Keynote address at TiE Global Summit 2020: Scaling fast – Social Entrepreneurship in India

Dec 08, 2020


Rohini’s speech at the TiE Summit 2020 where she talks about Societal Platform Thinking, and the need for restoring agency to create a more resilient Samaaj.



Namaste, everyone. Thank you to the TiE team for inviting me to deliver this keynote. TiE does amazing work at binding the energy of entrepreneurship to the spirit of service and I am so glad to be able to address you all today, though, sadly, only virtually.

I want to use my ten-twelve minutes to talk of how we can together achieve more impact at scale, with speed and sustainability, a phrase my husband Nandan often uses. 

Scale – because the response has to be at the size of the problem itself. Speed – because there is an urgency to some of society’s problems that will escalate if not solved soon. And while I am not a big fan of speed for the thrill of it, and we need to focus on the what and the how of scale, the fact is that this pandemic has made humans fall so far back on our commonly agreed to SDGs, that we have to run a little faster to catch up and surge ahead. And Sustainability – so that we aim for resilience among people and institutions to cope with new issues as they arise.

The last ten months has been a testament to the need for such an approach, and many people are experimenting globally on how to achieve this.  Our teams have put together what we call Societal Platform Thinking or SPT. It is an attempt to help reduce the friction to collaborate between samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar, or society, markets and the state. Its goal is to engage all three sectors in addressing complex issues by allowing all stakeholders to have agency to innovate in their own context.

SPT keeps some important questions on the table. How can we create a more holistic approach to addressing societal issues as they constantly evolve? How can we work together? How can we discover and deploy people’s own talent? How can we give people choice and freedom to innovate? How can we ensure that India’s huge diversity is put to good use to solve problems in their own context? How can we use technology in the service of these goals? 

Let me give you an example of societal platform thinking from the education sector, an area that has been globally hit very hard in this year of the virus. 

In 2015, my husband Nandan, Shankar Maruwada and I set up the EkStep Foundation to increase access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by 2020. We believed then is using emerging digital technologies to fuel our mission Little did we know then that the pandemic would make our work more relevant than ever before. 

As in many countries, India still faces challenges in getting every learner to be where she needs to be. In the past three decades, tremendous work has been done, and the country HAS shown progress, as surveys ASER shows year on year. But it is still not enough. We have a long way to go to ensure that every child is learning well. And now we know we have to ensure this regardless of whether children are physically present in school.

Something that we learned in our journey in education is that we need to be able to leverage existing infrastructure and meet the system where it is rather than expect the system to come to where we are.

With EkStep, we had to learn and iterate over the years to arrive at something that would work. Based on Nandan and Shankar’s work on India’s unique ID system, Aadhaar, and based on my work at Pratham Books to put a book in every child’s hand, we knew that to achieve anything at scale, you have to unleash local innovation. You have to design in such a way that people can get anywhere, anytime access to a service or product. You have to put the grammar to the power of your intent of inclusion and equity.

This led us to work with the government to help them build the digital infrastructure for learning now called DIKSHA. Diksha is the government’s national teacher platform for India’s nearly 3 million teachers. It was designed keeping in mind the DNA of the public education system, which has many layers. Diksha kept evolving as an open, public digital good, to empower many people to participate in the societal mission of improving learning.

The platform serves as a bridge between the online and the offline world. Through QR codes embedded in existing textbooks, hundreds of millions of children have gained access to quality curated content. On Diksha, teachers can avail of just in time bite sized training; they can connect with each other, they can curate special content for their classrooms, and much more. They can learn digitally to improve their teaching physically. 

Diksha also allows parents to be more involved and engaged in the learning that their children partake. It allows communities to be involved; civil society organizations to be a part of improving access to learning. Importantly, it also creates space for markets to play, whether it’s the tuition teacher or the afterschool program to all build off the same public infrastructure. 

Diksha has really taken off as an incubator for innovation. Everywhere, people have come up with ingenious ways to use digital to bridge the digital divide itself. For example, there’s the story of teacher Revati, who has been active on the digital platform. She talked about struggling with low engagement and poor reading levels in her classroom. DIKSHA allowed her to curate high quality content online, customize it to her offline context, and then feed her lessons back into a knowledge common of a peer group of teachers. 

DIKSHA currently supports 35 States in India, across 33 languages with over 90,000 pieces of co-created content. The usage numbers really speak for themselves. There have been cumulatively over 3 billion page views and 275 million content views.

The platform really came to the rescue of the education system during the pandemic, with its massive school closures, and frustrated students. This year, on Diksha, there were 1 billion training sessions for teachers and over the last 60 days there have been close to 700 million learning sessions across pretty much all States in India. These mind-boggling numbers show what becomes possible when digital infrastructure is animated with human intent, when we build technology that works for society.

But the real credit goes to the teachers, the students and the parents who bravely adopted unfamiliar digital technologies and pedagogies. And our teams learnt that once individuals and communities feel empowered with new tools, they quickly create the enabling environment in which change can be scaled up.

The example of Diksha shows how sarkaar can embark on creating a societal platform together with samaaj. The infrastructure is now in place to invite in the bazaar as well.

All this work embodies the lessons that Nandan and I have learnt in our respective journeys over the last three decades as active participants in samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar. It is not something that we believe is unique or new to us. It’s a distillation of things that many of you have already learned and worked on over the last few over the last decade. The biggest pivot around which we built the idea of this type of platform ecosystem thinking is on the importance of restoring agency and choice. 

Societal platform thinking hinges on four fundamental design principles. Let’s design for diversity at scale so that every actor can create solutions for their own contexts. This requires a unified but not uniform structure because the solutions that work in Karnataka are different from the solutions that work in Assam. Instead of pushing A solution down a pipeline, let’s distribute the ability to solve. This is how we bring resilience into our samaaj. For all this, we must use all emerging technologies, but we must be careful to be technology enabled, not technology led. Technology is only a tool, and amplifies intent, both good and bad. I care most deeply that we should build an ecosystem of platforms that are in service of society. Platforms that allow our expressions as citizens rather than as subjects of the state or as consumers of the market. 

If we want to achieve greater impact as social entrepreneurs, this thinking is one way, though not the only way, to move ahead together. We invite more discussion around these goals and themes. 2020 has shown us how one event, or one tiny virus can affect us globally and personally. It has invited us to understand just how interconnected we are, and to design for more inclusion, more access, more agency, so that more of us can become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem. The next time around, we will be better prepared. Through greatly enhanced co-operation, we are all learning, how to scale our responses with urgency, and towards resilience, with empathy, and last but not least with renewed humility.

Thank you and namaste.




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