Episode 3: Sea Change
In our final episode, we try and understand what it takes to ensure that ‘collaboration’ happens in an equitable way, in a mutually beneficial way, and in a way that respects diversity. We also explore what it means for different groups – governments, markets, citizens and society to truly envision a sea change in the way they think and practice development. And finally, change requires specific types of investment and time, where will all this come from?
Note: Sea Change is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. Readers are encouraged to listen to the show to get the full experience. The transcripts are meant as support documents and may not include inclusions from the day of recording and may contain errors. The audio version is the final version of the show.
Samyuktha Varma (SV): Hello and welcome to Sea Change, a three-part series about societal change in the digital age and how to make a bigger, faster and more inclusive impact in the world we live in. We’re your hosts, I’m Samyuktha Varma,
Radhika Viswanathan (RV): and I’m Radhika Viswanathan.
SV: If you’ve been following along and heard our last two episodes, you are familiar with societal platform thinking and the systemic approaches we need to solve large scale problems. Some emerging groups have begun thinking this way – changing the way they approach impact, and scale, and most importantly, the ways in which we work together. But you’re also probably ready to hear the answers to some of the tougher questions: like, how do we ensure that ‘collaboration’ happens in an equitable way, in a mutually beneficial way, that respects diversity. And what does this mean for the governments who are often seen as being slow to change? Change requires specific types of investment and time, where will all this come from?
Sanjay Purohit (SP): Societal platform as an idea is obsessed with three things, speed scale and sustainability. So, if you go into the design of societal platform or the way we think about this, we’ll constantly talk about restoring agency, we’ll talk about enabling choice, we’ll talk about distributing the ability to solve, we’ll talk about problems that should be addressed as micro-problems and not mega-problems, that we should work with samaj, bazaar, sarkar. Many such things.
RV: That was Sanjay Purohit, Chief Curator, Societal Platforms, explaining how systemic change goes straight to the heart of the problem. For instant, if we’re talking about eradication of poverty, a systemic approach would take on addressing the unequal distribution of resources, or the deep-rooted forms of discrimination against groups – as these are fundamental issues that make poverty persist. It’s also about getting everyone to address these issues at the core.
SV: But social change is inherently political, and it is difficult and it can be messy. And by this we don’t mean partisan politics, but it is about power, and there are inequities in the way in which power is distributed that we need to address in order to bring systemic change. As Isabel Guerrero, the founder of IMAGO says,
Isabel Guerrero (IG): You need to think of systemic change to smooth the transition from one system to another… um if we just wait for systemic change, the cost in terms of unemployment in terms of even a violence, because how much can the system take changes before it lashes back and I believe that technological platforms, I believe that systemic change, talking about it but doing something real about it is going to smooth that transition in a way that is massively important for the world.
RV: Non profit, non governmental and social organizations are often at the frontline of social change, but their widespread use of technology is still growing. This could be a consequence of many different factors: a lack of resources, or investments, a capacity issue, a push from donors, or even a mindset – that sees a new technology as yet another mandatory training workshop.
Ingrid Srinath is the director at the Centre for Social Impact and philanthropy at the Ashoka university– and she has observed that for many NGOs working on social issues, technology has almost been incidental to their solutions. But even then, in some instances it has had profound effects. She gives the example of how mobile phones have greatly helped healthcare workers reach out to expecting or new mothers to give them advice, vaccinations etc, and some more:
Ingrid Srinath (IS): But to me the more interesting story that came out of that was a woman who said to the researcher who was studying this thing, said, you know I always knew I needed to do this stuff but when I said I had to go to the clinic, my husband and my in-laws were like yea sure, we’ll do that one of these days. But now when it comes as a text message, they take it as an instruction. So the, the, power of technology in a sense to cut through patriarchy and feudalism and to actually get people to accompany this woman to the clinic or to let her go to the clinic even, is not I think what the technology was necessarily designed to do, but it has had that wonderful effect.
