The Next Big Thing – Quadrum Presents QED

Oct 01, 2014


This is an edited version of Rohini and Nandan Nilekani’s talk, The Next Big Thing — Quadrum Presents QED.


As Nandan and I travel, we try to watch out for new trends around the world. Even now, the world is divided into countries like ours, where half the population is still in the 19th or 20th century, in terms of their lifestyles and consumption patterns, and the other half comprising very developed countries. What we are seeing in the latter is that societies have now become post-accumulation and post-consumption. This interests me because in our own country’s past, we were also in a similar place. Now, in India and China we are more concerned with accelerating GDP and growth, while in Europe and some parts of America they’re talking about sustainable de-growth.

Collaborative Consumption May Be The Future

When we have these two attitudes, it’s interesting to see what social changes emerge from there. The collaborative consumption model or the shared economies are about a world in which we understand that there are limited resources. So you harness technology to innovate ways in which we can distribute and replenish those resources. For example, Adam Werbach is a young environmentalist who works with corporations to drive their sustainability work. He has set up something called Yerdle, where people can donate household items or things that they would otherwise throw out to people who need it and would have otherwise gone out to buy it. There is no monetary transaction involved in this though. Instead you get credits which can be used in creative ways to benefit the community. So people are moving towards a post-money world, which is an interesting thing to think about when we try to envision the future.

We are seeing examples of collaborative consumption across industries, with companies like Airbnb and Uber — instead of building new hotel rooms, we can use existing real estate; instead of having a million new cars, we use the extra time on individual cars which then serve as public transport. We did a small iteration of this at Pratham Books by creating a collaborative platform. We put out our books in the Creative Commons, another growing movement in the world. Instead of all the IP being locked in and only creating value for one organisation and its shareholders, this offers a possibility to open it out to the world. Our books are free for anybody to take, reuse, retell, remix, share, download, translate, and even to sell. The minute we take greed off of the table and think of these projects as something that can be beneficial to all of society, it allows us the opportunity to innovate without worrying about the bottom line. We would never have been able to create the distribution platform we did, if we had gone the normal route. And because of this, today our books are all read around the world.

There are so many areas where a collaborative consumption model would be beneficial, and one of these is the healthcare sector. Today India is the capital of TB, with pharmaceutical companies struggling to produce drugs that will work against TB resistant strains. But imagine how much quicker it would be if we had a common, open-source platform for drug discovery? Of course, the entity who produces it will have some economic benefits, but the point is not to lock up all value inside private spaces. This is a trend that I think we will see increasing in the future.

The Effects of the Technological Revolution

We are also going to see the rise of digital citizens. My 2-year-old granddaughter is so much more comfortable with the iPad than me. Now imagine 3 billion digital citizens, who may have devices worn on their bodies or in their hands, who will be able to access the internet and all that it offers. The possibilities that this offers are endless. On the flip side, I have noticed that the same technology that allows you to connect with people all over the world, may also lock you in a bubble where you may not know your own neighbour. These are the trends that we must watch for, bringing with it both the positive and the negative. We are seeing examples of this across the globe, with the Arab spring uprising happening alongside a rise in fundamentalism and the spectre of ISIS. All of these changes however, are fuelled by the technological revolution we are going through.

Despite this, when it comes to thinking about India I don’t think we can ignore the fact that half our population is still waiting for the basics. So those of us who can, must harness these trends and innovate solutions to create an equitable society. We cannot have a world where half the population has progressed, but the other half remains far behind. This disparity is not sustainable, especially when everything is so interconnected. I see it as an opportunity for us to use these new technological developments for the betterment of society.

As Nandan notes, every industry, business model, and delivery channel is getting disrupted, so within this chaos if organisations are able to spot the right opportunity, there is money to be made while also helping society progress. For example, one of the projects that we are looking at is how to address the challenge of applied literacy and numeracy. In India today, we have a few hundred million children who can’t read, write, or do basic arithmetic. If there is a way to address that using the available tools, it’s possible to create business opportunities around this as well as nonprofits. If we look at healthcare, it’s going to change dramatically in the next few years. With variable computing there will be hundreds of healthcare solutions available off mobile phones, wristwatches, headbands, Fitbits, etc. So it’s a great time for entrepreneurship and it’s also a great time to give money away. We can’t wait till we’re 80-years-old and say, “Okay, I’m done with my own consumption patterns, now let me give it away.” Of course, you have to look after yourself and your family first, but many of us have excess money that we need to start thinking about differently. Neuroscience tells us that we are wired for altruism — it actually gives us joy, in a similar way to the dopamine release after a long run. There is joy in giving, in whatever way you can, whether it is financial giving, or donating your time and energy.

