S2 Episode 1

Collaboration as a way of being

We are now less than ten years away from 2030, that’s the year we are meant to have achieved the Sustainable Development Goals. How close are we to achieving these goals ? The crises we face today in the world do not change the problems we’ve committed to solving like ending poverty and eradicating hunger, ensuring access to clean water and ensuring the good health and wellbeing of all the people on this planet. And we have to wonder, do we have the right systems and structures to harness on the power of our collective ingenuity, and do it in a way that reflects the diversity of the world we live in?

In this episode, we look at social purpose organisations that are experimenting or transitioning to new ways of working, and we find out what their journeys have taught them about sustainable inclusive systems. And in the cases you will hear, we will find out how crucial networks can be; how simple solutions can build empathy, and how much of an impact it can have on users, when organisations constantly course correct to put their stakeholders at the centre.


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): We are now less than ten years away from 2030, that’s the year we are meant to have achieved the sustainable development goals. The SDGs. How close are we to achieving these goals ? 

This year, these challenges feel unsurmountable. Things aren’t just connected, they seem to be cascading into one another. 

If this pandemic has shown us one thing, it is what it will take to deal with a global emergency…

Nandan Nilekani (NN): Every time the world, uh, goes through a crisis of this magnitude, which touches everybody, which changes their lives.. 

SV: This is Nandan Nilekani, a philanthropist. 

NN: …future, which changes the social relations. I think it leaves a deep imprint on people, and I think, definitely. It’s a little difficult to predict. What is the outcome of, this situation. It affects everyone around the world. When we come out to this crisis, it will be a very different world, a very different society. The way we think about ourselves, our lives, our futures, our relations with others.

SV: This crisis doesn’t change the problems we’ve committed to solving like ending poverty and eradicating hunger, ensuring access to clean water and ensuring the good health and wellbeing of all the people on this planet. And we have to wonder, do we have the right systems and structures to harness on the power of our collective ingenuity, and do it in a way that reflects the diversity of the world we live in. We need to distribute the ability to create solutions. 


Radhika Viswanathan (RV): This is a show that chronicles the work of organisations that have set really big goals for themselves and use new and different ways to achieve them. Aided by networks, digital platforms and the fundamental belief that we all – markets, states and citizens – need to work together if we are to create a better, more inclusive world for everyone.  

Welcome back to Sea Change. A show about societal change in the digital age and how to make a bigger faster and more inclusive impact in the world we live in. 

I’m Radhika Viswanathan,

SV: and I’m Samyuktha Varma

RV: This is Season 2. If you’ve just found us, please do listen to Season 1. In this series, we meet organizations working in the areas of agriculture, rural livelihoods, healthcare, education, craft and financing; we speak to governments and social enterprises, philanthropists and design thinkers, all working to bring greater inclusion to development. 

Sea Change is Co-produced by Societal Platform and Vaaka Media. 

SV: In this episode we look at social purpose organizations that are experimenting or transitioning to new ways of working, and we find out what their journeys have taught them about sustainable inclusive systems. 

And in the cases you will hear, we will find out how crucial networks can be, how simple solutions can build empathy, and how much an impact it can have on users, when organisations constantly course-correct to put their stakeholders at the centre. 

NN: How do we, how do we bring our, how do we reduce the damage? How do you reduce the colossal devastation that this disease can potentially do to populations around the world? At the same time, how do we make sure that parts of the society can start functioning… and we don’t have to be in an interminable lockdown for many months? How do we harness the power of the state? How do you harness markets to build vaccines early, how do we build tests or treatment early? How do we use last mile actors to take these things to the world, to every person? 

SV: Nandan Nilekani is also the co-founder and co-chairperson of the EkStep Foundation. For the last three years, EkStep has been working to make an impact on education – from the ways children learn, to the support teachers receive, the ways schools are run, and the ways states set curriculum. The approach hinges on deep collaboration where systems are built in such a way that it they are owned and contributed to by the users themselves. 

NN: It needs very, very collaborative skills. It needs the ability to generate a very high level of trust among players and work closely with market operators, society, governments, and NGOs, and create trust among them. It requires the ability to think at scale; at the same time, the ability to get into minute details, so the ability to go from a helicopter view to a microscopic view at the same time.

SV: For example, take Diksha, the national programme anchored by the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development and the National Council for Teacher Education. Co-created by EkStep Foundation, it was designed to provide better learning experiences for teachers and students alike. 

