Episode 1: Another way of seeing

In this first episode of Sea Change, “Another way of seeing”, we speak to a group of people who set audacious goals, like transforming how children learn, how people access capital, or healthcare – but they don’t believe in focussing only on solutions. They believe that societal problems can also be addressed through approaches that seek a sea change, a systemic change in the way we do things. Technology has become an undeniable fact of our lives, and as it simultaneously transforms how we live, work, and what we aspire towards, it has a huge role to play in providing a foundation for organizing and amplifying state, market, and civil society responses to societal issues.  The group of people you will hear from collaborate to build technology that does just that, but are also interested in how we shape thinking and our understanding of societal issues so that we can co-create inclusive, empowering and most importantly, powerful responses that can reach populations at a time.


Nandan Nilekani (NN): The world has become very ambitious about bringing change…we want to solve problems at scale and we want to solve them quickly! So, in fifteen years we want to eliminate poverty.

But when you start looking at how to solve it the quality of solutions is often not up to this challenge. They’re either too small, or they’re meant for a particular context, they’re point solutions…and in a complex system where there are many interlocking actors, if you apply a point solution, you try to fix one thing but then the rest of the system drags it down to the same equilibrium of before. Nobody is disputing the goals and the what. It’s the how, how do you do this? How do you get from here to there?

Samyuktha (SV): Hello and welcome to Sea Change, a three part series brought to you by the creators of In the Field. We’re your hosts – I’m Samyuktha Varma and I’m Radhika Viswanathan. We’re researchers who also make shows about development, progress and social change.

Sea Change is a co-production of Societal Platform and Vakku. In this first episode, you’re going to meet a group of people who like to work on really big problems. They think about things like figuring out how to get 200 million children to learn better, or how to bring access to finance and credit to millions, or how to ensure basic healthcare for all communities. They define societal problems at the population scale, and they are trying to figure what we need to do to get at them faster and in a more inclusive way.

SV: Any examples from where you drew from the vocabulary first?

NN: We actually want to solve real world problems right, so then we take up some real world problem and set some audacious target, audacious goals and once you set those audacious goals then you’re forced to rethink how you do it.

SV: Audacious goals. Are exactly what they sound like: ending poverty, providing clean water to all, or searching for the cure to a virus. Even more audacious than the goals themselves is that we believe that we can work together to achieve them in a matter of a few years. But we tend to chase these grand goals by looking for solutions, by searching for a silver bullet. And while many things have been achieved by the sheer genius of a single solution, very few have been discovered overnight.

Radhika Viswanathan (RV): In the past forty years, the world has managed to improve the quality of life for millions of people. A lot of these changes are due to scientific advancements, progressive social policies, enduring people’s movements and economic growth.

And catalysing many of these developments in the past has been investment in infrastructure. Physical infrastructure. That enabled us to travel, to connect, to communicate, to exchange, to develop – like roads, railways, and bridges. This basic physical infrastructure unleashed decades of economic development.

SV: Today we talk about digital highways – modern manifestations of transformative infrastructure. At times they even work as proxies for physical infrastructure, connecting remote points across the globe, becoming the means to access and manage services, improving the way we conduct business in a globalised world, not to mention changing the way in which we access culture, values, ideas and shape our social interactions. The era we live in now, sparked off by the smartphone revolution less than ten years ago, is characterised by rapid change and growth like never before.

RV: Nandan Nilekani, the Chairman and Co founder of Ek Step Foundation whom you heard at the beginning of the show. Nandan has spent the better part of his life working on transformative information systems, and now spends much of his time on innovative models that use technology for social change. Here he is explaining

NN: Technology today has become ubiquitous, costs have dropped dramatically. Today, anybody with a credit card can buy unlimited computing power on a cloud. Everybody has a phone, things like storage have become dramatically cheaper, new interfaces have come which are more people oriented like voice recognition.

RV: The crux of the matter we’re confronting today is that while so many of our conversations reference our outpaced achievements, they are also juxtaposed against our entrenched and persistent social problems. For example, we constantly hear talk about mobile phone penetration or satellite television in the deepest parts of the world where those same regions still grapple with basic needs.

SV: But what if there is an approach that could bring us closest to the promise of success, of achieving the audacious goal, of closing this gap so that people’s lives and livelihoods better match their aspirations. And what if this approach can bring us a success that is defined by the ability to affect a large number of people, populations. And what if it can be underpinned by technology, but is also a way of thinking, one that focuses on how we do things, rather than on the solution itself.

Lalitesh Katragadda, the pioneer of online mapping and the chief product officer of Indihood believes the time to act is now, not just for India, but for the world.

