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The need to see, to solve

As we move into the new decade, one of the conversations that continues to dominate the social impact space is the necessity for local actions. United Nations through the ‘Decade of Action for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’ talks about local action and people action to deliver on the SDGs.1 In the private sector, there’s a view that achieving the SDGs could generate US$12 trillion of market opportunities and it will come through actions at the local level.2 Furthermore, there seems to be a clear urgency in working towards this across sectors. On 22nd January 2020, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) in his speech to The UN General Assembly said, “So let us make the 2020s the Decade of Action and let us make 2020 the year of urgency.”3 With the entry of COVID19, this sense of urgency has picked up many folds, along with the growing awareness that effective coalitions form bottom up, not top down.4 

But, how can we foster local actions? In this opinion piece, we make a case for sharing the ability to sense and solve with local actors, to enable local action and thereby accelerate the social impact.

In our lives, we often face situations where our ability to sense helps us to understand and act on problems quicker and more effectively. We see that, for example, in how we sense fever through discomfort or body heat and how a doctor and others sense it using a thermometer, and decide further actions. Similarly, at a community level, for example, meaningful information about weight and micronutrient status can help the individuals to sense malnourishment of children in their community. When information is available in a contextual and understandable manner, the ability to sense and understand the problems dramatically improves.

When we address a societal challenge at scale, the ability of individuals and institutions to sense and respond to local realities becomes all the more critical, so that the impact created is contextual, shared and sustainable.5 In a SSIR article, Jennifer O’Day & Marshall S. Smith stress on the importance of local actors in development programmes. “At the heart of many of the differences in implementation across contexts is variation in local capacity”.6 Unless society as a whole, particularly civil society organisations and governments, enable each other and society with: (a) the capacity to understand the world around them, and (b) the capabilities to  think, act and speak about the social realities the interventions might not be enduring. In practice, it is about sharing the ability to see and solve with each other, to produce contextual solutions instead of designing solutions in isolation.

The shift to such an understanding of social transformation is driven by ideas of social, economic and political agency of people. Thus, it becomes imperative to focus on transforming the social and material conditions of people along with increasing their political freedom. In other words, the focus needs to be on co-creating an enabling environment for individuals and institutions to exercise choice and imagination, rather than only focussing on solving the problem for them. As Paulo Freire says, in order to address societal challenges, “people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity”.7 

As a society, the work towards enabling each other’s ability to see and solve will always be an evolving and emergent process. This process of restoring the agency of local actors starts with abandoning the notion of leaders in organisations and governments as the only thinkers and the actors who are involved at the ground-level as mere doers. It needs to go beyond existing structures, for example, what do parents, students, teachers or primary healthcare doctors want to see, how can we establish common ways to see and how do we make it possible for them to solve for that. 

As people act with the information and the capabilities they have, there will be more actions which would inspire further distribution of the ability to solve — triggering imagination and evolution of solutions. 

There are several organisations and groups of organisations which are exploring this possibility to distribute the ability to see and solve. For instance, Societal Platform approach is one of the many ways explored.8 Societal Platforms, such as ShikshaLokam and DIGIT (Digital Infrastructure for Governance, Impact & Transformation), allow mapping of the local interactions, whether virtual or real, in the school and urban governance system respectively, and gives the possibility to make the information coming out of the interactions meaningful for all stakeholders.9,10, Recently, The Rockefeller Foundation and Mastercard announced the restart of which aims to leverage data science tools in addressing development issues.11 

In the journey of ShikshaLokam, we are seeing that by enabling school principals and head-teachers to make real-time observations and solve for aspects such as classroom learning and school infrastructure, all stakeholders in the complex school system are able to build a relationship with local reality and support local actions. The reality that previously seemed vague, dynamic and too contextual to have clarity on a real-time basis.

The increasing intent to stimulate local solutions combined with the emerging tech for good movement, presents a unique opportunity to develop platforms, programmes and solutions to enable sharing of abilities. So the questions for us to ponder are: Who are the local actors in our area of work? What can we do to help them observe and solve? How can we foster this process of constant evolution of solutions that leads to a more sustainable development?

This article is written by Naveen Varshan. Naveen leads the knowledge & research track at Societal Platform. 


  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11 are hyperlinked
  • 7 Freire, P., Ramos, M., & Macedo, D. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p. 47). New York, London: Continuum