BECKN protocol: Developing an Ubiquitous Network for traders

Nilabja Banerjee, Knobly Consulting


In this age of rapidly advancing technology, critical  systems have taken a centrestage in helping individuals and organizations achieve digital fluency. Today, we  discuss one such system, dubbed the ‘Beckn Protocol’, in this interview with the founder of Beckn, Sujith Nair.

The way we view digital systems is about to change, and  the Beckn Protocol is an important part of this change. By presenting a decentralized mechanism, they are able  to aid various public sectors develop their own digital  infrastructure rather than relying on third parties.

But, in essence, the Beckn Protocol aims to achieve  much more. In order to truly understand the vision of a home-grown decentralied system, we chatted with the  Beckn team in-depth, and the interview is presented  below.

Nilabja Banerjee, Editorial Staff, Advanced Computing  and Communications Journal, spoke to Sujith Nair, CEO  of Beckn Foundation about Beckn, its motivation and  goals. Excerpts.

1. What was the inspiration for Beckn?

The inspiration for beckn goes back to the days of Aadhaar and learnings from building an enabling public digital infrastructure for population-scale transformation and other such minimal digital infrastructure  India has witnessed ever since like UPI and Electronic  tToll collection (FastTag). Beckn protocol as an open specification is a minimal-foot public digital infrastructure that is open, non-rivalrous and non-exclusive and attempts for a digital economy which is more inclusive, and make it more consumer and small-business friendly. Beckn attempts to solve this problem across sectors but it started with the focus on urban mobility and transportation sector in general. Mobility is a complex societal problem that is only increasing in complexity due to rapid urbanisation and disconnected public and private mobility systems. Today cities are built more around roads and vehicles than around people. While many new forms of transportation solutions  have emerged, including ride-hailing, car sharing and bike-sharing, all of these operate in silos when trying  to answer the question “How do I go from point A to  B?.” Each of the solutions is trying to solve the problem  on its own withas a goal of winner-taking-all. Beckn as  a set of open specifications was an effort to make mobility consumer-centric and make it a win-win, instead  of being form-centric and fragmented. Beckn allows for  mobility microentrepreneurs like taxi and auto drivers  to become naturally discoverable and generate rides online at their own command without overly relying on  digital intermediaries or their rules. By its design, Beckn naturally extends to other sectors where small and big businesses and service providers in sectors like retail, logistics, supply-chain, education, healthcare, agriculture and more find it easier to do business online. 

2. Why does India need an open and decentralized digital ecosystem? What are some of the primary sectors that can benefit through the Beckn Protocol?

In a country as diverse as India, if one has to think  about solutions for a population-scale, one needs to  think about how a billion people can participate. The  challenge becomes more intriguing when this bunch  has a diverse geographical presence, technical expertise, economical empowerment and variabilities across  other parameters. 

One of the best ways to do that is to bring digital public goods and digital public rails as an infrastructure on top of which private and public players can build innovative solutions. Thus instead of trying to ‘scale what  works’, the focus of population-scale projects should be  on ‘what works on scale’. Open access and decentralization have those traits.

And this idea of open access and decentralization is not  a radically new idea, but rather inspired by the working of internet and emails. Instead of being a single centralized platform, they both are a network of devices and platforms. Just like how a sender and receiver of email  can reside on different platforms and still exchange  emails without the presence of any central intermediary, Beckn allows buyers and sellers to be on different platforms and yet naturally discover each other and undertake economic transactions. The buyers and sellers can choose to use any platform, even build or source  on their own low cost platform and still be naturally  discoverable, undertake transactions with users on the  other platform thus reducing the cost of doing business  online. 

Beckn Protocol is a first-of-its-kind, made-in-India and built-for-the-world open protocol that anybody can adopt as its fully open-source specifications. It acts as the underlying digital transaction infrastructure or as a lightweight digital rail for online economic transactions, be it for online shopping, booking a ride, a hotel stay, a doctor’s teleconsultations or learning and employment. Thus the possibilities are innumerable and  left to the power of imagination and execution.

3. How does the Beckn Protocol answer data security  issues related to operating on a decentralized digital ecosystem?

Beckn specifications allows for privacy and confidentiality to be maintained by a platform when interacting with other platforms using beckn protocol. It allows for platforms to fully encrypt their transactions and avoid  sharing any personal or sensitive information of its users. It allows for network facilitator that is bringing an ecosystem of platforms onto a network using beckn  protocol to overlay policies around privacy and data  security on the protocol and enable compliance of the same by the participant platforms. 

4. How can someone start implementing the protocol? Are any reference documents available?

The protocol is a simple set of specifications made available publicly in a github repository by the same name  and with online technical documentation available at its website - becknprotocol.io. Any developer, product manager or a tech entrepreneur can access these.  To accelerate learning and adoption of beckn, they can  join the growing global community of volunteers, and  practitioners who are part of what is known as “Beckn  Open Collective”. The volunteers have contributed to  build open source reference applications on beckn and  also to offer plug-and-play adapters for any existing  platform to become beckn enabled in little time. Also  such platforms can participate in other open networks  projects underway throughout the geography as mentioned earlier. 

