S2 Episode 2

It’s a mindset, it’s a skill, it’s a practice.

When you think of the word disruption, you would think of something unexpected, that came in and completely changed the way you lived. But disruption in the development sector looks very different. 

In this episode, we explore design. The organisations we speak to have different approaches, operate in different domains, and are at different points in their journey. But equally, they are all asking the same questions: How do you share the ability to solve a problem? How do you design to share control with others, so that they can act in their own best interests and improve their well being? Are there any fundamental principles they can share from their experiences so far? We get a glimpse into the process of actively designing for societal change. 


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. Ignore the timestamps mentioned.


HOST: Shankar Maruwada has been working on enabling lifelong learning at the EkStep Foundation. And if he has one to thing share after five years of working on societal challenges, it’s that you need to be flexible:

SHANKAR MARUWADA (SM): The conventional wisdom that you can make great plans, that fabulous words, very clever strategies that look deep into the future. And then somebody will implement it in both letter and spirit..

The reality for us has been the equivalent of you have a destination, which is bold, imaginative, inspiring, and the plans are what they are. Plans. There are guidelines and milestones, but they’re not the destination.

HOST: Charting out development plans are easy and the process is well-established: you start with a logframe, then often you build infrastructure, for eg.: you might build toilets, or houses, and then you think about furthering access; and then from access to doing the work; and then achieving outcomes, and goals. But in Shankar’s view, letting go is what wills the design to life.

SM: And this necessarily means the comfortable in letting go. Letting go of ideas, letting go of solutions, letting go of achieving specific numbers in a quarter or in a plan. And until one is used to it, it is very discomforting.

HOST: Shankar speaks from his perspective of being a leader and realising that to relinquish power is to allow for the possibility of greater success. Because when others get empowered to solve alongside you, the network grows, things can move faster and the ecosystem expands. Success comes from listening, and then learning from failures. The first, the second, the seventh, the eighth.

SM: And then You realize that this is fun. You are not fighting the water. You are going with the flow. In fact, it just that you start to feel bored and the afternoon kicks in when you see the next rapid. So it’s a mindset. It’s a skill, it’s a practice, and it’s an organizational culture.

HOST: Welcome back to Sea Change. This is episode 2 of season 2, I am Samyuktha Varma. And I am Radhika Viswanathan.
This is 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.

In this episode, we explore design. The organisations we speak to have different approaches, operate in different domains, and are at different points in their journey. But equally, they are all asking the same questions: How do you share the ability to solve a problem? How do you design to share control with others, so that they can act in their own best interests and improve their well being? We find out Are there any fundamental principles they can share from their experiences so far? We get a glimpse into the process of actively designing for societal change.


SM: Change is much more evolutionary than revolutionary.

HOST: When you think of the word disruption, which you could argue is a strong contender for word of the decade, you would think of something unexpected, that came in and completely changed the way you lived. Like the smartphone. But disruption in the development sector looks very different. Education or healthcare won’t be solved by introducing a revolutionary new product.

In Shankar Maruwada’s experience, societal change comes from small incremental impacts, and if the incremental changes are designed well, they can be just as transformational. Shankar and his team call this plus one thinking.

SM: So in some ways, plus one thinking is counter intuitive.

HOST: An example may help here. Take the textbooks that EkStep worked with.

SM:  Which in India, everybody is familiar with the print, a billion of them.

HOST: On the face of it, they don’t look different from anything we have seen before.

SM: Using a phone to access a QR code in a textbook and through that credible, relevant classroom content at a time and place of your choosing suddenly became a mind-opening idea. So plus one thinking is just that mind opening, yet vaguely familiar.

HOST: And each “plus one” step adds to the one before it, and so you go from a basic textbook, it it then opens a door to a virtual library, it can provide assessments, it can become training material, and then suddenly…

SM: Small pocket-sized versions of that, which somebody can put in that pocket or in their handbag and use it just before class if they’re teachers. So this evolutionary nature is something which we realise is a practical means of achieving societal platform projects.

HOST: It is this first step that can sometimes reveal the blueprint for the design of the Societal Platform.

That’s the first step Jeroo Billimoria took twenty years ago when she set up Childline. She realised child services could be dramatically improved by understanding how India’s vast railway network played a role in the lives of street children.


