Societal Platform Thinking: Catalyzing Ecosystems to Resolve Societal Challenges

Large problems and audacious goals

We are impatient to see solutions to our biggest societal problems. Such as those that will improve healthcare for communities, or access to education so that we positively impact the learning outcomes of all children, or finance and capital that can transform the livelihoods of the poor and excluded. Decades of interventions from the development sector have made important advances in these areas, but the question we grapple with today is how can we make positive impacts on people at a population scale and in a timely manner? Given that we live in an age where we are witness to the transformative potential of technology, is there a way to leverage digital technology to address our audacious goals of societal change? While technology has much to offer, if we are to truly achieve these audacious goals, we require a new way of thinking, a systemic approach that can bring the work of governments, markets and society, or samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar, together.  

The problem of scarce resources

Social problems are complex, they are dynamic, and many a times, they grow faster than our ability to solve them. People across the civil society, public, and private sectors, have been trying to make a significant difference to these problems, but this work often happens without access to resources than can amplify each of their efforts in ways that create a combined impact. Each of these actors often work without the support of a much needed additional actor’s strengths, such as when an NGO doing great work in a small village needs the backing of the government to expand its activities and affect more villages, or when an idea incubated within a small company needs funding to test out its potential. The question of achieving societal change at scale begins by questioning how we think about each actor in a network of actors committed to a common goal? What is required to amplify their efforts? How do we align their objectives? And how do you make each imagine large-scale possibilities? Societal Platform Thinking offers an opportunity to explore how to catalyse this ecosystem of well intentioned actors, so that the resources they need can be accessed more easily from within the system.

Societal Platform Thinking

Societal Platform Thinking posits a reimagining of social change through a systemic approach that brings the government, society and the market together. It is based on the following elements: shared infrastructure; co-creating in context: network of networks; minimalistic design; and empowerment through data. The first layer of a Societal Platform is the technology layer, which operates as an open shared, foundational infrastructure. Digital platforms inherently bring certain capabilities, a way to leverage scarce resources such as the ability to catalyse networks, to connect marketplaces and connect suppliers and buyers. Societal Platform Thinking proposes that the infrastructure operate as an open, public good, one that can be built upon to serve the interests and needs of different players.

One of the biggest critiques of scaled models to solving social issues is that they are too prescriptive and hard to adapt to local contexts and diverse conditions. Societal Platform Thinking proposes a foundation for collaboration and co-creation between various actors across the platform’s network, so that solutions are not only more appropriate but also allow for choice. By distributing the ability to solve problems amongst various types of entities within the platform, the approach enables solutions to be created that can serve a wide range and number of people and communities at a time. This is critical when attempting to solve social problems as programmes often do not consider that the communities they are serving want more choice and want more agency in being able to decide what solutions will work for them. The involvement of samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar also means that there are more resources in terms of risky capital and investment to build an ecosystem of innovators and support the creation of robust systems change ideas.

EkStep is one such manifestation of the Societal Platform thinking that takes a systemic approach. EkStep’s mission is to improve literacy and numeracy for millions of children in India by 2020, by increasing access to learning opportunities. The mission is imagined to be realised through several programmes. Taking the example of DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing), a programme by the Ministry of Human Resources Development and National Council for Teacher Education is one of the several programmes working with this approach. It focuses on the goal of providing an enhanced digital learning experience for teachers and learners.

DIKSHA enables the actions of many different types of actors – government, civil society and private sector to develop and connect various solutions to achieve its goal. It allows curators, teachers, educators, and the government to create solutions for education. The digital infrastructure of DIKSHA allows for such interactions. Sunbird, a set of modular extensible software components abstracted from the EkStep digital infrastructure, is leveraged by DIKSHA in providing the learning management solutions.

The first example of what DIKSHA can do is being demonstrated through the Energised Textbooks initiative that was launched in 2018, aimed at improving access to high quality learning materials. As of November 2018, it’s being rolled out in 24 participating states, each of which is able to adapt the offerings to their contexts. Content has been produced in 15 languages across 29 curriculum boards with 5000 teachers contributing to its creation. The infrastructural backbone is supple enough that new states can come on board and use DIKSHA with ease.

Risk Capital and Philanthropy

Philanthropic foundations have long been interested, and have had success, in tackling critical societal problems. The most important and well known of these are the green revolution and global effort to eradicate polio, both of which benefited from concerted investment from philanthropic funding. It’s been observed that charitable donations and giving in the US has been rising every year, and much of it has been devoted to supporting the values based causes of the donors. The effect of this giving has been norm shifting and an indicator that philanthropic capital can be effectively used to support risky, innovative experiments that are attempting to bring systemic change. Many new initiatives formed by collaboratives of philanthropic organizations are now funding solutions that take a systemic approach and embody collaborative and co-creative models to work closely with governments and the business communities. Societal change needs investment and resources, but it can also benefit greatly from the interest of philanthropic initiatives that bring diverse groups together.


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