[Unlearning] When Social Entrepreneurship took a new meaning for me…


social entrepreneurship - new meaning

Early in the year, I read a book that chronicled the journey of the Tatas and while the many stories bring out practical business insights, I was particularly fascinated by Jamsetji Tata’s perspective on serving the interests of the country…

I have personally always been fascinated by what Jamsetji Tata (regarded by many as the father of Indian Industry) transpired to achieve (back in the 19th century, in 1868) and it’s amazing to see the disruptions he created… here we struggle to bring small changes whereas he opened up new worlds – in areas that were varied but still key to the growth of modern India – from industrial development (steal and hydro-electric power) to research (and technical education) to social welfare… he’s an inspiration… not just to lead in ideas and action but even more so to have the courage and conviction to take with you those who do not yet share your vision…

What stands out for me is his guiding principle that no success or achievement is worthwhile unless it serves the interests or needs of the country and its people… and the endeavour to create wealth for the nation! And it’s amazing to see how the foundation laid by Jamsetji Tata has stood the test of time and allowed the group to grow, maintaining its values and continuing to diversify to meet emerging India’s needs…

Everyone dreams of creating wealth for themselves but sustaining the passion to look beyond and striving to take the country forward is an inspiration… and Jamsetji’s journey is a reminder that one man’s vision can change not just a few lives, but a country!

As I started to accept that each one of us has the power to achieve more than we think, I was even more intrigued by Jamsetji’s approach to serving the needs of the country. His belief – that what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and the most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country – is so different from common thinking and most philanthropic initiatives of feeding the poor and healing the sick – and probably why he has left an indelible mark on India and its people – not just over a few years but across centuries.
This is a new way of looking at social entrepreneurship for me. While my passion has been to apply technology advancements for social impact – I cannot deny that my focus has been to look at selective pockets of social and economic change – and now it seems that I may be missing countless opportunities for a bigger impact.

I have something to think about as I start the new year – and as a first step maybe to evolve the infrastructure, services or ecosystems – not just to meet the basic needs of the moderate or the ordinary – but to relook from a different angle and extend the platforms with new capabilities to support the best and drive them towards their potential… yes, I really believe that this approach has far reaching possibilities – beyond social impact to also business impact!

This note is a page from my diary – UnLearning, which records all those random thoughts (ideas and fears…) that make me live day-by-day.


A new National Highway: Virtual Connectivity to override Physical Infrastructure in India


Can Aadhaar evolve into a virtual connectivity infrastructure that drives a seamlessly connected society? What if Aadhaar gears up to be India’s answer to its painstakingly slow progress in building physical highways and infrastructure.

Aadhaar is a unique identification initiative launched by the Government of India under its planning commission. It is an ambitious project of using basic IT technology (databases, computing) and connectivity (fixed or mobile) to create a dynamic online identity system. The integration of biometric technology has provided an advanced and secure capability of authentication. This has further been extended by integrating payment platforms and providing an unified system of real-time identity, authorization and payment transaction support.

The vision outlined by the government lays emphasis on social & financial inclusion. As the first step, authorization and payment services are being used to drive delivery of distribution and transaction based services. Initial pilots have focused on social and welfare schemes such as Public Distribution Systems, LPG distribution & subsidy management, old-age pension distribution etc. In the next phase, applications could extend usage from authorization to access control or location/presence and drive services that are as simple as attendance to more dynamic deployment of resources based on current location of users. The scenarios are only limited by our imagination.

However, for true momentum to be built up, the initiative has to garner the industry attention and evolve to provide value to encourage adoption by businesses and enterprises.  This will not just lead to a massive build-up of Aadhaar-enabled services but also provide the impetus to propel it out of the current orbit to the next level of growth.

This evolution will need to be centered around 3 core areas – (1) Extending its application beyond social welfare into businesses (2) Introducing Support for Analytics – analytics could be used for converting raw data into value-added user/service context or applied to intelligence-driven operations (3) Inter-linkages with other databases and systems for seamless connectivity.

Data has been touted as the new oil of the connected world. However, our experience has taught us that data has no value unless it is acted on and converted into meaningful actions. Its only when the monetization potential is realized that it will drive social change.

The question for all of us – can this infrastructure be exploited to compensate for the lag in physical infrastructure investments? A nation that has been recognized for its extensive reserves of IT resources should not falter in playing to its strength in IT – we should be investing in creating an unprecedented scale of connected applications cut across both social and industrial sectors and use the virtual connectivity to open up reach as well as delivery. This could be the one area where we outpace every other nation & challenge the perceived dominance of other emerging nations like China.

Managing Technology for Social Change


There is a great deal of untapped potential in consistently applying existing technologies to support, and in fact, direct social change.

