In the Wake of Design Public Bangalore

By Aditya Dev Sood

At the end of the morning’s session of Design Public, Samar Halankar of Mint Newspaper came up to me and said he’d never seen three panels run back-to-back with this kind of intensity. The audience was rapt and the hall was full. We were expecting 70 people, but served 120 for lunch. Clearly the question of innovation in India is important, relevant and the right people now want to engage it.

But we were also able to approach the question of innovation from two complementary and novel perspectives: first, how can innovation help solve the grand challenges of Indian society, and second, what is inside innovation, what are the steps and social and cognitive elements of innovation? While there are many events on innovation in different parts of the world, they tend to make innovation an abstract object, which can leach the discussion of focus, interest, energy, and ultimately of meaning.

For all of us who were there, there is no question that this edition of Design Public was more intense, more expansive, and more productive than our inaugural event. And all this raises the useful problem of trying to figure out how to use this energy effectively in the wake of this meeting and in the run up to our next event in Delhi in April next year.

My deepest reflections over the course of this weekend have had to do with the emerging mandate and future of CKS, which seems to have expanded in relation to Design Public.

It would appear that CKS must now take on a greater role in defining the innovation agenda for the social and private sectors, and remain in dialogue with governments about how they can respond to these new developments. Beyond merely supporting the innovation needs of other organizations, CKS must now take on a leadership role and show how innovation approaches can tackle longstanding challenges. This may involve directly building new technologies, applications and products, spearheading new initiatives and seeding new companies and institutions. These activities might be very concrete, as for example, building rural health applications on the Aakash Android tablet or else indirect, for example providing innovation training to Indian industry and to the civil services.

A first step in this direction will be the Chaia Innovation Accelerator, which Naresh Narasimhan and I will be launching early next year. The goal is to provide space for innovation, as Naresh has already said, but also to provide the nutrients, resources, mentorship and knowledge framing that will allow world-changing innovation to arise. The best minds need to be addressing the most important and relevant problems of our time.

As Ashwin Mahesh pointed out, for Design Public to be more than a meet-up opportunity next year, it will have to institutionalize to a greater extent. This doesn’t mean that we have to form a new entity, but rather that we can interweave the diverse activities of our stakeholders to a greater extent and show progress along certain specific challenges to the public good, namely the grand challenges we are preoccupied with. That list again:

  • Rural Healthcare and Medical Technologies
  • Technology-enabled Financial Inclusion
  • User-friendly Public and Welfare Services
  • Participatory Urban Governance
  • Widespread Sewage and Sanitation
  • Ecological Appliances and Community Solutions

We need to approach the right partners in industry and the social sector to work with us on each of these challenges. Some possible partners like Suzlon are yet to be contacted and engaged, while we would like to bring other participants in this time’s activities, like G.E. and Intel, more firmly into the fold.

We will also be looking for a wider set of stakeholders and sponsors for Design Public next year. Rohini Nilekani has already indicated that she felt Arghyam should get involved. I would hope that the Gates Foundation will be similarly motivated.

Aditya Mishra has offered to deploy his networks at Headstart Foundation to help frame the Grand Challenges of our time. This will allow us to develop a grant-making or investment-funding process that we may institute publicly next year. We would need to raise money towards these funding awards. We will also need to define more particularly what we are looking for, and what other partners need to be brought into the Design Public conversation for this purpose.

Sunil Abraham spoke about the need for a policy out-brief from the day, and Sudhir Krishanswamy and Jayna Kothari might also be able to contribute towards this effort. The sooner, of course, the better. We might also like to include some of the participants in Design Public Bangalore into the forward process, including, for example, CSTEP and Srishti Labs.

While we were very fortunate to have CII as an institutional partner for this event, we need to do more to make that relationship meaningful and impactful for Indian industry. We will be looking to share with CII a full outbrief of the event in order to better understand how to make our partnership richer and more beneficial for Indian industry.

Additionally, we will look forward to sharing the thoughts emerging from Design Public Bangalore with Mr. Arun Maira and others at the National Planning Commission and the National Innovation Council, as he has requested. One of the most interesting ideas to emerge from the event has to do with creating a metric for the user-friendliness of any public or governmental service transaction. This is something CKS can take the lead on designing and creating, and it is one of the concrete areas where we might be able to have a wide influence on the quality of governance by working with the government at the highest levels.

Internally, we might want to begin by making specific contributions towards the corpus of funds that we can rely on for our preparations and planning for the next year. Would a contribution of a lac or half-lac per stakeholder make sense? Would that be feasible? Also, which Indian corporations need to be made part of this process? How do we shortlist and then engage them to make this dialogue impactful? How can USAID, DFID, Finnode and other bilateral and multilateral agencies become involved in this process?

Our media partnership with Mint has been very helpful and, I hope, mutually beneficial. We would like to expand that out by bringing in UTV-Bloomberg or another partner for the next event and by ensuring that we receive the right kind of advance notice in the media. Some media attention has already fallen on the event, as reflected here.

Next year, I hope we will attract a world-class roster of speakers and participants this could include many of those whom Rohini Nilekani has interviewed in her book Uncommon Ground, as well as those contributing to the book Creative Capitalism. We might also consider the likes of Marko Ahtisaari at Nokia, Joichi Ito at MIT Media Lab, Bill Buxton at Microsoft Research and Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia’s Earth Institute, as well as the authors Steven Johnson, Tim Harford, Tim Brown, or equivalent personalities. Can we get Anand Mahindra or Ratan Tata to open the event? Only if we ask early!

Even as the Design Public line-up grows in heft and star-power, we would like to ensure that it does not become another gathering of crowds without the possibility of collaboration or impact. Reto Wettach suggested we try to isolate some essential elements from this successful event structure to guide future editions. His longlist: no powerpoint, no formal presentations, continuous conversation, four sessions before breakouts, which might be decided by the audience themselves, and no more than 100 people at an event.

I look forward to other thoughts and ideas you might like to share in response to these notes. Your responses will help bring these loose possibilities to firmer and more precise articulation and quick action.

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1 Response to In the Wake of Design Public Bangalore

  1. Pingback: Conversations on design for public good « TechSangam

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