SV: Societal platform thinking is a way to amplify collaboration by leveraging technology for all.
Venkat Ramaswamy (VR): You’re really talking about engaging different types of individuals in different ways and there are various actors in the system and if you truly want to engage in systemic transformation and change you have no choice but to co-create, and so that begs the question what is co-creation?
SV: There aren’t very many people who think deeply about the specific idea of co-creation, but we had an opportunity to speak to one of them. You just heard Professor Venkat Ramaswamy, the Hallman Fellow of Electronic Business and Professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and he’s written many a book about it, including one with the renowned CK Prahlad.
VR: Creating together is how most people think about co-creation, but to me that’s not very helpful, it is about creation first of all, but enacting creation through interactions, so that’s the way at least I think about it, because when you start thinking about creations through interactions, it leads us to ask the questions, you know, what interactions and where when why how etc.. We need to think of it in a much more socio-technical way and that’s typically not the way in which people think about it; they think about it in terms of bringing different actors together and collaborating and creating, but if you start to think about it more as interactual creation then what happens is that you start thinking of it in terms of environments in which those interactions happen…
RV: Co-creation may not seem like a complicated thing. But it doesn’t just refer to the thing that happens when Samyuktha and I bring our Lego blocks over to each other’s houses to build time travelling machines together. Co – creation is about bringing multiple people together and making it possible for them to all build for the same purpose, a purpose that they all agree would benefit them. The Lego Company, in fact, did just that. Lego created an IDEAS website that has been hailed as an incredible example of co creation. Any Lego lover can go on it and share their designs, which are then be voted on by the public, and the highest voted designs are reviewed by senior Lego designers and then produced. The creators receive 1% of the net sales of the product.
SV: Venkat is deeply interested in how technology can make co-creation more effective.
VR: Thinking more about interactions to me helps connect the capabilities to outcome, right? So, there are a lot of new capabilities in the system in terms of facilitating different types of interactions and in every interactions gives rise to some experience and outcome. So the question really is how do you make those interactions more effective so that the experiences that people have are more meaningful, the outcomes generate value to them and so it really boils down to designing and configuring the environments which are actually facilitated by platforms, which you can think of as a collection of different environments that people engage with.
SV: In the real world where organizations are trying hard to solve problems in education or skills or health care, innovation is common. Complex challenges create environments where people have to constantly bring imagination and resourcefulness. Ingrid cautions that platforms can only be truly successful when individuals and groups are genuinely allowed to grow beyond their roles and become co-creators.
IS: That can become a bit of a buzzword and trite but if you actually stay true to that you probably can achieve the sort of thing you’re talking about.
RV: With our devices we can interact with far more people than before: in larger groups, and the groups we belong to can communicate with other groups. Digital platforms that allow and enable these interactions to happen, allow the communities and individuals on it to work towards common mutually beneficial goals with more ease. And even governments now see the potential of technology to increase and improve interactions, especially between disparate departments – but this wasn’t always the case. Viraj Tyagi is the CEO of eGovernments Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to transform governance in two thousand urban centres by 2020. One of the things they do is provide digital services to help citizens engage better with their municipal services and create channels for better citizen-state interactions. Viraj was inspired to do what he does today by one of his earliest interactions with the government.
Viraj Tyagi (VT): I’m from a town called Dehra Dun and I remember every year paying the property tax bill for my house. Even when I was a teenager, I remember it used to be a month long project – you will go to the office, they’ll tell you bring these documents, fill this form, you go back and say oh you haven’t given me this form and you do that and you come back and say you forgot to sign here… and it was just extremely difficult and full of friction… I remember once it took us a full four days and it’s like travelling three km or four km up and down and it just kind of left a pretty strong kind of impression on me.
SV: Doesn’t it sound familiar? But things are changing. Increasingly the government is recognising the value of technology to improve transparency and accountability and bring it closer to the people. It’s been a gamechanger, and more importantly, because it has the potential to identify and target the neediest it’s a way to make government programmes work better for people.