Technology advancements over the years have had a considerable impact on society—and yet in most cases, this social impact has been secondary to business and profit aims. Satistied with selective pockets of social and economic change, we often overlook the endless missed opportunities as we blindly follow the course of technology.

I recently got a real taste of what this means as we looked at the social sector landscape in India.

As technology innovators, we are naturally excited by new ideas and, in India, my team was pushing for ground-breaking innovation in health care delivery. We wanted to integrate a new range of patient-centric home medical devices for monitoring and diagnosis using a hosted cloud-based service (built over a connected infrastructure), and to establish a centralized service for remote management. It was a rude shock to learn that while we were advocating the use of the latest cloud, M2M, and mobile technologies, the existing system had not yet applied even two-decade-old basic computing technologies. Many of the ongoing health care programs we observed still used hand-filled paper forms for data-entry and tracking. Within one organization, which ran a pre- and post-natal assessment program, it was open knowledge that data entered by community health workers was rarely monitored, compiled, or acted on.

No wonder it was not easy to measure the success or impact of the program, or to plan for improvements. Timing, resources, effort, and costs were far from optimal, and so much could change—both in quality and effectiveness—through better management of technology we already have available, such as mobile, real-time data entry applications connected to a central server or applications that extract data from central databases to create reports and dashboards.

In contrast, we also came across smaller initiatives that were using “the latest” technologies, including Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which provides low-income new and expectant mothers in India, South Africa, and Bangladesh with vital health information via mobile phones using SMS and voicemail.

While immensely useful for MAMA participants, technologies like these are insufficient to radically impact the landscape. Technology is still in the hands of a limited few, and effort is needed to broaden the reach.

We are at an interesting stage of social evolution and technology maturity, and it’s time to step back and re-consider our priorities. While new technologies continue to surprise us with their vision and possibility, there is a great deal of untapped potential in consistently applying existing technologies to support, and in fact, direct social change.

Our focus needs to move away from technology innovation to technology application. We should look for solutions—tested and proven in other business sectors like finance, travel, retail, etc.—to build innovative applications for the social sector. This approach will save us from the overhead costs of introducing new technology, as well as temper the complexity and risk. However, this still requires a new outlook to service delivery and innovative business processes; more specifically, it requires a focused effort to manage and direct technology in areas that lead to effective, widespread social change.

The first step is to define a common framework for technology integration, and to apply that uniformly and consistently across all social initiatives. We should keep in mind that technology can emerge as a tool for social development only if it helps to achieve five goals for any social program—these parameters can be used to to gauge the readiness, relevance, and impact potential of new initiatives.

1. Extend reach. Access should extend beyond a limited few to millions through improved and diversified access technologies—for example, reach low-income users who have low-end feature phones with SMS and simple voice messaging, and reach smartphone users with existing apps.

2. Improve services. This can be done by driving new service delivery models that take advantage of geographical and resource gaps. For example, cloud and hosted services can deliver expertise and information to remote regions, providing accurate and otherwise unavailable diagnosis and treatment in health care.

3. Facilitate adoption. Build on convenience, and make it easier and more fun for users to employ technology anytime, anywhere; introduce easy-to-use mobile applications, one-click user interfaces, and other simply designed tools.

4. Deliver relevance. Provide targeted services that tailor to the specific needs of each group. For example, a service to remotely monitor the physiological symptoms for post-operative care reduces health care costs significantly while improving patient comfort and experience. (Note that a service like this requires an integrated arrangement between the patient and the service provider, where the needs and pain-points are well understood on both sides.)

5. Reduce cost. Introduce efficient, optimized processes. For example, use of digital forms  and implementation of real-time data mining and analytic applications can ensure timely action on data and improve the overall return on investment. Use of technology can facilitate automation and reduce overheads.

Internet communication is driving the creation of a connected society, and the growing reach of the mobile phone gives us the opportunity to integrate larger populations into our global, connected society. Together, Internet and mobile provide a platform that has the potential to drive rapid social change unlike any other in history. We can achieve far more than we have by using these technologies as an infrastrcuture to transform education, health care, energy, agriculture, and the environment.

A closing example: In a country like India, the biggest challenges to education are making skilled teachers available in remote areas, and addressing issues around geographical diversity, proximity, and access. Right now, no one is looking at creating a new education delivery channel to facilate virtual classrooms and long-distance learning—that’s despite a government initiative to put Aakash tablets (government-sponsored $50 tablets) into the hands of every one of India’s 220 million school and college students.

It is critical to ensure that we take full advantage of current technologies. It is time for us to recognize that it is in our hands to manage and make the most of existing technology to drive effective, widespread change. Simple ideas can drive local, regional, national, or even global impact on social issues.

This article was first published in Stanford Social Innovation Review on 16 May 2012 [http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/managing_technology_for_social_change]