- His perspectives on the continuous innovation brought on by technology
- The importance and significance of electrifying 99.99% of Bhutan
- Druk Holdings & Investments‘ focus on leveraging technology to become an innovation hub in the region
- Bhutan’s commitment to sustainability and using its net carbon-negative position to do Bitcoin mining
- Self-sovereign digital identity and the introduction of the Super Fab Lab in cooperation with MIT
Some other titles we considered for this episode, but ultimately rejected:
- What Really Inspires Me Is to Solve Problems that Matter to Society
- Why Bhutan Is a Legitimate Place to Innovate
- Building an Innovative and Sustainable Future
- Bhutan’s Leapfrogging into the Fourth Industrial Revolution
- Embracing Change: Bhutan’s Journey Towards Technological Advancements
Read the best-effort transcript
Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):
Michael Waitze 0:05
Hi, my name is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. Let’s welcome Ujjwal Deep Dahal, the CEO of Druk Holdings & Investments, the commercial arm of the Royal Government of Bhutan, it should fascinate us. Ujjwal, thank you so much for coming on the show, can we get a little bit of your background for the listeners context?
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 0:28
Thank you, Michael, thank you for having me. Professionally, I’m a trained engineer. I’m an electrical engineer, I’ve worked my career in the power sector operating the power grid, I can say I’m from a generation, which has seen the life before internet and life after and with the Internet. And I think that’s what has really, in a way, given me the opportunity to reflect in life to really see how problems can be solved, and how it was before the life within without internet. I’m a person who has worked with five and a half inch floppy to now working in the clouds, right? So. So I bring in those, that gives me an interesting perspective about about the present generation about not to be preconceived, but about also the next generation, which is going to have youth which is going to lead us into the future. Working in the sector, especially in the energy sector, for half, half my career now is given me the perspective of what are foundational fundamental things that are required for development in societies and in countries. So that’s, that’s what kind of makes me so what really motivates me, what really inspires me is to solve problems that matter to society. And in doing in doing that, you know, build an economic value around it. So that as an individual, as a family, as a society as a nation, you know, you you become self sustainable. In the long run,
Michael Waitze 2:05
it’s a great vision, I want to tell you a little story as well, when I first joined Morgan Stanley in 1987, I’m probably a little bit older than you, if not a lot older than you actually, there were five and a quarter inch floppy disks in the computer room. And actually, though, those disks were actually boot disks, which means that you couldn’t even run the computer, unless you had that disk and every now and then there was only one boot disk, by the way, and every now and then that boot disk would disappear. And it just made the whole thing really ineffective. Anyway. So I’ve been there as well. And I love this transition from that to where we are today. And having experienced that I think gives both of us this understanding of just what change is possible, and what the impact of it is. And I think that that’s really important. Let’s talk a little bit about DHI if you don’t mind. So what is the reason for the formation of it? What’s the vision and the strategy? If you can just run through that quickly? And then maybe the investment philosophy as well, why is it there? And what is it trying to do?
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 2:59
Absolutely. So the Duke holding and investments was created in 2007 in Bhutan by through a Royal Charter, and the Royal Charter, the vision of the royal charter is to ensure that, you know the investment is done in the country, which is for the future generation, right. So that was the main philosophy to ensure that prudent investments and management of the investments are done for ensuring that the future generations are able to leverage the prudent decisions we make today. Now, having said that, of course, it’s a real vision. It’s a royal charter. But DHI is also incorporated under the Companies Act of the kingdom of Bhutan. So basically, today, DHI in its operation for last 16 years, contributes about 40% of the government’s revenue every year. So it’s a major contributor to the government’s revenue as well as to the GDP of the country. We data has 23 companies under it in different shareholding patterns. So we have the airlines, the telcos, the energy, the banking sectors, and the others, but in different shareholding patterns. And each of these companies are also incorporated, they pay their own share of taxes. Dhi, also pay taxes on share of taxes. And these are the form of revenue to the government, for the government to operate apart from certain royalties that we pay because we do operate some of the monopoly companies for better management of these natural strategic resources of the country. So that’s that’s where DHI is built. But just to just to put into the perspective as we enter into the 21st century, the second decade and the third decade now, the aspirations of the youth the aspiration of the shareholders, but more importantly the stakeholders of DHA which is every Bhutanese has evolved and changed over time, right. So we also need to ensure