Lalitesh Katragadda (LK): We are just hitting the beginning of the S curve where the mainstream of India and probably the rest of the world is starting to get continuous always-on access to the internet. And that has not happened so far, so less than 200 million people really have internet access today, there are 400 quote unquote active connections, or 450 million active connections, but it’s really 200 people who are actively using the internet and that number is likely to jump to 600-700 million because of various efforts India is doing in the next 5-7 years. And when that happens, the opportunity to actually empower people with applications and platforms that they can take charge of, really becomes alive.

Rohini Nilekani (RN): So the social sector is very, very hard, it is by far the hardest sector to work in, and I’m not saying that just because I’m in that sector, but because I’ve met a lot of people who have recently come to the sector after having been extraordinarily successful in other sectors, and they said those sectors seemed far easier than trying to create any meaningful and lasting social change, right!

RN: That’s Rohini Nilekani. She and her husband Nandan, are amongst India’s most committed philanthropists and they are very interested in the question of how the world is presently organized to solve societal problems.

SV: Things that are “societal” are about how groups within society are connected. It’s about how power and influence, language and communication, and other forces shape the way in which groups interact and work together.

RV: Let’s take a simple example like education. Schools, communities of parents, and government policies work together to help children learn. And in a perfect world, these societal elements would all work together, in sync to help all children get the right skills and set them on a course to be able to achieve aspirations and build the lives they want. This isn’t how things work in practice. There are so many groups of people working on different parts of the puzzle…

Ankur Vora (AV): There’s a group of people focused on let me just do the academic research in terms of what pedagogy works, what textbooks work… but it’s at a very high level, not locally translatable…and then there’s a bunch of people looking at schools on the ground and they’re saying actually that’s not that the challenge! The challenge is the harvest season comes and no one shows up to work and there isn’t a good way when girls become adolescent to keep them in schools, or there are cultural issues that are coming up or the teacher gets pulled into all of these other government services and so those are the issues we need to solve…

RV: This is Ankur Vora, who leads the strategy innovation and impact team at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

AV: And there are the funders who come in and put a lot of money in and they want to see a lot of results and so they focus a lot on data and accountability;

RV: And then there’s the government.

AV: Obviously, they care about the right things, but they’re also driven by election cycles, and so they come in and say the thing that’s going to make a lot more noise is building, a new school, rather than improving the efficiency of the existing schools etc. So, you have people coming in at different vantage points and different incentives structures and to get them to, and they all care about the same thing at a deep level, but to get them to focus to collaborate together is hard.

SV: But to achieve the big goals, to get all of these elements to collaborate, create the kinds of solutions we want and need, in the ambitious time frames we set for ourselves, we need to think systemically. Systemic change brings dispersed ways of working together, and makes it easier for people to work on commonly defined goals. We chatted with Robert Palacios, a senior economist and global lead for pensions and social insurance at the World Bank. Shouldn’t people and groups working on human development – on strongly interlinked issues like healthcare, education or even social protection programs – work together?

Robert Palacios (RP): Sometimes the health people don’t know what the social protection people are doing in the same country or vice versa, or on the government’s side where sometimes there’s a tendency to just focus on your piece of the puzzle, and there may not be somebody at a higher level seeing how this all fits together… and making sure you’re not duplicating things. And honestly, there are poor incentives in organisations to collaborate across these siloes and to not create the silos to begin with.

RV: Most programmes designed to run as large population scale programs such as social assistance, have historical legacies – they were created decades ago in an analog world.

RP: Part of it is, we are only now getting to the point where some of the technology is ubiquitous enough and cheap enough that we could apply it to all of these programs.

RN: More and more people are realising that without genuine collaboration, no just um, naam ke vaaste, or in name only collaboration, we are not going to be able to crack some of the more, you know persistent problems of poverty, health and other things, or even environment.

RV: Getting systems that were set up in different institutions, geographies or departments to become interoperable, to be able to talk to each other and share data, make use of it to enable people to solve problems intuitively, is a huge challenge and signals a huge need:

RP: It turns out that they all sort of need the same type of basic infrastructure to function efficiently;

SV: And this basic infrastructure needs to be built. Think of it as building digital infrastructure for the future, and thinking of it as a public good to solve societal problems.

Pramod Varma (PV): So, we were saying society at large, understands the need for physical infrastructure, as part of the development agenda. Very well understood paradigm – physical infrastructure, but not so well understood is the necessity for a similar approach in building digital infrastructure.

RP: But very few countries are in a position to implement some of these things. But the point is that that’s what we should we working on, from the WB side and the government side, creating that infrastructure that allows you to do all of these different social policy options – is really what we should be doing.

RV: And so, as we develop and progress, we want to find a way to build systems that are more secure, that provide choices, to ensure that we are building a foundation to solve problems for the future, and not just think of these as first response solutions.