JEROO BILLIMORIA (JB): Yeah, that to me is the Genesis of Childline that we could never, ever have something which was going to be a city or a geographic specific because we needed to be catering to our clients. And if you put your client at the center and that time, my client was my kids from the streets. Then I had to. Think of something which was always going to meet that need.

HOST: Jeroo Billimoria, founded Childline 24 years ago, The organisation works with children who are homeless and who live on the streets, runaways, and victims of trafficking. Today the Childline model has been replicated across many countries.

JB: Now, the little one knows about street children , well, many of them have run away at very young ages so they have the courage to run away, but many of them live on the trains, So they live on the streets, but they also live on the trains. That means I used to have kids … you know, and then they would rattle off half a dozen cities, Bombay Delhi beech mein Nagpur, phir Varanasi….

HOST: How do you create a system to work with this huge floating population of children who live off the streets and on India’s maze of railways lines, constantly moving from one station to the other?

JB: So for me, one of the first principles in any change effort is your client is the most important when you are thinking about change. And if you, I have to look at scale, you need to look at their life pattern.

HOST: These children needed different kinds of help: safety at night when they are alone and vulnerable, counselling and emotional support and interventions from abuse, medical aid at different points during the day…

JB: So we sat on lots of railway stations, gardens, you know, across everywhere, traveled with them on the train. And mapped what were the people and the ecosystems that touch their lives? It was the police. It was the healthcare system, which you never admitted them, or rarely admitted them. So the next step that we did after listening to our street kids and their very illustrious journeys through India, Was to listen to and try to map the whole ecosystem that impacted them.

HOST: This century has been greatly marked by the importance of design, we see it in all of the technology created that had intentions to empower users, and the surprising and ingenious ways we have used it to innovate. It’s mostly these accidents that we learn from today. Which is why so much design thinking is about understanding the user,the client, the beneficiary, the customer, this is what Jeroo understood all those years ago.


Many social organisations set goals and work to achieve them in a linear way, by laying out pathways for each stakeholder to achieve these goals. Operationalising change. But when you’re dealing with systemic change you’re dealing with a diverse set of users. For example, in the education sector, there are students, teachers, administrators each with different needs. If the goal is to create a system where they take their own decisions on how to improve their own wellbeing, create their own solutions for classroom problems. How then would you go about designing for the users?

Many schools in India, are short-staffed. Staff have to manage a heavy load of coursework, often students from different grades, and then they have many administrative tasks to attend to. Here is Santhosh More from Mantra for Change, as he describes some of the daily tasks of a public-school educator:

SANTHOSH MORE (SMo): Many a times you would find that the school head is given many tasks from running a school or single teacher, to dealing with parents to making sure that the schools administrative things, safety, security, health, hygiene, everything is covered and taken care of, communities are happy with the school, the education, all these things are supposed to be taken care of by the school head. And the school head if you see becomes the single point of contact in many cases
for the community to the school.

HOST: Khushboo Awasthi is the COO of ShikshaLokam. ShikshaLokam works with school leaders across India. Just listen to her as she talks about some of the challenges of working in this space.

KHUSHBOO AWASTHI (KA): And when we started off on our own journey of ShikshaLokam we realised that in the ecosystem there was very little that was being done about the leadership as a subject. Uh, most of the people, even in the civil society actors, they were focusing either on professional development of teachers or on improving the classroom practices for the child so that their learning improves.

So one of the key challenges for us was how do we, um, how do we build this narrative that. Building the capacity of leaders is so important for sustainability of change efforts and to convert a non-performing system into a performing system. It is only when you work with leaders that you actually improve the ability of the system to improve itself continuously. Otherwise, nothing is going to sustain, no matter how much, um, how much work one does with the teachers or with the children inside the classroom.

HOST: And the challenge is that the system grooms teachers and school staff to be what Santhosh calls operational leaders – they’re trained to get things done. What Khushboo and Santhosh want is to also help them with “instructional leadership” – the ability to nurture young students, and create a space for learning.

KA: And second was this whole problem of, um, the challenge of skill, right? Um, these said, like in the beginning we said, can we set up an Institute where maybe leaders can come and we can deliver certain courses for them, invite some great professors from across the world and give them global experience about what are the good leadership practices?

And then suddenly the whole. Scale perspective dawned on us to say that India as a country has more than 1 million public schools, and when we are talking about building the capacity of these leaders, if we take us ages, if they go cohort by cohort, batch by batch, calling them to a physical institute..

