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Role of Technology in Core Principles of Societal Platform Thinking

How do the technology principles help in realizing the core principles/values of Societal Platform Thinking?

The organizations adopting the Societal Platform approach are trying to solve complex societal challenges at scale. The challenge of creating financial inclusion for 100 million first-time formal borrower households in India, enabling water security for 100 million people by 2023, touching 1 billion lives in healthcare across the world, creating livelihood opportunities for 100 million farmers and artisans, solving for access to learning opportunities for 200 million children in India, transforming urban governance for 2000 local bodies, are such societal missions. Although these challenges may seem vastly different from one another, each of them is trying to address a complex and dynamic problem at large scale. The 10 core principles of Societal Platform Thinking guide in solving such complex and dynamic societal challenges at scale.

The core principles of Societal Platform Thinking are intuitive in thought but hard to master in practice. Technology is one of the key enablers that help us practice the core principles of Societal Platform Thinking. The Societal Platform Thinking has 10 technology principles; we believe that these principles guide our design choices when building systems for complex and dynamic societal challenges at scale. In this article, we look at each of the core principles of Societal Platform Thinking and the technology principles that enable us to practice that core principle.

  • Restoring agency 

The belief that people and systems can solve their own problems, given a suitable environment, is central to Societal Platform Thinking. The role of a Societal Platform builder is to enable such an environment where people have access to relevant resources and opportunities. An environment where people are not limited by their financial, cultural and social context in making use of the available resources and opportunities, and can choose and imagine possibilities for themselves. Similarly, facilitating an environment where systems can accelerate and amplify their efforts and reach.

To enable this environment of choice and imagination for people and systems, technology principles like interoperability, scalability and extensibility play an important role. Interoperability allows actors to choose and replace a microservice as they find relevant. It helps systems to innovate faster by creating an environment of trust. Designing for scalability enables speed in a system. It allows systems to amplify their efforts and reach to people and problems easily. Extensibility fuels the environment for realizing new possibilities. People can imagine and create new solutions. Systems can evolve themselves to work on related problems.

  • Resolving for diversity

Societal Platform missions work at population scale. The people affected by the problem differ not only in their financial, demographic and social contexts but their needs, wants and capabilities are also different. For example, a 50-year old lady in a tier-3 city who has no experience of handling money on her own and a young teacher in a remote mountain village require different solutions for financial inclusion. To build an infrastructure that can be used to create relevant solutions and programs for different segments in the population, we need to look at the problems from multiple perspectives.

The principle of multitenancy allows different groups of users to define the solutions as relevant to them. For example, DIKSHA – a multi-tenant teacher learning platform by the government of India, allows each state to choose the curriculum, language, classes etc for learning. Designing for interoperability and extensibility enables the wider ecosystem to create new solutions and improve the existing ones to serve emerging needs. As more and more people, having diverse perspectives on the problems, start leveraging the infrastructure to create solutions as they see fit, it increases the number of choices available to different segments of the population as suitable in their context.

  • Catalysing networks

We can’t succeed at the challenges of education, water, healthcare and alike, at  population scale without breaking the silos. No one among Samaaj (Civil Society), Sarkaar (Government) and Bazaar (Market) can do everything required to solve these challenges for the people. One of the key responsibilities of a Societal Platform builder is to catalyse these networks of Samaaj (Civil Society), Sarkaar (Government) and Bazaar(Market) to work with each other and leverage the services and facilities from one another to enable greater outcomes for the people.

Trust is key for the Samaaj (Civil Society), Sarkaar (Government) and Bazaar (Market) to work together. Creating for trust by design brings in transparency and reduces the friction created by compliance and other power-induced mechanisms. Accountability and reliability of services and facilities pose another threat in the reuse of infrastructure across Samaaj (Civil Society), Sarkaar (Government) and Bazaar (Market). A resilientdesign reduces that fear and creates trust in the services and facilities over time. The observability of services and systems built by others also encourages reuse. Concerns for privacy and security come up as another hindrance when working across silos, more visible when working with governments. Using collectively acceptable standards to bake privacy and security in the design itself alleviates these concerns.

  • Sharing solvability

Unlike a traditional way of creating and distributing solutions, Societal Platform Thinking believes in enabling people and systems to create solutions for themselves. This requires providing the building-blocks, the key capabilities required to create solutions, and  building the capacity of people and organizations/institutions to leverage these capabilities to create contextual solutions.

Unbundling the design into interoperable and extensible services enables people and organizations to take what they need, combine with other services and quickly respond with contextual solutions. Configurability allows reuse of services to create solutions as per the context. For example, a solution designed for connecting farmer’s produce to market can be configured in different ways to serve the farmers in different regions. In suburban regions, tech-savvy farmers can directly book for pickup through the app, whereas in rural areas with limited access to smartphones, farmers can book pickup by calling at a call-center. The principle of observability empowers solution creators to independently understand and use the infrastructure to create relevant solutions.

  • Inspiring co-creation

Societal problems are complex and there are no definite answers to what works at scale. It often requires people and organizations with diverse perspectives to come together to experiment and find relevant solutions. As a Societal Platform builder, one has to enable this environment where diverse entities can interact with each other, exchange ideas and experiences, and co-create solutions together.