SV: The people you’ll hear on Sea Change are a collaborative. And this is what they’re working on – societal platforms.

RN: The technology backbone that we talk about on societal platforms or societal platform thinking, the highways that need to be built, should allow us to sort of create a map of destinations and then you choose what vehicle you want to be in and how many passengers you want to carry with you.

SV: For the builders of these foundational layers like Pramod Varma, a technology architect and CTO at EkStep Foundation, this is an integral part of what the economy of the future is going to rely on.

PV: I was telling you that analogy of the Tetris game, people who have played Tetris at the bottom – Tetris keeps collapsing the bottom. So it’s very important that we are constantly asking every 5 years, 10 years, a country asks, what are the additional other foundations that we must lay so that the next decade looks even more uh, energised in terms of inclusion products choice availability of opportunities and so on, right. What is that we can do so that you unblock that, and that minimal denominator, minimal denominator, is very,  very important and that’s not static. Every 5 -10 years, countries have to ask what else do we need to lay. That’s what we keep asking.

RV: Don’t forget that technology is playing a big role in feeding our impatience to solve these things quickly and for everyone. Our hunger for change also comes from deep within societies – today billions of people see change rapidly, transformation within one generation, in their own families. And people want to have more control and more choice in the kinds of solutions that are available.

SV: What we’re hearing is there is a real need to find better ways to bring more people into the digital fold – to create ways to bring even more access to information, to services, to finance and to ideas so that actual development on the ground matches up. But this can’t be done by designing from the top.  This is Lalitesh again.

LK: If you take a billion people in India and subtract the top 300 million people there is no information that really matters to them that is online. It’s not even on paper, let alone digital. Which means that mathematically the only way you can bring that information online is through crowdsourcing, right, which is that people have to do it themselves and communities have to do it themselves, they have to own this information and so on.

SV: Sanjay Purohit is the evangelist – the chief curator – at Societal Platform where he examines how organizations use systemic approaches to affect the holy grail of social change: speed, scale and sustainability.

For instance, looking at an organization that worked in healthcare for over 30 years was able to sustain itself, or one that successfully delivered a drug or treatment at population scale – what could we learn from how they did it? And then drawing from that, what kind of foundational elements allowed this success or impact, and finally what kind of technology could replicate or amplify the model? Sanjay uses these lessons to shape the contours of the idea of “societal platform thinking”.

Sanjay Purohit (SP): How do you optimise resources across a network, how do you optimise relationships across a network, how do you eliminate duplication of effort, right? So, these are design questions. These are not yet about the platform and the architecture, when you say the word societal platform the mind kind of jumps to saying oh! where is the platform, where is the technology, that’s not the point. Because the technology is not the solution, it is a catalyst.

RV: Part of the challenge of addressing societal problems at scale is finding ways to do it while leaving room for imaginative, supple solutions to arise. These are ones that fix problems locally, or even at the community level, and respond to particularities of geography or community.

And this needs a platform that is unified in terms of its goals but not uniform. So that diverse ideas can play out, different ideologies can coexist, and multiple beliefs and ways of doing to interact and co-create.

RN: As a digital civil society we have to start influencing the rules of the digital world itself and I think you’re going to see a lot of new things happening from the social sector, for the technology sector in the next few years.

RV: The people working on societal platform thinking believe strongly that are a class of challenges that need a platform approach to bring societal change in the digital age.

RN: It seems like this question of how do you address societal problems is sort of an eternal game, right? We have to keep playing at it, keep on trying things, keep on doing things,  keep on learning new things and that it also involves all sectors of society, it involved civil society, it involves the state, it involves the markets, it involves leaders across all these…and it seemed to us is how could we find a way to describe the reduction of friction between all the players that need to collaborate?

NN: I think the message we have is that the how matters. That society has large complex diverse unmet needs which have to be solved at population scale, they have to be solved in a sustainable way, they have to be done with alacrity because time is of the essence, and the world is grappling with different ways to do this.

RV: And this is what it’s about. It’s another way of seeing. Technology becomes a tool to amplify and power the ideas and networks that already exist, to give them momentum and to forge new ways to get them to grow. But it has a more foundational and catalytic purpose. For instance, infrastructure of this kind would help identify the people who need targeted assistance, or create reliable pathways to access skills, or get the right kind of experts to work on issues and inspire people to create things together… But it also needs another way of thinking, technology is also built from observing how people have overcome frictions in real life cases.

SV: In our next episode, we speak to groups applying these systemic ideas to the projects they’re working on. We meet people changing the nature of learning, others working on expanding healthcare, and others working to bring governance closer to the people. We learn more about how societal platform thinking can shape how we do things tomorrow?

End Credits.

Sea Change is a coproduction of Societal Platform and Vakku.

Music and Sound by Third Eye Studio.