HOST: the challenge for the principal was finding the time to take leadership and development courses, these sometimes took multiple days – time they could not find in their busy schedule .

KA: Add to all this complexity. A leader’s life is so busy day. I mean, it is difficult for them to step out of their organisation, come  out and attend a course. We have had so many experiences of speaking to school principals, of cluster leaders, block education officers, and every time we asked them that, what would you want to learn? What would you want to know about ?

SMo: A teacher getting empowered without having a restriction of sitting for a professional development classroom session, but a teacher choosing the time and the place in which the teacher wants to get empowered is something that will change the way the training and capacity building happens in the school system.

HOST: The answer Shikshalokam found was in creating a product that allowed teachers and principals to decide how and when they accessed learning resources. They designed their app such that it delivers short capsules of 15 minutes or less which the teachers could log in to when they had the time.

It goes back to a design principle that Jim Fruchterman, avows. He’s a tech for good entrepreneur :

JIM FRUCHTERMAN (JM): When I started in technology, people spent a year designing a product and a year building the product, and then they basically sprung the product on the user and said, do you like it? And the new, more modern approach is it goes by a lot of different buzzword names, you know, uh, human centered design, agile, lean, rapid prototyping.

But the idea is when you’re 10% of the way in, people should be testing your product and your prototype. And if they don’t like what you’ve done, throw it out and start over. So the whole idea of the pivot, which is we thought people needed this, we went and talked to them and nobody needed this. They needed that. Let’s build that!



I started my career, since I was with Vinobha Bhave, have you heard of Vinobha Bhave and the Bhoodan leader? …

HOST: Mr Loganathan, or Annachi as he is better known joined the Gandhian Vinobha Bhave in the 1960s, and took part in one of the most significant land reform campaigns. He then founded ASSEFA, or the Association for Sarva Seva Farms in 1979, today one of the largest NGOs in India.


Assefa recently began working with Avanti Finance, to improve farmers access to credit. Small holder farmers struggle to get lines of credit even for seemingly small sums of money. Lalitesh Katragadda, is the chief product and technology officer at Avanti Finance whom you might remember from season 1. Avanti partners with some of India’s largest and oldest NGOs to create loan products where credit lines are community designed:

LALITESH KATRAGADDA (LK): And the interesting thing is Avanti does, Avanti’s team does not create the products. We have created a platform where products can be created and the products themselves are actually created by these partners. Our mission aligned communities that we are partnering with. Whether it be this dairy farming partner or whether, you know, in the case of Tamil Nadu, we are partnered with this organization called Assefa.

HOST: There are few organisations that design complex financial systems with local communities,

LK: People are fully capable of administering what seems to be complex systems like a financial service, right? If you give them the right tools and if you make it digital and the other one is co-creation really works. And people are fully capable of imagining what products are required for their community. And both of them you know, yes, if you, if you go by the, you know, pure design definitions of agency and affordance, they make sense. But to actually see it work on the ground is magical in many ways. Um, and now, you know, we have some understanding that this works, what Avanti is looking to do next is to see how we can scale that beyond the handful of partners.

Here’s one of Avanti’s clients talking about his experience


My name is Sunder Kumar , and this my wife, and we live in Haridwar and we are tailors; We took a loan from 7000 from Avanti, he says. This loan was completely online, there was no ‘paper’, no paperwork he means, and we can get all our information through our mobile phones, how much money we have, how much we’ve received, how much we spend, and thanks to this our interest is low.

HOST: This is Jeroo again, talking about the first iteration of Childline. We got the model working in Bombay and then that’s the model we took across India, yeah I think … I think the one thing which I learned in Childline is that if you had to do partnerships and you had to do it, you should never, ever, ever try to think you are the person who’s doing it. All ideas have to be co-created. So, ChildLine in Bombay and the whole structure. I always say that we co-created it.

HOST: Systems grow through networks of users. networks of players with like-minded values and diverse skills and approaches. Childline has a lot of lessons to share about what it took to get divergent groups to converge around a single mission – police, doctors, counsellors, social workers, shelter homes and institutions from different states in India. We asked her to tell us about what the network building experience was like. What did it take to bring all of these stakeholders and institutions together?

JB: I had a learning that you had to work with organisations which were willing to collaborate and with individuals who had a collaborative mindset. It was easy to get off the ground in Bombay after we had crossed some of the initial thresholds, or I would say easier, taking it national was far more difficult. I think the way we did it strategically was actually to create an opt in process rather than a selection process..