VT: Over the last two years we’ve seen a) much stronger engagement both in the bureaucracy and in the political system of trying to use technology to a provide services in a seamless manner, b) create transparency and data so that accountability can be not just implemented but also be seen – like there are a lot of politicians who have dashboards public dashboards to actually make it very transparent to the public in terms of what is happening.
SV: It is still early days but through collaboration and co-creation, another important thing gets established and that is trust.
Santhosh Mathew (SM): In the 32 years that I have been in government, in the bureaucracy, I have seen a sea change in the way governments look at problems and I think it’s derived or driven largely by the change that has happened in Indian society and Indian politics and … but today it’s extremely clear that nobody can win elections without improving the quality of public services.
RV: That’s Santhosh Mathew, a seasoned government official, now working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he attributes these shifts to larger forces: India is young, vibrant, more developed than it was, and going through a transition. Santhosh spoke with us at length on his long experience in government, and about the growing pressure on the bureaucracy to deliver services better. And the fact that many parts of the government have begun to accept that they can do more by collaborating and partnering with societal organisations:
SM: Now where this has been effective and where this has been channelised in a particular way, you’ll find in those states and ministries … you’ll find the openness to embrace new and more effective ways that high quality philanthropy has to offer or working in more sort of, of co-producing public services and not just of I am the government, mein bhi sarkar hoon (I too am the government), it’s not about that, it’s about let’s work together to produce the quality service.
SV: Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani concurs. Governments have very clear mandates and structures within which they operate and deliver. And if society or those representing the market want to build solutions and collaborate with the government, they need to be conscious of these.
RN: You can’t go to government and say…let’s create this open platform where anybody from anywhere can do anything they want and we’ll have rainbows exploding at the end. So they have a very clear mandate within a very structure in which they operate ….so it’s very important to design keeping the way government functions in mind, this is not supposed to create revolution inside government, it is supposed to enable government to fulfill its mandate. The technology must back that, so we should really make sure that it enables government to do what it is supposed to do.
RV: We need to remember that while trying to come up with new ways of doing things, especially system changing approaches, there is always a chance of failure. In these conditions, what is the role that philanthropy can play?
SM: There is the failure that comes from a creative effort to deliver better, and these are much of the decisions in government that are taken in situations of uncertainty, a 30-40% failure rate that is inevitable, but in these accountability frameworks that these middle income country experience, in it’s early days.. they are unable to differentiate between a failure which is the consequence of an effort to improve what we do and a failure that comes because it is driven by corruption and malfeasance.
SV: And this is where philanthropists can play a role – they can bring the long term endurance needed to see these efforts through:
Ankur Vora (AV): You touched upon the fact of risk capital – people think about it as money, I think actually its less about the dollar value or the rupee value because that’s actually a drop in the bucket.
SV: That’s Ankur Vora, Head of Strategy and Innovation at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
AV: The thing that’s valuable about risk capital is that its risk capital, it can take bets that traditional capital can’t take because these people are willing to fail in the pursuit of something great. So high-risk high-return bets are ones that they should take. The other part of the capital coming in is around norm shifting.
RV: In the US total giving by the public is around 2% of the GDP and it is still rising. It’s being taken as a signal that people, society, want to donate to support their values. They give to organizations and causes that are close to the beliefs they hold dear. This is what Ankur means by norm shifting. And it’s been observed that much of this is money coming is from new money.
AV: So the few things that philanthropists are good at and should be doing a lot more of is around there is something about not accepting status quo and shaking up the system and pushing for a paradigm shift and a completely different equilibrium and this is something that most of these philanthropists have been successful in their private ventures …and they should do that because otherwise we’re stuck in this equilibrium where we keep on doing a little bit incremental of what we did in the past and which didn’t have great results.
RV: Many new perspectives are being attributed to philanthropic giving.