that DHI as a holding company as an investment arm of the government. He is ready to move ahead to meet the aspirations of the, of the stakeholders of the country of the society country and largely largely humanity at the end, because we do operate in certain sectors, which has influences to basic human lives at the end of the day. So in that context, just to give a very quick understanding where DHA is heading towards is, we are trying to establish and see how we leverage the technological growth, you know, the fourth, if I may say, the fourth industrial revolution, how can how can return evolve to be the innovation hub of this region of the world. So that’s, that’s one of the challenges or an opportunity rather, I see for DHI to establish and also give back to the private sector development, to establish that innovation hub in the country, that problems can be solved with the use of technology. And that’s been the basic one of the premise that we are working on to take DHI to the next gen. Next Generation strategy to build the economy,
Michael Waitze 6:11
what is the understanding, or at least the commitment to sustainability to ESG, whether in the country as a whole or through DHI, in particular, if you can comment on that, as well, particularly because of the place the sort of unique geographical location we’ll talk about how this matters as well, where Bhutan sits, right, this massive sort of incredible natural environment. So what is the tendency to want to protect that from a sustainability standpoint,
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 6:36
Bhutan is one of the probably one of the only carbon neutral but negative countries in the world. So we seek a straight around 7 million metric tonne of carbon every year of plus minus, beyond what we generate, of course, and, and also our Constitution mandates us to have 60% forest cover at any point in time. So now, this is also an interesting opportunity, how to build the next generation of industries to ensure that we have committed ourselves to be carbon, not only neutral, but negative. But also we are committed to build the economy of the country. So how do we now be very innovative use the latest technologies to balance these two, and ensure that we progress to build the next gen industries which solves problems and and develop technology which solves problems and has value in it, which are commercially viable. But at the same time, we are committed to the the negativity of the SIR not the negativity but committed to the carbon neutrality and negativity.
Michael Waitze 7:46
So let’s talk about the carbon neutral Bitcoin mine that exists there because I think it’s a really great example of combining this sustainability idea with technological advancements and frankly, cutting edge technology. Right? So maybe you can run through how that works and why that’s even there. Like why the government and the sorry, why do I care so much about this, and it’s manifesting itself in this place.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 8:07
True. So if you have read about Bhutan, about a couple of months ago, we had a joint press release with a very strategic partner, which is called the bit dear, registered in Singapore. It’s a NASDAQ listed company. So we have a strategic partnership with Vidya, which is one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world in terms of digital asset mining. So for DHI, it’s a very tactical strategic investments that we want to make in this space of digital assets. If you look at DHS portfolio of companies, as I talked about, right, from, you know, energy to airlines to banking, it’s important for us to have a small portfolio of investments in the digital asset space. So that’s number one, you know, aspects of diversifying our investment portfolio. But having said that, I think what really resonates with me personally and also, is that the underlying technology that that makes this digital asset possible, which is blockchain. I’m, I’m a very firm believer believer that blockchain is the kind of next internet which provides that platform for businesses and solutions to grow. Honestly, I think digital asset or Bitcoin mining is just one aspect of the use case of blockchain. If you look at Bitcoin, it has evolved more as an asset class. I mean, you can mined gold, or you could mined Bitcoin, right? So and because Bitcoin has value, it’s interesting to see how it has evolved as a trillion dollar economy in in a short span of time right now probably stands about seven 800 billion. It’s not very big compared to the economy of the world, but it’s a very interesting asset class. Now for DHI to be investing in that with the dear very strategic partner is also to see how we can bring in talent How we can bring in jobs, how we can bring in foreign currency revenue into the country. But importantly, we’re using green hydropower, we are 100% hydro fueled in Bhutan. And if the strategy is that only the excess power available from the hydro would be utilized for the coal mining interests. So the first priority the the first priority by regulation and by policy is that it has to be for domestic consumption, every house should be lighted put on is 99.999% electrified. And our first priority to use the green electricity is to ensure that every house has electricity. The second priority, of course, is the regular industry. And only the third priority is the Bitcoin mining. I also would like to say that we are actually helping Bitcoin mining community to actually make green bitcoins by using the green energy, as well as helping the strategic and tactical investment for us to build our economy.
