We usually begin solving a large societal challenge through the lens of solutions. That every problem has a finite set of solutions that when done either together or in sequence, will solve the societal challenge. But this often does not work – sometimes the problems we are attempting to solve are too large and too complex and too diverse to be tackled by existing solutions. We often attempt to grow proven solutions to the scale of the problem – this is something we have learned the limitations of the hard way. Scale is not a linear path and at every subsequent order of scale, solutions break down because of the complexity of the problem and the constant changing nature of the problem. Rather than attempting to solve the problem by scaling proven solutions, is there a way for organizations to build and distribute the ability to solve each individual facet of the problem in the context they occur and at the scale of the problem? Can organizations become big bettable by building and distributing the ability for many to solve their facet of the problem in ways relevant to them and their context rather than trying to scale what works? Could organizations find value in imbibing some of the core values of Societal Platform thinking in their own way?
For example, what if you wanted to put a book in every child’s hand in India? What if you wanted a million contextual stories for two hundred million children in every language read in India? In 2004, Pratham Books set out to do just that – “a book in every child’s hand.”
15 years ago, reading at scale was considered a sourcing, production and distribution problem. How do we get enough books in multiple languages, print enough copies of them and find ways to distribute them across the country all the while doing so at cost or raising enough philanthropic capital to underwrite the gap between the two. Pratham Books experimented with ways to reduce costs through innovation in the product form – story cards, for example; in the production – they were one of the early publishers to do mass print runs in multiple languages with images first and different language text later; and distribution – from partnering with HUL’s Project Shakti to distributing 4 million books and 4 million story cards to 70,000 government schools in all 37 districts of Bihar.
While all of this was novel and put pressure on the existing children’s publishing industry to move the needle from merely bottom-lines to beginning to engage on accessibility, variety and cost, what Pratham Books did next was remarkable. They built a community.
The community journey of Pratham Books is truly amazing. What began as a small program on Pratham Books Reading Champions – as a way for people to do new book launches in their communities – has now become an annual event called ‘One Day, One Story’ with over 5700 champions with 6300 sessions in over 26 languages.
You’d think that would be enough but that was just the beginning.
Since early 2009, Pratham Books started making content available under open licenses and had tremendous successes with people taking the content and co-creating highly contextual reading solutions – from language to form to accessibility. However, it was still a process with much friction and in 2015, they doubled down on this and launched Storyweaver as a platform for contextual story creation. And what a journey that has been – over 12000 stories in over 150 languages and nearly 2 million reads online.
But recognising that digital is the future but still unevenly distributed, Donate-A-Book was launched to help build libraries of printed books in disadvantaged communities – and wow – nearly 200 thousand books have been donated!
The big bet that Pratham Books made was to go from being a publisher to being a platform. They let-go of control, atomised what they do that they can plug in to other ecosystems and are catalysing networks by demonstrating systems leadership. What they have done is to view reading as an ecosystem challenge and integrated it into their planning and strategy. They have co-created a shared and collective understanding of the societal challenge with other stakeholders and developed a culture of trust within the ecosystem.
While some might consider reading as a relatively easier problem to solve what if we tried to recraft approaches to access to healthcare?
Project ECHO set out to solve the problem of billions of people lacking access to high quality healthcare, education and other services at the right place at the right time. They realized that the right knowledge isn’t making it to the right place and at the right time to reduce suffering and save lives and that this was being magnified by the rapid advances in knowledge. For example, more medical knowledge has been created in the last 100 years than in the last 5,000, and more knowledge will be created in the next 50 years than ever before.
What they are is a global movement of people who freely share their knowledge and expertise in order to save and improve lives and where community providers acquire knowledge, skills, and support to provide high-quality care to patients who couldn’t otherwise get it. They move knowledge rather than patients. This model goes beyond traditional telemedicine, where one provider connects with one patient at a time by creating a virtual connection between a specialist hub team and learners at multiple primary care sites.This way, community providers seeking specialty knowledge gain access to a full range of perspectives and expertise together, in real time. Unlike conventional telemedicine or teleconsulting, Project ECHO exponentially increases access to best-practice care and democratizes specialized medical knowledge for the benefit of all patients, regardless of where they live.
However, they realised the limitations of their existing model and want to reduce the human and financial costs of launching, running, and achieving improved outcomes by enabling a broad community of creators to contribute knowledge and tools to the movement. Their pivot to a Societal Platform will eliminate barriers to entry into the ECHO movement by making it easier for aspiring partners to join by combining the best of online learning with key elements of the high-touch training; It will accelerate adoption and launch and empower partners to inspire and onboard participants into their learning communities; It will amplify the impact of existing network operations by supporting their learning communities with tools for asynchronous communication, learning, discovery and social networking; and will empower champions and build community because they believe that the power of their community of innovators and sharers can be substantially enhanced by improving speed, scale, and sustainability.
This new model will drive the growth they need to reach 1 billion lives by 2025.
Like Pratham Books, ECHO too firmly believes that communities, networks and platforms are their best way forward – to grow and engage communities, to build a purpose led movement, to co-create, to scale and to ensure against their own failure or irrelevance. Their model of innovation is disruptive because incremental improvements will not begin to make a dent in the problem. Samaaj (society) is their framework and purpose the glue that holds it all together at platform scale.
The article is authored by Gautam John. Gautam is the Director of Strategy at Nilekani Philanthropies.