AV: There are very few people who can convene four different kinds of ideologies together and one needs to do that and that’s the role that a philanthropist could and should play that is pull in different ideas different thoughts, different talents and find a way for these people to work together.
SM: And that’s why I believe over the next 25 years we need society to actually come together along with philanthropy to be able to do the things for government, along with government, co-produced so that the kind of risks that people in government are unwilling to take, society directly takes it up through philanthropy or other ways of raising resources.
Olivia Leland (OL): So I spent a year interviewing people around the world around the potential of philanthropy and that was how I came up with the idea of co-impact was through these conversations, and one of the things that I heard over and over again, from people around the world from mostly NGO leaders was this notion that any day of any week you can go to a discussion that is about systems change.
SV: That’s Olivia Leland, she was the founding director at the Giving Pledge, an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by getting the world’s wealthiest philanthropists to make commitments. She now heads Co-Impact, a global collaborative for systems change. As someone at the forefront the evolution of philanthropic funding, we asked her to tell us about some of these new directions.
OL: Philanthropy isn’t quite there yet, of course there are the examples around the world of people who are focussing on systems change, but the reality is the vast majority of philanthropy is focussed on direct scaling on shorter term smaller scale funding um on shorter term smaller scale funding and, there is a huge potential to um have philanthropy actually take this lens of how do you support the leaders across their systems that are actually working on what it takes to actually try this kind of change.
SV: This has been a long standing question. Philanthropic support to social change has often come in specific modes, it’s been considered to be safe, in some ways. Here’s Ingrid:
IS: For a lot of philanthropists, development agencies, government agencies even, the preference is to channel money into direct service delivery, so if you look at philanthropic resources in India, the vast bulk of them are going into running schools, feeding children, immunising people, delivering healthcare, the absolute sort of service delivery kind of work. Much less goes into asking why those people need those services delivered to them and what can be done to empower those people to acquire those services themselves, as is their right.
RV: There are reasons for this, it’s much harder to measure the impact of work that is about change and transformation when you’re tracking things like behavior or values, or empowerment. And it often does come with costs – there are power structures that may have to be displaced, like Ingrid’s story about women using mobile phones in patriarchal settings.
IS: It’s just a messier business systemic change than service delivery.
RV: But we still need to level the playing field and democratize access, and this means finding ways to better co-create with users.
IS: Believing that people know what’s best for them and believing that people know how to solve their own problems and this is a you have to have this, this belief almost viscerally, because it can’t be, because you can’t fake it. Um, but if you do that and then let them co-design with you, so almost not even co design, let them lead on design where you’re really facilitating, enabling, catalysing, those wonderful words, rather than doing for speaking on behalf of, so looking at amplifying their capacities rather than substituting them with your capacities I think is the key.
SV: Another charge levelled at philanthropic funding is that it often wants to see change happen quickly. There are standard timeframes for impact, something that many NGOs bemoan. But real change takes time, and philanthropists have started to acknowledge that.
OL: It means being with it for the longer term because it doesn’t happen in the one and three year grant terms, it takes much longer than that means making longer you know larger investments as well um and it means providing that kind of additional support that goes beyond the funding because so much of being involved in systems change is the kind of partnerships you need.
SV: The kind of philanthropy needed to drive systemic change, the kind that fosters societal platform thinking requires a different sensibility, it’s the kind that recognises the need for systems leadership. And this means being able and ready to give up a little control – and authorship.
RN: I recently came from some gatherings of philanthropists around the world and I think it’s becoming clear to many many people, that business as usual in philanthropy is not going to achieve the kind of ambitious goals that have been expressed, we genuinely need to find new forms of collaborating, we genuinely need to understand that you have to let go a little bit of ego, control, name in shining letters, stuff if you want to achieve impact.
OL: And so philanthropy is sort of recognising what you know being at the table with others and helping to foster those kinds of conversations being collaborative itself but also uh really sort of bringing others into the conversation is enormously important I think.
