1. Tell us something about your journey in innovations for society?
As a 20 year doing Bachelor in Engineering in Bangalore, the thought that my work ought to improve lives became strong in my mind and influenced most of my major career decisions. After completing my Masters in Electrical and Computer Engineering in the US, my professional journey began with a 6-year stint of purely engineering-focused R & D work at Bell Laboratories, working at the forefront of Information Technology research. The motive that impelled me then to leave behind such engineering-focused corporate research to become a “penniless graduate student” of interdisciplinary studies at MIT was the observation that, while we do know how to produce a technological artifact, because of lack of well-developed theories about how that artifact impacts its environment (e.g., market, policy, society), we fail to address some of our most pressing challenges, such as hunger and poverty.
My journey as a socio-technologist began at MIT during my Ph.D. in Engineering Systems (now called “MIT Institute for Data Systems and Society”). Here, I learned to apply cutting-edge tools to study, design, and implement large-scale socio-technical systems comprising both technological and human complexity. Since then, the long-term objective that has motivated my research, and therefore driven the selection of short-term projects within it, is: How can we avoid the gross inequity in the Information world, which we still endure in the material world? 2. Why are innovations critical for social impact? How can they be promoted on a larger scale among the communities and how can communities be partners in the process?
Innovations — be it technological, commercial, or behavioral — offer a way to induce non-linear improvements in society. For example, biometric ID like Aadhaar had a visible impact on financial inclusion in a non-linear fashion. Such an impact in a limited time frame is more likely with technological innovations.
While Aadhaar is a top-down intervention, many bottom-up innovations can be developed for and with society. Such efforts are visible in all domains like health, water, agriculture, energy, environment, etc. In my experience, promoting such innovations on a large scale requires a clear understanding of the problem faced by the society; a high-quality solution that is affordable, stable and reliable; and a business model that is inclusive of the communities that engage in producing, distributing and using the solution.
The core logic behind community partnership is the following: one can pass on something to the community only if the product or service commands enough margin based on the value created that someone would pay for. Such margin is a function of the quality of technology and/or service. Of course, the innovator needs a mindset to share it equitably; in other words, to distribute a part of one’s own profit to maximize the impact. 3. What are key initiatives taken by the Atal Innovation Mission for supporting innovations, important for society, across the country?
At one level, with its mandate to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the country, all of the work supported by the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) has a societal angle. Our innovation ecosystem, with all its fervor and excitement, is still in an early stage, having tapped only a small portion of our nation’s creative potential. Also, the innovation infrastructure seeded by Atal Innovation Mission via the various Atal Tinkering Labs, Atal Incubation Centers, and Atal Community Innovation Centers is yet to see a self-sustaining revenue model. AIM's work fills this market gap to create an ecosystem for society.
To support infrastructure for innovation specifically focused on societal impact, AIM launched Atal Community Innovation Centers (ACIC), with the goal to spur community innovation in underserved and unserved areas of the country. Presently, there are eight ACICs across the nation operated by community organizations. The nature of problems and innovations in these centers are distinctly different from those in incubation centers located in large cities. One not only finds the local problems being articulated but also the innovators who understand them and are passionate about solving the problems of their communities. The nature of support they need is also different: being able to operate in regional language, tools to develop personally as well as technical skills, and so on. The mandate of this program is to have 50 such centers. 4. How do you see the role of foundations like WIN Foundation in social innovation for social impact?
Foundations like WIN Foundation bring a unique form of support to the social impact space, with a rare combination of both the grassroots as well as global experience. They have empathy for the problems of our underserved communities, an understanding of what can be done in terms of innovation to address them, and the sophistication to help innovators operate in the most structured markets. It is my hope that their work will help us harness the immense creativity exhibited by innovators that hail from the second, third, and fourth-tier cities of our nation. Presently, I see much potential in these areas yet a weak innovation ecosystem to support them. WIN Foundation’s operation in this geography can produce a win-win for everyone.
About Dr. Chintan Vaishnav :
Dr. Chintan Vaishnav, is currently Mission Director, Atal Innovation Mission, Niti Aayog, Government of India. He is a Senior Lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management and is Academic Director and a member of the founding team of MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design. He is a socio-technologist, and his work encompasses understanding human as well as technological complexity in large systems, and creating socio-technical systems for improving lives in underserved communities. He holds a Ph.D. in Engineering Systems from MIT. He also holds a BA in Indian Classical Music.