I am at the fag end of my trip in Taiwan and we’re back to making masala chai after guzzling down bubble tea for the first three weeks. We’re staying at a friend’s apartment in Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan and this has been my base from where we’ve explored the country. It was a strange call, a call from the land which is mostly known for their high technology, manufacturing capabilities, the Taipei 101 and more. But there’s more to the country. Taiwan’s east coast is a beautiful gem- hundreds of kilometres of wide, smooth roads along the ocean and on the other side, lush green mountains! Such scenic beauty and such kind people, Taiwan is definitely much more than just a tech destination.
The aboriginals who are thought to have first inhabited the island comprise only 2% of the total population of 23.5 million and the remaining majority are migrants from China who came in around the 17th century. But for this post, in the modern context, I wanted to focus on how technology has merged with the daily life and is far from the dystopian world I had perceived. A disclaimer would be that I’ve not travelled to the wide west and my perspective remains confined to countries like Bhutan, Cambodia, Turkey and India (more of rural India).
Some background on life in Taiwan
Life in Taiwan is very convenient. A developed nation, the island has perfect roads, good waste management systems, minimal poverty, low crime, high speed and safe public transport systems and pretty much all that a modern country asks for (it would be very happy to get the recognition of an independent nation though). One amazing stat is that 93% of the population lives within half a kilometre of a 7–11, the popular all-in-one department store which is the epitome of convenience.
Talking of finer details, there are cameras everywhere. Every road signal in the big cities has at least 4 cameras recording everything that is going on. Department stores, hotels, hospitals, everywhere, cameras are pervasive (but it somehow doesn’t feel intrusive). Maybe because the use was genuine? For instance, if there’s an accident, there is no shouting and fighting. Police is called and they arrive in a car with all their equipment. They go through all the footage available, consult with the people involved and then give a verdict which is final.
There are robots wiping the floor. This tiny friend goes around detecting walls and mops up the floor while you do your thing. Whenever it needs charge, it goes to the station and after the recharge, comes back to work. This is not widespread but it isn’t novelty either.
Culturally, a lot comes from Japan. The youth is inspired by Japan and a lot of design sense percolates from the neighbouring island giant. There is a lot of focus on arts and the tiny details of life. The roads are cleaned regularly, people put up plants outside their houses, shops, wherever spaces are found. There are plenty of museums preserving the culture and also new modern art museums displaying the culture of current times.
In the entire month here, I didn’t really feel I was in a satrtup city. Taiwan is well known for its manufacturing companies, electronics and prowess from the 80s, 90s but the culture of tech startups in the current context (think Silicon Valley) cannot be really felt except maybe in Taipei.
Usually, I look for accelerators, incubators and other support systems first up but this time around, I approached the experience from an end user point of view. I didn’t go the the startups or the supporters, I was being and in touch with the general crowd.
Here, Gogoro seems to trump all others. The electric vehicle company has got people excited and you can see quite a few of these two wheelers zooming by (atleast in Taipei and Taichung). Gogoro describes itself as an urban energy distribution and smart electric vehicles company. The company has raised over $180 million since 2011 and is often known as the ‘Tesla of Scooters’. With support from the government, Gogoro has managed to put in charging stations across the cities which becomes a necessity for any electric vehicle. “It’s nice but still very expensive,” said my host when I was asking about his thoughts.
When it comes to social media, Facebook and Line seem to be winning the race? Plurk has a few mentions here and there but nothing mainstream. While in Taipei, a bunch of livestreaming apps like 17 (it’s called 17) seemed to be spending big money on marketing. These livestreaming apps basically lets a user live stream his/her daily life and there are ways for the person to monetize. “Yes, somehow people are interested in seeing a famous person brushing their teeth or cleaning their house,” says a photographer friend from Taipei.
E-commerce! Well, well, the future is here but we’re still at 10% of total retail. Yes, only 10% of all retail happens online. Rakuten (Japanese), Momoshop and PChome are the most popular sites; the latter two being Taiwanese (and not marketplaces). Another interesting fact is that around 66% of the populations has shopped online (the third highest figure in the world).
The funny thing is that after you see all the hoopla in tech circles (be it India or anywhere else), at the end of the day, people will want to step out to do something. And the degree of convenience in the cities of Taiwan is so immense that buying online can be more cumbersome. There is a 7–11 and a FamilyMart within 200m from where I was living and you can find everything imaginable here- from ready to cook food (or even cooked food) to tootbrushes to undergaments to electronics! (the urbandictionary has a hilarious definition for 7–11). A bit more on 7–11, they also have an internal payment system called iBon via which you can pay for things. There is a government supported Ezecard which can be refilled from these supermarkets and can be used for payment at convenience stores, public transport vehicles, any many other places.
Strangely enough, payments are still mostly in cash. Most of the small vendors/shops don’t accept cards and there are no bills for what you buy. I wonder how this piece fits in. Probably folks over at the accelerator AppWorks, Taiwan Stadium and the likes have more answers.
When it comes to media, majority of the communication is in Chinese and I couldn’t figure out much but one model left me in awe. Step in, The Big Issue. It is a print magazine started by a lawyer which looks at all the big issues crippling Taiwan (as the name suggests) and its distribution channel is via the homeless people in the cities. You’ll see people on the streets with orange vests who are homeless or don’t have a job with these magazines for sale. From what I understand, the vendors get 50% of the price of the magazine and this is such an empowering model for a magazine that covers social issues.
The fine balance
I once read a beautiful observation which basically said that the VC industry came into existence to fund ambitious ventures or initiatives that would typically not be looked at by the government. And this is so true in Taiwan! Most of the things that would be startups back in India are taken care of by the government. There are bike stations at a lot of places in the cities from where a person can rent out a bicycle (by swiping the Ezcard) and then can park it again at the closest station where s/he wants to go to. The app is also so functional that it’ll tell you the availability of the bikes at the stations you want to pick it up from. All the basic conveniences are taken care and probably this is when technology startups can focus on core and more ambitious issues.
But when you think of India, the scale just boggles you. So many states, so many regions, so many administrations, such diversity! But at an intrinsic level, I feel the value for human life is the difference. In the current context, somehow the value for being human is missing! It’s beautiful, wonderful, being in India but it seems that at some level, we don’t respect life. Is it because survival itself is an issue for so many of us? Why do our governments govern the way they do? Why do we create statues, break them, make them again? Where are we stuck? Or is it the way this region called India is supposed to be at this point in time?
Whatever the case maybe, Taiwan was a brilliant perspective from a tech and administrative standpoint as to how a civilisation can look like. These observations are of a complete bystander and I would be happy to take in any comments and pointers that would make the understanding more complete.