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Seven reasons for having faith in India’s social innovation future

Author: Eddy Adams
Published Date: 1 December 2015

Dharavi Recycling Worker, Image Credit: Meena Kadri

At a stressful point before the recent SIX Mumbai Summer School, an ISDI colleague shared some words of wisdom with the team. “Just remember, it’ll be alright in the end. And if it isn’t alright, it isn’t the end yet.”

We looked at him. “Wow’ what amazing insight. “Where’s that from? Gandhi? The Bhagavad Gita?...” “No, from that Judy Dench movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”... 

No matter where it’s from, it’s a mantra that resonates with Mumbai and captures the attitude needed to cope with the gargantuan challenges you see on every corner of this megacity.

After a week in the city, I left with a strange mix of big-eyed optimism on the one hand and the sense that the scale of the basic challenges is perhaps insurmountable on the other.

Why the optimism? Well, I don’t know if I’ve ever visited a country that has such social innovation power – actual and potential – as India. And here are seven reasons for saying that: 

  • A strong tradition of grass-roots activism

During the event, Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network, stressed India’s traditions of bottom-up developments. Indeed, many of the social innovation movement’s core principles – including peer-to-peer activity and community mobilisation –mirror the work of Gandhi. During the course of the summer school we saw many contemporary examples – such as the Kumbh Mela – which mesh these traditional principles with 21st century tools.

  • A culture of frugal innovation

In the weeks preceding COP21, when India’s energy appetite as a growing global superpower will influence the outcomes, the Summer School focused on the country’s culture of frugal innovation. From Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest informal settlement which is a major recycling centre, to Imaginarium, where 3D printing permits rapid and cheap prototyping, we saw many examples of this. India, as many commentators pointed out, is the ultimate expression of the circular economy, where nothing goes to waste. This attitude – in urgent need of rediscovery in the so-called ‘developed’ countries – can underpin India’s social innovation growth. 

  • The Asian century – huge economic growth

This is the Asian century. As the centre of global economic power shifts east, India assumes an increasingly confident and pivotal role. One of the great opportunities this shift offers is to address the social and economic inequalities which continue to characterise the country. It is impossible to visit Mumbai and not be struck by these. Much progress has been made in tackling some of the chronic health challenges – assisted by the work of global foundations like Gates – but much work remains to do. As India becomes richer, there is potential to address this. But, inequality is a choice, not a fact, and reliance on trickle down will be insufficient to address the scale of the country’s challenges. But there is hope.

  • Youth, technology (and rage)

India is one of the world’s youngest countries. Half of its 1.25 billin population is under 25 years of age. Much of its new economy is driven by technology and many of its startups (such as Housing.com, Flipkart and Zomato) are tech driven. It’s encouraging to see the tech for good movement acquire increasing momentum there – supported by NASSCOM and others – addressing some of the key challenges linked to sanitation and housing. 

At the Summer School, SIX Chair Jon Hugget spoke about the potential of harnessing rage for movement building and social innovation. Tech is assuming an increasingly important role in India, related to this. There is the well-established I Paid a Bribe platform, using crowdsourcing to tackle corruption and drive transparency. I was also impressed by safecity, a women-powered movement using Google maps to identify incidences of gender violence in cities, with the brilliant strapline’ Pinning the Creeps.”

  • Global connections and the power of the India diaspora

A powerful component of our event was the distinctive contribution made by global citizens of Indian origin who are making connections and galvanizing activity back home. I’m thinking here about Samir Doshi, leading USAid’s innovation activity, originally from Mumbai but now in DC and working globally. I also have in mind Rita Soni, ex CEO of NAASCOM and YesBank Foundation advisor who connects the tech and social innovation spheres with energy and intelligence. The networked world offers enormous potential for India to tap into the goodwill, talents and social innovation knowhow of its global community.  

  • Legislative framework

There was much discussion at the Summer School about the role of government in social innovation. A panel discussion about the Lower Parel Innovation District (LIPD) illuminated differing views on this. Elsewhere, notably in Colombia, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and Europe, Governments have assumed a key shaping and influencing role, without taking control. In India, the picture is somewhat messier.

However, one unique and innovative piece of government activity – with huge social innovation potential – is the CSR Act. This requires Indian businesses of a certain size to ring fence 2% of their net profits for social investment. After less than a year in operation, the jury remains out on the effectiveness of this legislation, but few doubt that, harnessed the right way, it offers significant opportunities for the sector. 

  • The rise of Indian Foundations 

Linking much of this – the economic growth, the networked diaspora movement and the CSR debate – is the growing importance of the Indian Foundation sector. The summer school was fortunate to be hosted by the Indian School of Innovation and Design (ISDI) which has good links with the YesBank Foundation, one of India’s largest philanthropic organisations. In this growing field, other players – notably the Tata Trust and Tech Mahindra Trust – are assuming a key role, bringing significant resources to the sector.

As the foundation sector beds in, it is confronting fundamental questions shared by Foundations throughout the world. These relate to mission, complementarity, the measurement of impact and the relationship with government. Through its facilitation of collaborative work with global foundations, SIX is assuming an active part in this debate. Beyond the Mumbai summer school, there is potential to play Indian foundations into this process.  

As a starting point, there can be few other nations with this potentially powerful social innovation platform. And for India, the prize is enormous: tackle the sanitation, illiteracy and housing challenges and the world’s most populous country would be unstoppable. And, for many many people, things would then be alright in the end.