Public Private Partnerships for the Geospatial Sector Need Alignment and Vision
Public private partnerships (PPPs) are a popular framework of private sector engagement while acknowledging the structure and role of the government. The relatively new concept, however, has so far been recognized for traditional sectors like construction, transportation, and utilities alone, the primary reason being the clearly visible benefits at the end of the tunnel.
PPPs in the Geospatial sector are still at the level of discussions and debate in the Indian context. Though Geospatial information acts as the foundation for even the most advanced data ecosystems capable of driving global economies, private players are unsure about long-term collaborations. After all, Geospatial products have been viewed as common goods blending into multiple domains, and restrictive policies meant there was little room for privatization.
But things have changed for the Indian Geospatial economy today.
AGI President and Esri India MD Agendra Kumar believes that with a conducive policy environment opening up new opportunities for business innovation and data monetization, the time is right for public and private Geospatial sector stakeholders to join hands through a model that profits both. The answer lies in Public Private Partnerships.
What are Public Private Partnerships?
In contrast to traditional procurement solutions, PPPs often involve a long-term contract between two or more government and private parties for providing a public asset or service, and a significantly higher level of private sector participation. Speaking at the recently held AGI-WGIC Joint Workshop on PPPs, Innovation Lead at NITI Aayog Ankan De conceptualized PPPs as an ecosystem where “the public sector builds while the private sector ideates.”
Commonly applied across the globe in economic (roads, bridges, public transport systems) and social (schools, hospitals, prisons) infrastructure projects, PPP models work towards boosting project efficiency and effectiveness through its entire lifecycle. Simultaneously, private players draw benefits from the taxpayers/users over the course of their contract.
The roles of public and private sectors are also quite distinct in such models. The public partner focuses on defining and monitoring compliance with project objectives, while the private partner looks after design, completion, implementation, and financing. Despite a significant amount of revenue coming from the Government’s end, the risk factor as well as management responsibility in PPP projects is always greater for private stakeholders.
Relevance of PPPs for the Geospatial Sector
Technological adaptation has become the key to achieving progress today, for individuals and organizations alike. While companies are in a cycle of constant business model innovation, governments are looking for new ways to better deliver essential public good services. At the same time, successful examples from around the world have shown that developmental challenges are best answered when “public” vision meets “private” innovation.
Geospatial being at the core of information, technology, and communications, operates across multiple sectors and sub-sectors including space & aerospace, agriculture, emergency management, mobility, construction, and asset management, to name a few. Not just this, Geospatial intelligence, tools & technology are also being used in conjunction with advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, Building Information Modeling, and the Internet of Things.
PPPs in the Geospatial sector, therefore, can help create and manage valuable information essential for improved understanding, decision-making, and implementation of social, economic, and environmental projects in the long term. The generation of “clear and transparent revenue streams and well-defined project milestones and outcomes” out of PPPs in the rapidly monetizing sector holds immense potential for all stakeholders.
The Benefits of Geospatial PPPs: A Long List
The World Bank Report on PPPs and Land Administration and the NGAC paper on PPPs for Advancing National Spatial Data Infrastructure highlight various business models that can be used to monetize or share Geospatial data. It is important to understand that PPPs can prove beneficial not just in terms of monetary gains, but several other mutual benefits for public and private stakeholders.
PPPs enable costs of investment to be spread over the lifetime of the asset, thus lowering the cost of infrastructure to public entities alone.
Specific risks and responsibilities of projects throughout their lifecycle can be transferred to private sector investors, who are better equipped with risk management capabilities.
More projects can be completed on time and within the budget, besides optimum utilization of government resources and private sector expertise that benefits the end users (society) at large.
Satisfaction metrics can be built into the contracts, which are already long-term in nature, thus encouraging stronger service orientation.
The government’s limitations regarding budget constraints and low deal flows can be made up for through PPP models.
We can even take successful Geospatial PPP examples from the past to analyze these benefits further. Survey of India (SoI) and Eicher’s PPP on the development of an “All India Atlas” helped bridge the gap between SoI’s mandates and the paucity of resources to fulfil them. NITI Aayog’s dedicated vertical for PPPs is actively deepening the reach of PPPs and attracting private sector and institutional capital to Indian projects.
Word of Caution
As beneficial as PPPs can prove in the Indian Geospatial context, there are several challenges to consider. Traditional PPPs have so far been used only for large-scale projects, that too in a fragmented manner so far. Whether or not the Geospatial ecosystem in the country is mature enough for a traditional PPP model is still doubtful. Innovative and flexible models need to be deliberated upon.
There is also a significant lack of documentation of PPP case studies in the Indian context – what works and what does not – leaving no room for self-assessment and correction. The World Bank Report and the NGAC paper are the few detailed insights the industry has on PPPs, but India needs awareness and engagement on the ground level, starting from local and state governments.
Geospatial is currently a significant component across the mandates of several government ministries and departments, which is both a boon and a bane. A project for the Roads Ministry could very well be co-dependent on IT, Environment, Urban Affairs, Planning, Tourism, and so on. Aligning all stakeholders is a mammoth task in itself to develop a common ground for deliberations.
The Way Forward
Speaking at the AGI-WGIC Joint Workshop, Dr. Debpriya Dutta, Scientist and Advisor at Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, described the motive of PPPs as “reducing uncertainties and improving resilience.” The first step towards any such PPP model for the Geospatial sector is to invest in foundational data infrastructure while innovating on risk management, revenue models, model versatility and comprehensiveness, taking the entire Geospatial value chain in totality.
Only a compelling, concise, and easy to convey value proposition that has a profitable business opportunity for the private sector and improved service delivery by the public sector in sight can drive PPPs to success. While it is easy to envisage a lucrative future from investments in real estate, roads, railways, and utilities, the profitability of long-term collaborations in the Geospatial sector is a possibility that the Indian ecosystem is gradually opening up to.