We are seeing old power structures get undermined by technology, whether it’s healthcare, education, media – everywhere we look. There are many innovative social entrepreneurs who also need support. So if people begin investing in social impact companies, they will be able to make money as well as give back to communities. This is a great time to start philanthropy in innovative ways, especially if you’re young. It’s almost as if we are in a glass bowl, but there are so many who are outside of it looking in. It’s time we break those walls, and we will achieve this by encouraging young people to take up any cause they like and start their journey of giving. There are so many interesting ideas that just need a bit of support. This doesn’t mean that people must give up their personal pleasures or sacrifice something, but rather make that special time to give.

The Responsibility of Wealth Creators

Nandan likes to say he’s an accidental entrepreneur. Thanks to him being a successful accidental entrepreneur, I have become an accidental philanthropist. But even if he hadn’t, I’m sure we would have still ended up in the philanthropy space. To us, social challenges are the biggest and most complex issues we are facing, which makes them the most interesting to help solve. We learned through hands-on experience. The first phase was to give randomly, however we soon began the second phase of getting more strategic, assessing issues like education, water, and sanitation. The third phase of philanthropy consists of supporting the people and institutions involved in bettering governance, independent media, and environmental issues. I don’t believe that societies will allow runaway wealth creation by individuals, unless the wealthy use it responsibly for social good. They may be able to keep their wealth for some time, but it will not last. Public pressure will build up.

I often wonder why the government allows us to have such fantastic taxation rates. Many people disagree with me but I think our top 30% rate is extremely reasonable. Governments do that because they hope that those who make money and keep the excess will use it for social good, and use it more effectively than if that money had gone to the government. There is true responsibility that comes with wealth and wealth creation. Both Nandan and I feel very strongly that we have that responsibility and we must execute it. For example, Nandan believes that human capital i.e. people are what keeps societies going. Initially, he was doing a lot of work in higher education, like co-funding a thousand room hostel in IIT Bombay. IIT was not taking more students only because of a lack of hostel rooms, so they built a thousand room hostel and that took the IIT capacity from 2000 to 3000 students. That means that many more bright kids are getting opportunities. So that’s one kind of leverage that the wealthy have.

Similarly, we are funding a new institute for urbanisation because we think that India’s biggest challenge in the next 40 years is going to be urbanisation. India has 300 million people living in cities and in 30 years we’ll have 600-700 million people living there. Unless we can build sustainable cities, it’s not going to be stable. So we thought, unless we have people who understand sustainable urbanisation in the future, we won’t be able to get there. Therefore we are funding a university for urbanisation. We must be strategic in this way, by looking at where there’s a multi-tiered effect that we can bring on different challenges and provide funding for that.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

In a way, we have to do a root cause analysis. I can keep feeding hungry people, but that will not solve the problem of hunger, nutrition, or poverty. Many societies have succeeded in getting most of their population out of poverty or created enough public infrastructure so that private infrastructure is unnecessary, like good roads, electricity, and accessible water resources. We need to do a root cause analysis in any of the fields that we are interested in and support the alleviation of those things that have gone wrong there. Rather than putting in money to give people water filters or taps and pipes, we need to look at the larger issue of how to use our water resources sustainably.

If you want to clean the Ganga, you have to start at the Gangotri. Similarly, if we don’t do that in our philanthropy, we will only be providing band-aid solutions. It’s not wrong to give money to someone in need, and of course we should not stop doing that. But if we want to eradicate these issues from our society, we have to look at the root causes and try to address the imbalance of power. A lot of this happens because power is unevenly distributed in society, so I believe our work is also political in nature. I mean ‘political’ in the best sense of the word — to change the balance of unequal power. If more people had a voice, to become part of their own solution rather than just look like the problem, then the dynamics of the samaaj would change. That’s the kind of work that many philanthropists did in America and Europe, and we’re seeing the results in those societies today.

One of the simplest and most visceral joys for me is watching a child read one of our books. Children who have never had access to colourful books ask “Really, is this my book?” It’s a very powerful moment, when they realise that it is theirs. In a similar way, when you are able to help a community with an issue they are facing, it’s a visceral connection. For example, a tribal community in Andhra Pradesh was having serious water pollution issues. It was a hilly, tribal area in Maoist country, and the government system didn’t reach them at all. But with a little philanthropic help and technological assistance to people on the ground who were working on the issue, the community was able to solve its own problem. Today they have revived their own streams and created water filters. In fact, people from other communities have started to visit so that they can learn from them.

With a little bit of sympathy, it’s easy to see how much impact individuals can have on communities. As Nandan mentions, it’s not just about financial assistance, but rather whether you give yourself over to an issue. The more you give of yourself, the more happiness comes your way.



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