Extensibility is an important technology principle to facilitate co-creation. When designing for extensibility, it is not enough to just open the services for use. A good extensible design helps the users to find the right services and provides the resources required to understand the available services. It creates spaces for the users of the services to interact and collaborate with each other and sets up processes for contribution and sharing in this community. The principle of trust by design also facilitates co-creation. Designing for trust brings transparency, it encourages interactions among the users and empowers them to question, improve and contribute to this community. The collective sense of ownership inspires co-creation.

  • Building public goods

To create solutions, people and organizations require access to some key resources such as expert knowledge, technology and data. Often, these resources are owned by few people and groups in the society. This leads to exclusion; many segments in society struggle with problems because these segments don’t have access to the key resources required to create solutions for themselves and nobody else has the incentives to solve their problems.  A Societal Platform builder has the responsibility to create an environment where these scarce resources are available in an open and equitable manner, like public good.

Unbundling helps in creating the culture of public good. It makes the key services required to solve the problems in a sector available in small sachets. This creates choice as these services can be reused and combined with other services to create contextual solutions to more complex problems. The sachet-size also improves access to key services for marginalized groups who otherwise may not be able to afford the systems designed as monolithic. Designing for interoperability and extensibility makes the key services available to create solutions for changing requirements. The services built on open standards encourage use by diverse and wide group of people. For example, Sunbird – a set of learning related microservices available as public goods – has been widely used to create a national teacher platform by the government of India, to create learning platforms in various domains by not-for-profit organizations such as ShikshaLokam and Arghyam, and also to create learning platforms by private companies.

  • Open value creation

A societal mission is the driving force for any Societal Platform. Unlike the construct of platforms in commercial world, the goal of a Societal Platform is to facilitate value for society at large and not restrict its creation or sharing or use to few people or a particular organization. That’s why a Societal Platform builder has to create a level playing field, a fair environment where the value creating resources and capabilities are available for anyone in the society and the platform doesn’t discriminate among people using/sharing the value.

Designing for interoperability allows people and organizations to create solutions using the services created by others. Designing for extensibility allows people and organizations to create new solutions to realize their emerging needs. A configurable design of services enables creation of value in diverse contexts. In today’s world, data is a key value created through a platform. Building for privacy by design ensures that the data is available for use by various entities such as individuals, groups, organizations and society at large through appropriate consent mechanisms.

  • Seeking rapid evolution

Societal challenges are complex. Multiple capabilities are required to create solutions for these challenges. This list of capabilities required also keeps changing as the problems evolve. That’s why the ability to rapidly generalize a new solution/innovation into its new capabilities and make it available as a public good is crucial to catalyse innovation at population scale. It is the responsibility of a Societal Platform builder to create such reference solutions and facilitate the practice of generalizing the new solutions and sharing them with others for reuse.

The practice of unbundling is important to fulfill the rapidly evolving demands of the societal challenges. Breaking the design of a new solution into its services such that the new services and innovations can be easily opened up for reuse in other contexts. Designing these services as configurable allows their reuse in different contexts. Extensibility enables people and organizations to quickly respond to emerging needs by extending the existing services and solutions to create new ones. All these efforts to ensure reusability of services is what helps to address the dynamic nature of societal challenges at scale.

  • Demonstrating system leadership

Solving the societal challenges of education, healthcare, water security etc. is hard. Although many initiatives and organizations by Samaaj (Civil Society), Sarkaar(Government) and Bazaar (Market) are working on different problems in these areas, the efforts are often fragmented and nobody has the full-view of the challenge, resulting in short-lived impact. To sustainably solve a complex societal challenge at scale, it is important to anticipate and co-create solutions based on a systemic view of the challenges.

Technology and data can be the enabler to create a systemic view of societal challenges. Designing for observability at scale, not only allows to understand the system, but the data from multiple systems can be used to create a shared understanding of the challenges from different dimensions, predict the challenges and improve the existing solutions. The uncertainty  is high when creating solutions for anticipated and obscured problems. Designing for resilience allows to encounter unexpected scenarios gracefully, fail fast and evolve.

  • Empowering with data

Data-driven decision making is paramount to understand and solve the complex challenges at population scale. It helps people make informed choices. It helps organizations and institutions to improve the existing solutions and evaluate their efforts. It helps the society to discover new problems to solve. However, the capabilities and effort required to leverage data are still nascent in many of the societal initiatives. A Societal Platform builder needs to play the role of empowering various stakeholders to leverage data.

To leverage data, many basic capabilities such as telemetry (capturing and monitoring data remotely) are required. Designing for observability allows to understand the services-in-use and monitoring the data for different purposes. In societal problems, people often have similar yet never the same needs. For example, the language-learning needs of a child who speaks the same language as mother-tongue will be different than the language-learning needs of a child who is exposed to the language only in school. Capturing and analysing the relevant data empowers stakeholders to understand the differences and create appropriately targeted solutions. Designing for privacy gives people control over their personal data and its use. Designing for scalability allows to serve large number of people under diverse contexts. This, in turn, increases the variety and size of data available related to the societal challenge. This can be used by society to improve the understanding of the challenge and find better ways to solve problems.

The above core principles of Societal Platform Thinking, when supported by the technology principles, help us realize the large scale societal missions – creating financial inclusion for 100 million first-time formal borrower households in India, enabling water security for 100 million people by 2023, touching 1 billion lives in healthcare across the world, creating livelihood opportunities for 100 million farmers and artisans, solving for access to learning opportunities for 200 million children in India, transforming urban governance for 2000 local bodies.

This article is written by Himshi Bachchas. Himshi is a Consultant at Societal Platforms team at EkStep Foundation.