Michael Waitze 11:00
Well, just to be part of the future of whatever the digital economy is going to be. You said a couple of really interesting things, I mean, a bunch of really interesting things there. You know, you can mined gold or you can mined Bitcoin, it’s really true, but you can really only mined gold in very specific places. And you can mined Bitcoin anywhere and you do benefit from this is the generation of hydropower, right? So, because Bitcoin takes a lot of flack, in some places, right, for just using a ton of energy and creating a gigantic carbon footprint, but if you’re doing all of it with hydropower, and again, runoff hydropower, right, so excess hydropower, you’re not creating the power just for this. You’re saying, Okay, we’ve lit everybody’s house, we’ve lit everybody’s business. So now we have this excess, let’s actually do something productive with it, but also learn and become part of this global economy. It’s a great way to stay connected. But I want to ask you this, because you kind of said it in passing 99.9% of the country is electrified, how hard was that just just as an engineer, how hard was that to accomplish in a place like Bhutan,
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 11:59
this is a very interesting personal life journey, also for me, because this was the this was the first project as an engineer, I was involved in with a very wonderful team of Bhutanese team and as well as you know, with support from the Japanese government and the Indian government, Bhutan is an interesting country in terms of his geography, right? So we are about 30 7000s, who are kilometer. And we range from foothills in the southern part at 250 to 300 meters above sea level to 5000 meters above. And in just in a space of 38,000 37,000 square kilometers.
Michael Waitze 12:37
Can I just make a point? Just so people have perspective, you said, how what’s the highest level you said 5000 meters 5000 meters above sea level, right? So just want to make the point that Mount Fuji is 4000 meters above sea level? Right. So for people that have climbed it, and a lot of people have, I just want to give a perspective, it’s that it’s like it’s high. Anyway, please go ahead.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 12:57
Absolutely. And of course, we have the, you know, foothills, in the southern part, which is just about 200 to 300 metres above sea level. So we experience a tropical to you know, extreme mountain climates. And the reason I say this is, you know, and we are 700,000 plus minus population and spread, spread across the country. And in terms of electrifying, it is interesting challenge in terms of taking the electrical grid to every house, not only from engineering perspective, but also from financing perspective. So, early 2000, probably 2003 2004, when we started doing the master plan of rural vacation in Bhutan, Bhutan was about 35%, electrified in early 2000. And by 2013, we were 100% electrified, almost 100% of small patches here and there with solar power and all that, but, but in doing so, from as an engineer, I mean, you know, two things that come to my mind, I mean, using very interesting tools of GIS from ArcGIS support from India and Japanese government, as a young engineer, to map every resources, every elevation on a desktop computer, then probably had about four GB the four MB of RAM, still work pretty well to using very sophisticated power system simulation software’s like PSU and my power to actually simulate every electrical infrastructure, and to actually build the cost estimates to build an economic and financial returns. But that’s the desktop part. And then we spent 10 years or 12 years actually implementing it and taking power to every households. The economic benefit of this is that we we really have a population that has been exposed to the Internet revolution that happened to because the fundamental basic power infrastructure was available. So I firmly believe that projects of this magnitude and this intention was very important by the government to be conceptualized so that the citizens are much more prepared for, for the, you know, technological, industrial societal revolution in terms of the foreword that was coming in next tickets. So
Michael Waitze 15:21
a few things here as well, it must be a great sense of accomplishment, particularly for you, but also people like you who become an engineer, right? Not to get rich, but to have impact. Right. But also to see that impact play out over time, where you look at this kind of greenfields thing of what do you say 30% of the country’s electrified, and now it’s 99.9%. So it wasn’t just simulating what was possible, it was actually creating a plan and executing that plan. And now you can look back on it and think we did that. But I think one of the other important things here to note, and I’m curious about your opinion on this is existing in a country where the government takes the time and takes the long view, and says, if we do these things, and accomplish it, the next generation of our citizens is just better.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 16:09
Absolutely. And this comes from the vision of His Majesty the King, to actually provide that strategic vision and a roadmap for us to you know, work in equation and do a division. From that perspective, I think the country is blessed to have a leadership that provides that and the credibility, but I do want to mention one thing when he talked about impact, and which is so true. I mean, let me put it put it this way, you know, we we have come a long way, from the time of electrification to where we are today. And every individual, every country, at some point, needs to reflect and see, are we ready? Or are we positioning ourselves for the next societal challenge that we are happening that’s coming. And this is pronounced so much more by the technological revolution again, so what I want to actually emphasize is, we are going through a huge transformation in return something that personally I haven’t seen something that has happened in the region or around for quite some time, that brings to my point of integrated impact. So this is one area, that how if we all work together, we can actually have a very interesting integrated impact for the society and as a nation. So this is what we are living today in return, I want to look at four areas of building, if I may say building a nation or building a society or even building a family at the end is, you know, I mean, there is a governance part. And then there is an academia part. And there is an industry part. And then there is a society. So these interaction and integrated impact of these four wheels, to interact with each other, to solve the right problems and make the citizens or the population ready for what’s coming next, I feel is so important. And that integrated impact is what we’re seeing in Bhutan. I can I can see a bit about it. You know, from my experience in past three or four years, probably the reflection also came a lot during the COVID times were just changed your whole perception and philosophy of life in certain ways. That’s that’s where personally I even I reflected that the integration of these for government, academia, industry and society was so important, the quadruple helix model as we call. And this is what we’re living today in Bhutan, with huge transformation happening in the policy side and the government, government side in leadership in the industry, where DHI is a small part of the industry Ecosystm huge transformation, to be sustainable to use technology for growth, to have a 10x growth, being environmentally sustainable again, but also in huge change in academia side with primary, secondary and tertiary education, fundamentally being looked at differently to prepare the 21st century skills force for the students. Again, in society, we are we are actually establishing a National Service from 2024, where every 18 year old will go into a national service. The act for the National Service is already passed by the parliament. And our national service is very interesting in the in the aspect that it is going to be seven or eight months of skills training, to have the 21st century skills in areas of cybersecurity, food security and other related areas, which is of importance looking into the future. And about two to three months of, you know, more discipline and military military training. So so just wanted to mention the integrated impact of all the winds coming together is so powerful for progression of an individual and the society.
