For an ‘Innovation Lab’ to sustain, it is necessary for the Lab to function in an environment that welcomes innovation and shuns traditional thinking. The Bihar Innovation Lab has not only innovated for Public Health, but also carefully crafted an ecosystem of innovation in Bihar for the sustenance of not just this Lab, but satellite Labs as well.
At 9.4%, Bihar is the second largest contributor of IAS officers in India, which is, the decision making cream of the government machinery (also the brightest administration officers of the country). The same state falls flat when it comes to development indicators, possibly because of inertia. Inertia, not as much of persevered resistance, but of the absence of any strong external stimulus. Local innovation capacity has been observed at large, across Bihar, amongst its vastly diverse public health cadre. A team of researchers and designers from the Bihar Innovation Lab travelled across Bihar, and captured local innovations in the public health system across many districts. These included systemic innovations, in some cases process level innovations, and a few surprising cases of product level innovations. Much to our initial disbelief, Bihar, though inert, proved to be a fertile space in the domain of innovation, a land ready for the sowing of the much awaited seeds of innovation. All that it awaited, was a strong external stimulus.
The captured local innovations first needed recognition. Poor documentation arose as one of the leading deterrents when it came to innovating at a local level, higher than failure (which is usually the top deterrent for first time innovators). The Lab thus took on the mandate to document, formally, all the recorded innovations in a public database open for further addition and as a platform for further formal dialogue on innovation. With every District Health Society equipped with a computer and most individuals with smartphones, the idea of a digital portal got validation. The Lab spent the next few months creating a first of its kind ‘Web Ideas Bank’ that not only documented local innovations, but also gave recognition to the government officials who were behind it. All of a sudden, an innovation in Purnea district was visible to West Champaran district (458 kms or 7 hours away) in a matter of seconds.
Technology has penetrated deep into rural India, and it is for development agents to quickly adapt and incorporate it to successfully accelerate inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth. Imagine the existence of a system that leverages this available technology in ways that allows innovators at the grassroot to speak out to not just peers and local community leaders but also policy makers. With roadside stalls in Vaishali (a district in Bihar) illegally downloading and selling latest Hollywood movies in HD at a nominal 10 Rupee rate, imagine what we could achieve with the formal inclusion of such new tools and technologies. And the Web Ideas Bank is a small but significant step towards the future of Tech4Dev (Technology for Development) as a space to aid and improve supervision, facilitate dialogue and hasten integration efforts.
With the groundwork for innovation already in place, the Lab commenced its efforts towards innovation training and capacity strengthening. Working closely with the ‘Training Cell’ of the State Health Society in Bihar, a two month long innovation agenda was drafted. This comprised of – contacting Civil Surgeons of the 38 districts of Bihar, collaborative identification of proactive individuals within the district healthcare system, and eventually conducting two day long ‘Innovation Training Workshops’ in batches of four or five districts. After a month long of paperwork (most of it literally on paper) five sets of letters went out. The State Health Society, Bihar in collaboration with the Bihar Innovation Lab announced the the first ever series of Innovation Workshops.
On July 6th, 2015 the Lab conducted the first Innovation Workshop. With a total of twelve participants from four participating districts, the long awaited mutual experiment began. A typical workshop is an exciting two day long affair, and here’s how the agenda (now) looks like:
The Lab learnt as much, maybe even more than what it has imparted. An example of that, is the alteration of the script and structure of the workshop over the course of our five workshops spanning a period of two months, and 60+ government officials from a total of 23 participating districts. Initial workshops experimented very little and largely stuck to the pre-decided script, whereas subsequent workshops steered the interactions into a space where both, the participants and the Lab, added actively to the program.
It was imperative for these workshops to be a platform for healthy dialogues and not be limited to passive engagements. This conscious effort has added to the sustenance of such a model of engagement. The workshops allowed the government cadre to build a foundation with the Lab to carry this interaction forward on (again, through technology), in the simple form of a Whatsapp group. A Lab based out of Delhi could now interact with its new local Innovation Ambassadors in real time, circumventing structural barriers of paperwork and appointments.
As opposed to an imagined civil, board-room-discussion type setting of the workshop, the Lab has witnessed participants arguing about policies, even walking out during interactions immensely agitated. This on the other hand was balanced by instances of them passionately concepting in torchlight in a dark room due to a sudden power failure. It is wrong to read this as wavering away from the script, while in actuality it stands as an example of true community participation and co-creation.
Outcomes of the Innovation Workshops and not restricted to the Lab’s understanding of the government cadre and their interactions with ‘innovations’, but also to the many concepts that emerged out of the many working groups. A few product level innovations include – ‘Tamarind Flavoured IFA Tablets’, ‘Locally Sourced Affordable Birth Preparedness Kit’, whereas process driven innovations include – ‘House Numbering System for Hard to Reach Areas’, ‘Missed Call Birth Registration and Immunization Reminder Service’ etc. These concepts are being developed by the Lab along with our local Innovation Ambassadors, and hope to reach a prototyping stage for subsequent testing and possible piloting.
Innovations are truer when they’re democratic. The use of technology to equip the grassroot level, and the use of workshops as a platform to train them in innovation-capacity-building, aids and advocates democratic design thinking. It’s only when multiple futures can be imagined together, that true development through innovation can be achieved. The next step is to tap into local ingenuity along with replicability of foreign technologies, to localize the currently-alien ways and practices of innovative thinking.
The Bihar Innovation Lab in its efforts to build innovation capacity at a local level, is successfully crafting an ecosystem of innovation in Bihar for the sustenance of similar such local Labs and the possibility of better, and collectively imagined futures.