At one level, teachers create content that can be shared and used, and children can access this content and a whole world of information at their fingertips  thanks to QR codes. This means their learning isn’t restricted to the classroom.

More importantly, at a whole other level, teachers, students, parents, administrators, everyone involved, engage in a whole new way of thinking about what it takes to learn. And this breaking of traditional siloes, of fixed ways of doing things, allows the system to achieve its goals faster. 

This way of working goes beyond education. Nandan believes these principles can be applied in many contexts.  

NN: I think at the back of our minds, how do we use that thinking to get governments, markets, and social actors to work at scale is always pervasive.

RV: People seem to look to technology to signal the possibilities of deeper collaboration. From organising social movements online, to improved data and mapping, to frontline workers taking data collection to the cloud, every organisation has sought efficiency and collaboration through tech, and tech has become native to development practice. 

But the real value and the real impact lies not in the digital solution, it lies in the hard work of building connections between people, forging networks of different actors working towards a common goal. 

Rikin Gandhi is the founder of Digital Green, an organisation that works to lift small farmers out of poverty using local partnerships and technology. Rikin is a big proponent of collaborative thinking. His whole organisation was built on this premise. 

Years ago, the question that drove Rikin was a simple one.

RIKIN GANDHI (RG): How is it that there were some farmers who havethis view of agriculture as being a source of prosperity, while so many are just trying to migrate out of it? What we came to realize was that there was a small minority of farmers who saw agriculture as a source of prosperity while most farmers are trying to get out of agriculture as quickly as possible. 

RV: Starting off as a small Microsoft Research project nearly fourteen years ago, Rikin began working with farmers in India, building tools that would help them go beyond a life of subsistence, and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

RG: Is there way that technology could bridge these farmers who are seeing agriculture as a source of prosperity and those who see it as the vocation of last resort?

RV: And that’s how Digital Green was born trying to understand information flows between farmers and how they contributed to better productivity. From it’s early days, the organisation has always been about collaborating…

RG: Taking a very humble approach and saying that we don’t know a lot and we don’t have the expertise and the relationships that a lot of other actors in the agricultural space and beyond have. 

RV: Digital Green was designed to work in partnership. Like the classic 3 by 2 lego plate that was made to work with the 3 by 2 brick, or any other brick. 

RG: And that’s even, as I mentioned, represented in our name, Digital Green. In that it includes our very first partners name, Green Foundation as part of it, and we were just trying to add a digital layer to what they were doing, to take these existing ways that they were working with these communities and the social networks that the communities already had. 

RV: Farmers were already receiving a lot of information, from tv or radio, or local agricultural extension officers. 

RG: The counterexample to this work that we’ve been doing at Digital Green has been the broadcast television programs or radio programs that All India Radio or Krishi Darshan, and now, you know, Kisan TV have been running since the time of India’s independence. And of course, those have huge degree of scale, much broader scale than even what we have. 

However, when you look at the impact, the National Statistical Survey of farmers has indicated that is a relatively small fraction of farmers who both watch those practice. This is and apply those practices. And the reason is not because of the quality of that content, the quality, that content is very high.

SV: The traditional model of broadcasting information did not focus on the power of local networks and the importance of locally exchanged information, tips and lessons. 

Digital Green wanted farmers to be able to share, discuss and learn together. 

RG: But the issue is farmers really want to connect with their local context, with peers that they can feel are trustworthy. And that’s why we find that during video screenings, the first questions that farmers ask is not about the return on investment or the economics of this or that practice, but rather, what is the name of the person in this video and which village is he or she from.

SV: Rikin has many stories. 

RG: So, like for instance, we’ve even seen how these videos can build bridges in communities that’s sometimes are fragmented, right? Sometimes we might romanticize villages to say that there one composite whole, but of course there are going to be fractions within even a small village community, which might be political in nature.

SV: One time, he tells us, they featured a video of a widow locally demonstrating bio fertilizer production. She was one of the first to adopt this practice in her village. As a widow, she lived somewhat on the fringes of society. 

RG: Partly because she was a widow, then others in her community had somewhat  ostracized her and she wasn’t really close to many of them. But we were able to share her video, not just in her village, but also like in neighboring communities as well. The surprise that these communities had to even see this woman even on a video in the first place. And then to have her being able to share a practice, that they then could consider to adopt for themselves resulted in a number of these farmers, going to even visit her, you know, physically in the field, because they weren’t that distant from one another. And it created, a sense of community between this widow and, and her larger sort of neighbors and community that otherwise would have been really difficult, to try to mediate. 

