economies of scale is no longer a moat that large enterprises can bank on. 

‘Societal Infrastructure’ can be a combination of digital and physical infrastructure which is purpose built to address social needs. It is enabling in nature and boosts  the ability for various actors to participate with agency, choice and dignity. It is created to improve the performance of a solution as well as to unlock abundance in the network through open inclusive access. Unified Payment Interface, for example, transformed the payment landscape of India and, at the same time, positively impacted the financial literacy, financial inclusion and the economic development of the economically marginalised in India.

Change efforts that seek to empower communities by restoring their agency could benefit from creating or leveraging Societal Infrastructures. These not only enable an ecosystem of co-creators but are also open, inclusive and contextual. This enables users to exercise choice in a dignified way, eventually strengthening their agency. Although these infrastructures might take time to emerge (like Zero), they help resolve social challenges at scale, with speed and sustainably. 

Finding your Zero sooner than later can determine if  solutions outpace the problem or otherwise.

What is your Zero?

Learn more about the role of infrastructure in solving societal problems.