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As Britain gears up for Modi-Mania, where next for UK-India relations?

This week, Wembley Stadium will host a very unusual sell out gig. Forget Taylor Swift or One Direction, this week’s hot ticket is for Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. On Friday 13th, roughly up to 70,000 people are expected for his grand meeting at Wembley, marking the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister to the UK for a decade. This is a part of a series of global tours that most pop stars would kill for. In New York this September, 18,000 people filled his rally at Madison Square Gardens, cementing his rockstar status with the global Indian diaspora.

As India’s global currency rises, many are reflecting on what the UK-India relations will look like in the future. On October 27th I attended the British Council’s India Forum 2015 to hear leading thinkers and practitioners’ perspective on the subject.

It is worth noting that the UK and India already have strong business and cultural links. There are around 1.5 million people of Indian descent living in the UK and a whole range of programmes supporting cultural exchanges between the two countries. There are also around 700 Indian-owned businesses in the UK, employing 100,000+ people.

Below are three ideas taken away from the forum on how the UK can develop its relations with India:

  • The UK government and higher education institutions have lots to share in terms of successful and innovative education models - 50 per cent of the Indian population is under 25 years old. The country will need a staggering 800 to 1,600 additional universities (8 new universities every month between 2012-2020) to support population growth, predicted to reach 1.5 billion by 2050. With India’s youth also facing gaps between education and skills, an area for UK-India collaboration could be in the development of new ways of learning, combining models such as the open university and MOOCS, but also giving greater value to vocational education and training.
  • Government and businesses should collaborate with India based on shared challenges and ambitions - India must create one million jobs every month for the next 20 years to sustain working age population. One way Modi plans on doing this is through the ‘Make in India’ campaign, aiming to create more highly-skilled jobs by improving the ease of doing business in India and encouraging inwards investment into key sectors. Some have been performing well, especially digital: Indian companies are increasingly chosen to perform state-of-the-art visual effects for Hollywood productions. Avatar and Game of Thrones, among others, have in common visual effects partly outsourced to India.
  • UK government, businesses or civil society, must move away from a romanticised image of India and focus on communities beyond up-and-coming middle class - According to a recent British Council survey, India’s attractiveness to UK youth today seems to be limited to culture, food and exotism (see image below). India is incredibly large and diverse, each state has a population and GDP comparable to another country in the world. Its economic power is stably growing. UK government, universities and businesses should change mindsets to promote India as a strong trade and knowledge partner, not just as a gap-year destination. Some of their focus should also shift to lower-tier cities and communities which may lack opportunities, but not skills, talent or creativity.

One area I would have liked to hear more about is partnerships in business incubation and acceleration, which has potential to give a new momentum to India-UK relations and deliver benefits to both countries when focusing on enterprises with a double or triple bottom line.

At Nesta, we explore many avenues to improve UK-India relations. One includes collaborating with the Department for International Development (DfID) to understand what good incubation (incubating ventures with social and economic returns) looks like in areas where enterprise support ecosystems are underdeveloped, like India’s low-income states. Other topics we are exploring include innovation policy for inclusive economic growth and citizen-centred smart cities.

This blog is part of a series of work on innovation in cities. Nesta's recent report on smart cities can be found here. Future blogs will explore common challenges that UK and Indian cities face.

Photo Credit: Shilpi Boylla Photo Collection via Flickr


Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Senior Foresight Analyst

Florence was a senior foresight analyst within Nesta’s Discovery Hub, which aims to create a link between Nesta’s current portfolio and our pipeline of future work.

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