But there’s this sort of power of being able to feature somebody on video as a role model that others then are able to relate with, even if there are some of these socio-cultural barriers that otherwise may have made folks disregard or discount, a person previously. 

SV: But it’s also about ensuring the consistency and quality of information flows. Agriculture is a sector where real time information is really important. Nagaraju is a farmer In the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Nagaraju used to carry around a small notebook in his shirt pocket, where he would painstakingly write down details of his daily accounts, purchases, prices. 

Nagaraju’s audio plays underneath

RV: He says, thanks to Kisan Diary, I can manage my costs and profit and loss at a crop level, So I can see all the different expenses and earning by crops and I can make better decision about crop choice. It’s a really good solution for me. 

RV: Digital Green’s app helps farmers capture, analyse and control their financial data and manage their farming and household expenses better and crucially gives farmers crop and time-based profit/loss analysis. 

SV: In Bihar in north India, DG works with the state rural livelihood mission, a huge government programme called Jeevika, and train Jeevika didis, the network of women that form the frontline backbone of rural livelihood extension. Archana is one such didi, from a small village. After her training with DG, she tells us that she made a video featuring herself as a village counsellor. 

Archana’s voice plays underneath

SV: In it, she is counselling her friend about taking care of her child. And on the importance of good nutrition and childcare. She agreed to do the video because she felt it would set a good example. And she showed it to many people in the village who began calling her to tell her how much they liked it. She says, they said it felt like it was their video. 

RV: Some of the hardest development issues to solve occur in the periphery. Often these are places without any ecosystem, no networks, very poor access to markets or tools or technology that could support them. Yet these spaces – which are often the hardest to work in – have tremendous latent capacity. 

Take for example, crafts and artisanal communities. These small-scale cottage producers are very often marginalised, sometimes live in far remote areas, operate with little financial support. There are many reasons why the potential of these communities has been locked away. Neelam Chibber, the co-founder of Industree has been working with them for decades. And she has constantly battled to help artisans become competitive producers, while protecting their heritage and craftsmanship. and as an example, she describes her work with artisans living in remote villages in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, in central India. 

NEELAM CHHIBER (NC): I would come back from the village in Bastar. I would meet the chairman of HSGC, a wonderful IAS officer. And he told me, Neelam, I had Macy’s in here yesterday and they wanted a hundred thousand pieces of this lost wax cast deer. And he showed me the deer. And I squirmed because it was very clear to me that my scattered workforce of artisans in Bastar, and there were thousands of local artisans in Bastar, were completely scatted, it was a completely fractured ecosystem and there was no way you were going to get a hundred thousand pieces of the same size, same shape. Same quality, and that’s what Macy’s wanted.

So anyway, between then and now, the challenge is just this, there is a huge global demand for creative manufacturing. India has 2% global market share. We have the world’s largest base of artisanal producers across all materials. 

RV: In the past fifty years, India has tried to empower local artisans and farmers. Neelam talks about India’s famous AMUL milk cooperative, 

NC: So Amul is $5 billion owned by producers. It’s owned by 3 million farmers. So, in India, you need MSMEs at a certain size and scales, which are owned by artisans and which are globally competitive. Today, if you look at all the lifestyle and fashion products that we use, which are mass produced, [they] could be produced by SMEs that are owned by artisans.

RV: Two other organizations joined Industree to solve this challenge, Vrutti, which supports rural livelihoods across India and the Platforms Commons Foundation, an organization that builds platforms for social inclusion. And together, they build PIE, the Platform for Inclusive Entrepreneurship. 

Raghu from Vrutti, points out for critical obstacles that small and marginal communities face. One, they operate within very small boundaries – small landholdings, small units of production. Second, knowledge and information are very limited and tightly controlled.

N Raghunandan (NR): Very limited and also given by the trade channels themselves who have their own interests in terms of selling their inputs are a credit or otherwise. 

RV: Third, they are restrained by limited access to credit, and four, they don’t get a fair access to the market. What PIE believes is that for long we’ve seen platforms work for many contexts and they believe that there is a need to nurture ecosystems for producers who have been overlooked as being less competitive because of the specificity of their operations – like where they are located, or their methods of productions.