5. Can you tell us about the first formal Beckn open community setup?

In terms of number, there exists only one larger Beckn community. Under which there are multiple subgroups  who are focusing on individual missions. One of the  first major subgroups to be created as an open community was Kochi Open Mobility Community.

Constituents: Kochi Open Mobility Community started in 2020 with less than 20 people and currently is a 60+  member strong community spanning from tech volunteers to community stakeholders.

Interactions: The community has a robust foundational  relationship among its members. They not only interact very frequently, but also the interactions consists of local physical meetings to virtual community brainstorm  calls with participants from around the globe (e.g. Poland, France, etc.). 

Objective: The agenda covers various product improvement discussions to necessary amendments of developments & architecture to ensure coverage of a wider variety of mobility use cases.

Community Governance: There are voluntary community managers who assistsed by different track leaders (e.g. demand generation, supply, legal, commercial, and many other tracks). The governance of such community interactions comply with a set of community guidelines and code of conduct, again decided unanimously by the community members. 

6. What would the Beckn ecosystem ideally consist of? Where do you see this protocol going?

The Beckn ecosystem at its best would consist of a  global network of interoperable consumer and provider side applications. The items of exchange will range into an array of goods or services. Consumers can discover the item of need through any application of their  choice and they don’t have to exercise multi-tenancy. Similarly, the sellers should ideally be at the tip of their ‘business centricity’ and not worry about customer acquisition. In a matured and competitive ecosystem, the sellers should be able to do business as easily from one platform to another without facing the friction of migration and platform centricity. One person in rural India should be able to discover the critical medicine available at different parts of the world and get it delivered at a reasonable and competitive price as smoothly as ordering it from a neighbourhood store. 

Though the ideation may seem a little far-fetched, it is achievable if broken down into actionable small scale items and then by design aggregated all regardless of boundaries. It may start with a regional adoption like KOMN, or a national mission like ONDC, but later can be integrated with each other without much extra effort and resources (as both are designed over the same underlying protocol).

7. Is Beckn an answer to the needs that have risen out of the pandemic?

Beckn was ideated and tied for implementation well  before the pandemic hit. However, if we take a deeper look, specifically in the Indian context, we can see how strong relevance it brings to the needs arising out of the pandemic.

India’s digital commerce industry has evolved and picked up significant momentum during the past few years which was further accelerated by compulsions on account of COVID-19. The ongoing digital transformation in terms of access to connectivity at affordable cost, increase in internet and smartphone penetration and increased investments in the start-up ecosystem are significant factors contributing to this growth. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the critical shortcomings of the Indian digital commerce ecosystem when most parts of the retail chain were found to be digitally absent and there was a complete breakdown of the supply chain. Around 1.2 crore Kiranas (hyperlocal neighborhood provision stores) account for 80% of the retail sector in India, with 90% of them being unorganized, or self-organized and most of them digitally excluded. Even on the consumer side, only a small portion (~20%) of the internet users in India are online shoppers. 

The smartphone penetration and internet connectivity figures are not doing justice to the digital empowerment statistics. Tech enablement has become one of the major barriers. That is where Beckn plays the role of enabler. If someone is using WhatsApp or Messenger, in a Beckn enabled world, they don’t need to install, learn and understand a totally new application to be able to buy or sell in the digital storefront. They can do so through the app of their choice, the preinstalled one. So the vacuum that the pandemic has highlighted, can be filled by an open solution that can be naturally scaled to the scale of the problem.

8. Are there any other parallel initiatives to the Beckn Protocol in the world? How does it integrate with other such protocols?

There are initiatives of similar approach and scale but mostly dedicated to a particular purpose and use. Like UPI is for payments, OCEN is for credit and financial inclusion, and DEPA is for data empowerment. However, on the other hand, Beckn is more generic and usable across several industries and sectors as mentioned earlier.

9. Are their existing applications using this? How can  the public participate?

There are many large scale projects being implemented  using beckn protocol. To mention few of the current  initiatives

Open network for digital commerce (ONDC): ONDC is  being established as a first-of-its-kind initiative globally to pave the way for reimagining digital commerce in India and establishing a globally replicable model for digital commerce. This will be an open network developed on open protocols based on open-source specifications with established registries, enabling wide-scale participation bdigital commerce ecosystem players in India through multiple gateways.

Kochi Open Mobility Network (KOMN): Kochi Open Mobility Network is an initiative of the Kochi Metropolitan Transport Authority to support the local community in Kochi. KOMN, is one of the novel initiatives toward digitizing mobility, offering mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) including multi-modal journeys (metro, waterways, bus, etc.), integration with parking and EV charging availability, and many more.

Decentralized Health Protocol (DHP): DHP is a open source project that aims to define interoperable protocol specifications for creating decentralized network of health and wellness services including tele consultation and various other services. DHP is maintained by the open source community to create API specifications, schemas and taxonomy for health and wellness domain.

There are multiple applications that as a part of these open networks have already adopted the Beckn protocol. Yatri-consumer and Yatri-partner were few of the pioneers. There are many other applications and platform players who are either already Beckn enabled or will be enabled soon for networks like ONDC. So anyone can download, install and start using these apps as they would have otherwise and be a part of the digital pioneering.