Michael Waitze 19:50
It is and it’s just great to have this is the point that I was trying to make earlier. Right. It’s just great that for a government that takes the long view and has the foresight to be able to build this stuff again, not for the immediate Add value that it provides, but it for the long term value that it provides going forward, but also to create this sort of societal understanding of like, the government has a value not just to me personally, but to society as a whole. And it kind of builds in this responsibility, I think, at some level for every citizen to say, I got these benefits. And I think that everybody should get these benefits, right. So my children should have the my grandchildren have and those benefits might change, as the technological landscape change as the global landscape changes, right, as the educational landscape changes, but they should still get something we’ll have to adjust over time. But we’re not going to stop doing this. And that I think, is the coolest part. No. Absolutely. Okay. Let’s talk a little bit more about some of the significant things that DHI has been working on. Let’s talk about the self sovereign blockchain ID and just what the impact is there, because this fits into this integrated impact thing, I think as well, right, because it doesn’t seem like it shouldn’t matter that much if everybody has a digital ID. But from an economic standpoint, I think it would have a huge impact. Anyway, tell me more about this
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 21:01
interesting. digital identity basically, provides you an authentic identity in the internet. Now, if you look at the internet, internet was never built with an identity layer, probably designed that way. The furthest I can go is probably to trace an IP address which can be managed, I may not be the person operating my google home today. And I could easily have somebody else operate on my name. And so basically, there’s no identity in the internet. Now, the philosophy of self sovereign identity, of course, there are centralized identity federated centralized, but what we are what we have established in Bhutan is the self sovereign philosophy, where it’s a decentralized identity. Now, what I mean by that is, again before that, just to qualify is that Bhutan is the first sovereign government which has actually passed and some SSI based identity Act this year. No country has done that, of course, the standards of SSI self sovereign identity, decentralized identity is being talked about in Europe and AI does to Dotto and North America, and other parts and we are actually already ruled out. So what what it actually means to have self sovereign digital identity is that you as an individual, whether you are a Bhutanese citizen or you’re visiting Bhutan, you will have your verified credentials, as they call it, but it’s a certificate that is in your wallet, that you can share on your own responsibility to any party to give you services, right. But just to expand it a little bit, how does it help us? So what if I can share my data? Of course, it’s about data privacy, and data security. But what’s important is I really look at self sovereign digital identity as again, a platform for digitization to happen and have an exponential growth, because you have identity backed services, which you can give. So banks can give you a loan over the internet. You could do ecommerce with 100% surety, who you are dealing with, even if you look at SDG goals, you know identities an important part in elevating poverty. So if you can actually give digital identity to individuals, you can actually have a much fairer and just world. And anything that needs to be shared goes to the right individual, is what it provides. I don’t think
Michael Waitze 23:35
it’s an overstatement to say that self sovereign identity, first of all, it’s the future of the way everyone’s going to be identified. Right, for better or for worse. And I think it’s far better. But you can’t underestimate or overestimate the impact that it’s going to have on people’s ability just to get things done. Right, in a way that maintains data privacy, but gives people in a way more freedom. Right? I mean, there are very simple ways to explain some of this, right? Like every time I go into a new hospital, I’ve got to fill out all these forms. Not anymore. I have a self sovereign ID, this is who I am. And it’s validated. This is the other big benefit of the blockchain, right is that the consensus algorithms that run depending on which one you use just says, This is me, it cannot be disputed. And yes, now that you know me, here’s the data that I’m willing to share with you about me that will either get me a loan or like you said, allow me to operate on an E commerce platform or buy an airline ticket or travel. It just makes everything frictionless and seamless. And the economic impact of that can I don’t think can be exaggerated as either.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 24:31
Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Wow. So
Michael Waitze 24:34
what prompted this, though, again, you’re right. People have been talking about this in Europe and United States and India, in Singapore for years. Now, what was the impetus? And how, how hard was this to get done internally.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 24:48