NC: Most socially developed economies like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, have 15-20% of their economies as co-op economies. Less than 1% of India’s economy is a coop economy. Right? Cooperatives were methods used by all socially developed advanced nations today – in the past – to do inclusive growth. So, India could grow at 8% 10% 12%, but if it’s not inclusive growth it’s not going to solve all the basic problems as COVID has clearly pointed out… 

RV: The ecosystem is critical because it allows access to marketplaces, capital, and capacity that makes these industries more competitive. This is Prashant Mehra, from the Platforms Commons Foundation. 

Prashant Mehra (PM): The last 10 years, the world has seen the advent of platforms, which are not purely IP solutions, but they are also ecosystem builders. So, any of the numerous platforms you see around are essentially multi-sided marketplaces, which get very many ecosystem players together and enable them to work with each other.

RV: This kind of thinking turns a lot of the old ways of building solutions on its head – where typically you build for where you will see the most return. 

SV: Jim Fruchterman is an engineer and a social entrepreneur and a long-time supporter building for social good. Throughout his career he has seen the impact of technology that was built to serve the interests of few people and he has consistently challenge this approach. One of the first endeavours was to make tech products accessible to the visually challenged. He is a champion of inclusion when designing for social good. 

Jim Fruchterman (JM): So what I did is, I thought that engineers like me were going to go out and train blind people on how to use our reading machine that we were going to build for them based on this technology.

But I had never met an actual blind person as of that moment … and so … now in retrospect it seems like the smart thing to do, but I went and I started talking to blind people and they said, well, you know, there are a lot of blind people who no one will employ.

And like, what do you mean? He says, well, this other company that makes technology for blind people refuses to hire blind people as salespeople…  they just did a merger and they fired most of the blind people who had worked for this other company that… you’ve got to be kidding! You’re selling the dependence tools, but you don’t believe in independence! (Jim exclaims)

RV: As we think about the word inclusion and all of the ways it takes to make it happen, it requires a different way of thinking. We know there are multiple pathways – but it’s the how that matters. We have to build off of our networks, and we have to intentionally widen our existing networks to include those on the outside. We have to let go of the idea that the solution can be authored from above. 

NN: It needs a type of leadership, which is more like followership, where rather than telling people what to do, you basically enable people around you to be more effective so that they all work towards a common goal.

RV: And yet we are living in a time where we are seeing great global solidarity and collaboration over systemic social problems, issues like climate change, anti-racism, and ending gender-based violence. And like Jim said, there are fewer excuses for not creating better systems for change. 

As hard as it is to shift habitual-deep seated behaviours, we have to find ways to do so. And as much as it is about processes it is as much about understanding the philosophical principles so that they become a way of being. 

For people like Rikin, better systems begin with questions, not answers:

RG: But the way that that’s going to happen is not by us telling them what to do, what not to do, but really to enable the farmers to have the agency and choice to make their own better decisions. 

We’ve always maintained a healthy skepticism to our own work, and we continue to do so and therefore apply a lot of rigor in terms of evaluating what’s really working, what’s really not working, and for all of us who are in this space or interested in entering into this space, I would just say how important it is for us to spend time in this space of these communities themselves, whether we’re engineers or whether we’re development practitioners.

SV: The natural instinct at times of great uncertainty is to want to narrow perspective, is to want to think more linearly, to reduce risk and to control all the moving parts in our system. 

But we have to resist it, and not try to only focus on predict outcomes of the future. If we build systems that are nimble, adaptive, and that can deal with the complexity of issues we face. We are more likely to build a system that reflects the world we see.  

And the way to do is by collaborating, by working in ways that grow networks, because resilient multifaceted systems are harder to disrupt. By building for agency you instil a spirit of agency into an organisation’s culture. 

RG: There’s no other way to really begin. But to really spend long periods of time, just getting to know and spending time with these communities, building the empathy to be able to then think about what kind of ways, tools, or infrastructure can be developed to be able to enable these farmers to unleash their full potential in a way that will be resilient.

SV: In our next episode, we explore the question of design a little more deeply. The how. Is there set of principles that can help any organisation, in any sector, in any part of the world, build an inclusive system? More, in episode two of sea change. 



Thanks to Nandan Nilekani, Rikin Gandhi, Jim Fruchterman, Archana Didi, Nagaraju, Neelam Chhiber, N Raghunathan, Prashant Mehra.

Sea Change is a co-production of Societal Platform and Vaaka Media.

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