RN: And I think they are ready for something like this and they themselves are trying collaborative models now. Different forms, right, you know about Co-Impact, and there are many other things… Rockefeller, Ford, they are all trying to come in with new collaborative models and so I think the time is right to try this out very seriously and there is money backing it and there is intent backing.
AV: I’m fascinated by the idea of something like a societal platform where you’re creating a virtual community that allows people across different vantage points to coalesce and learn from each other and its done in a manner in a way you can contribute, you can influence, but everybody can do their own things at the end of the day.
RV: Societal platform thinking is ultimately about finding a way to reflect the diversity of the world we live in, and to construct more inclusive ways to solve the problems we all suffer. It’s a mind-bending idea and it needs stewardship. Through the course of the show we met with a lot of people working on different things in different parts of the world who all believe in the idea, but the one thing they all talked about was the need for leadership.
SV: Systems leaders need a certain set of distinct attributes to be able to bring ideologically different communities, or corporations, and even governments together. Here’s Sanjay:
SP: The most important things that you work on here is how do you align the objectives, incentives and policies to do something like this. That takes a lot of work to go around meet people share your vision and that’s why the role of a system leader is a very important role in building of societal platforms. Somebody who can actually bring people together into generative conversations, have the discussion, be able to explain, be able to lay out that possibility, create that sense of it can be done.
RV: And this, is at the heart of societal platform thinking – working to bring people together around a common goal, that infuses and the system with a sense of co-creation, of collaboration and hope.
SV: Sea change was created to introduce the idea of societal platforms and the community of people and organizations committed to its evolution. But the group also has a message, here are Nandan and Rohini Nilekani inviting people to join them, to come explore, investigate, challenge and think together.
Nandan Nilekani (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, and we believe that societal platform thinking is one way to do it, we’re certainly not saying its not the only way to do it, nor are we saying that it applies to all situations, but there’s a class of challenges that we have where a Societal platform approach can actually make a meaningful difference in the way you do things and we would like people to be aware of this approach, so that in the course of their work or their activities they see that there’s a way of thinking about this which may apply to something they are doing.
RN: So I would say to people who have taken on social sector challenges especially, if you have an organization that has been quite successful in the past but you are struggling with new things because you want to scale, or you want to reach new geographies, or you have new ambitions, and you may be struggling with some scarce resources like people, or skills, then I would say come find out what is on offer to help you do that a little quicker.
RN: Um I guess to creative people across markets, state and society or leaders, we would say come and see if there is something in this design that would inspire you to stretch your wings further because you have ideas, you have the ability to create with other people, come and if there is something there for you to discover. And lastly, I would say to all those who are interested in this exercise, even at an intellectual level, well we need help, come and help us to think this through better so this can become more robust!
RN: If there are people, if there are philanthropists who are very serious about making big change about something they care deeply about, they have money they may not have time, personally, but they have people, they have money, and to them we are saying please, come and see if there is some way we can help you to create your own system, can we enthuse you to become a system builder in the sector you are passionate about, so that you can make a global offering to people who are all working in that sector along with you.
RN: And one of the things I want to say to the technology people out there, uh, since I am not one, I know how valuable you all are, and if there are people with technology skills who are getting interested in some of the things you are hearing in this podcast we need help, from people who are willing to give their time and their brains, so we need your minds, but we also need your hearts, and your skills, so the call to action is please come and help us a bit, thank you.
Thank you for listening to Sea Change.
Thanks to Ingrid Srinath, Olivia Leland, Robert Palacios, Ankur Vora, Lalitesh Katragadda, Oliver Bogler, Isabel Guerrero, Shankar Maruwada, Viraj Tyagi, Santhosh Mathew, Venkat Ramaswamy, RK Kalluri, Nandan and Rohini Nilekani, Sanjay Purohit, Naveen Varshan, Pramod Varma, the teachers and students in Chennai, Sahana Jose and Gautam John.
Sea Change is co-produced by Societal Platform and Vakku.
Music and Sound by Third Eye Studio.