We also started to see if we should do a centralized digital identity. And because that was that was easy to do. I do want to get back to understanding Bhutan’s Progress. Because we have an opportunity at we I personally feel that we have an opportunity to leapfrog. So I think that is what really prompted us to see, let’s do identity different. We have been a consumer society of technology to everything forever. The kind of vision His Majesty provided us to actually go beyond the boundaries is what pushed us to actually get into the self sovereign ID framework. Because if we did this, right, we could be a world leader in this humble way. Right? model for this. So that’s one thing that prompted us the journey in developing this hasn’t been easy. We haven’t completed I mean, we haven’t, you know, I shouldn’t say that we have done it completely. And thing, it’s a work in progress. But we have the technology put together now. And we have already integrated it, we are rolling out this year, nationally, the Act is passed. The idea is to ensure that, you know, we take this momentum to tell the world that Bhutan is a place to innovate. Bhutan is because this was supported by the government for investment arm to actually do a research to put together digital identity. And now we are nationally rolling it out. And we are now having a plan how to take this technology outside. This is where I want to tell every listener here today that Bhutan is a place where we are taking calculated risks, we have an opportunity for us to sit together the best of minds around the world come to Bhutan, and we innovate together.
Michael Waitze 26:32
It sounds like you’re having so much fun. I can feel it in your voice. Right? You don’t even like it doesn’t sound to me like you’re doing a job. It sounds like you’re having fun. Absolutely. I want to cover one more thing. And then I want to let you go right, we talked before about batons sort of unique geographical location. And with all the investment in technology that you’re making, I want to spend some time talking about drones because drones frankly, can be used for everything from just like entertainment, right? Creating just like lights in the sky and almost like fireworks. But all the way to like insurance claims. Right? Right. There’s a company in Australia, plenty companies just called Transpac, where they literally fly drones around buildings. But there’s a there’s sort of an altitude impact here as well, maybe you can talk about that too. And what’s happening in Bhutan on this topic.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 27:18
Michael Waitze 32:14
If you’re working with MIT, and you’re partnering with Singapore, and you work with the Japanese as well. And even with the US on some things, what is the process? Or what is the ease with which a foreigner can say because they they can work remotely? Like I just want to live in this beautiful country. And I want to participate in some of the trials you’re doing on the drones? Or maybe they want to help in the Bitcoin or any of the things that you’re working on? How hard is it for a foreigner to live and work in Bhutan, and you know, do engineering work for something somebody in Silicon Valley?
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 32:46
We are evolving. We have been pretty closed economy in the past. But as we said, you know, every every society, even if you look at history, you know, when when all the horse school carts changed into diesel engines over 10 years, the whole society went through a huge transformation, right? So I come from personally come from that philosophy that, you know, the, the AI AG is trying to push every one of us to be more innovative, to be more open to have to build an economy that is more thriving that resonate with the next generation of youth. So it’s becoming easier and it will become more and more easier to work with Bhutan in terms of building this innovation ecosystem to build a solution of next gen problems, to test it in Bhutan and take it around the world. One thing I want to mention is we just completed fab 23 conference in Bhutan, which is a part of the fab Foundation. We had about 350 international guests from around the world who were with us into the capital city for about two weeks, and about 500 plus students participated and locals participated. So it was a conference of 1000 plus people congregated in the Super fab lab area, but also went around to five different cities for a week into the different fab labs we have in the country, took a problem of that particular community had the first draft solutions came back to the conference and present it to the 1000 people. This is a world event that happened in Bhutan a month ago. Then the team of course, my whole team from the from the company, including support from our super Fab Lab in India, the government support in India and the Indian Embassy support. And all our partners support from MIT we we created this beautiful fab Foundation. The reason I wanted to mention fab fab 23. The reason in the next one is scheduled to be in Mexico. The reason I wanted to mention this is so Putin is opening up and we are very serious about innovation, but innovation using the tech for The better to solve the right problem and to build an economy.
Michael Waitze 35:03
That is the perfect way to end…Ujjwal Deep Dahal, the CEO of Druk Holdings & Investments. Thank you so much for doing this today. That was awesome. Really. Thank you.
Ujjwal Deep Dahal 35:12
Thank you so much Michael for having me.