HOST: When the intention is to replicate a model across a giant country and do it in a way that reflects the realities and issues faced by children, how do you go about convincing people to join you, how do you get consensus on the larger objective and how do you actually scale?

JB: So the more you partner the more you achieve. And therefore, to look at the whole ecosystem, we started partnering with all the players in ChildLine, and therefore ChildLine normally would have started with one organisation and a phone, our first phone ringing where we had almost no money, was already done with eight organisations. So, it was already a collaborative approach.

JB: This is how my tech for good projects get started. They’re not my idea. Someone shows up on my doorstep and says, Jim,…

HOST: Jim works with many development organisations to help them accelerate. And at every step of the design process, he gets them to test, and talks to their users..

JB: And that’s, we think that listening is that the core of how you build technology, that people will actually use it scale.
And, uh, and if you can do the personal interviews. That’s even, that’s even better. one of the giant frustrations about COVID 19 is that one of the best things we ever do is we go, when we sit with people, we accompany them on their, their mission journey, and we can see what..

..where the technology is getting in their way sometimes even better than they can… But it’s again, putting, listening and learning at the center of how you do it. that makes a lot of sense.


Organizations like Tostan work on some Of the hardest challenges in development, changing social norms.

ELENA BONOMETTI: So good morning, everyone. My name is Elena . I’m the CEO of Tostan and I’m calling from Dakar Senegal..

HOST: Tostan is a West Africa based organisation that has for 30 years partnered with communities at the grassroots to empower them, and inspire movements that have the respect of human rights and dignity at the core. One of the issues they work on is FGM, a practice that is widespread in many communities.

EB: So, so trust is the basis of this process means really working together, living together and really understanding each other.

HOST: Even though Tostan’s work is concentrated so locally, it’s so grassroots, and operationally can look like it’s about changing one person’s mind at a time, the ecosystem is the only way to bring change at scale.

I think it’s important to put in place a system that incentivize that belonging and incentivize that system together to be successful. Co-creation again, aligning, a system of beliefs, belonging. I think it’s a pretty critical key, critical factor for having those forces that are, I agree with you pulling in different directions, but coming together and be even more powerful.

Elena says this is the way forward. creating the platforms that can empower communities to question gender norms and and other community practices. It can have a cascading effect.

EB: Our values are powerful instruments to get us where we want. And so we should really spend time in making sure that those system of beliefs that we have are aligned. And I’m sure we can do, uh, we can do wonders together.

HOST: The word ecosystem comes up a lot in this conversation about collaborating to solve problems at scale. The ecosystem is what lies beyond the boundary of partnership, it’s about the wider set of groups that are implicated in the social goal – and it encompasses elements of the state, the market and the private sector. It’s formed by more and more stakeholders seeing that they
have intersecting objectives and willing to co-create. For organisations like EkStep, the ecosystem is now critical to achieving their goal.

SM: We have faced several challenges, the most important one of them is it does not matter how powerful an idea is unless one can convert it into a form ….which can be executed by the ecosystem.

HOST: Throughout this episode we’ve talked about designing for a system. Systems are often structured around principles and we’ve been trying to understand what types of principles drive the design of co-created systems. All the organisations featured here deeply appreciate and are trying to preserve the pluralism and diversity within every part of the system, from the different world views of the users, to the range of partners and the ways in which interactions in the ecosystem could take place. Principles are where we start thinking about problems around us, and they are also what we use to direct our solutions.

But sometimes they collide.

In our next episode we talk about governance.

Thank you to Lalitesh Katragadda, Santhosh More and Khushboo Awasthi, Shankar Maruwada, Annachi, Jim Fruchterman, Jeroo Billimoria and Elena Bonometti.


Thank you to Annachi, Khushboo Awasthi, Jeroo Billimoria, Elena Bonometti, Jim Fruchterman, Lalitesh Katragadda,  Sunder Kumar,  Shankar Maruwada, Santhosh More

Sea Change is brought to you by Societal Platform and Vaaka Media.

Additional music has been used in this episode and the following sounds are attributable via CC Attribution from freesound.org: Train Horn by CouleurCassette; Kurla local train station Mumbai by Sankalp; field recordings » train 2 delhi by mauxuam ; train local-train_ladies.mp3 by chhavi.

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