In India, a group of innovative strategic entrepreneurs and philanthropists — among them the co-founder of Infosys — are piloting an ambitious approach: societal platforms are open digital co-creation networks that aim to close the access gap for billions of people in poverty across fields such as education, financial services or healthcare. I caught up with Sanjay Purohit, Societal Platform’s Chief Curator, to learn more about the group’s strategy and the how-to’s of catalyzing impact at scale.
Konstanze Frischen: Sanjay, a lot of social organizations do amazing work and never scale. Why?
Sanjay Purohit: There’s a difference between scaling what works, and building what works at scale. Now, the social sector, the development sector, is dealing with way more complex problems than the corporate sector. Variables and lack of control are intense, you’re resource constrained, so the instinct is to try something small, prove it, and then replicate it many times over, which is itself very resource intensive and requires expertise. But the structural problem is: 2,000 mice do not make an elephant. To get an elephant, you’ll have to design for that from the embryonic stage.
Frischen: Which means, you’ll need to think differently from the get-go.
Purohit: Correct. Complex large systems don’t usually work at scale because of replication. They work at scale because they were designed for scale. And that’s what we want. Societal Platform Thinking is a way of creating large scale ecosystems by design.
Frischen: What’s the difference between commercial platforms and societal platforms?
Purohit: When you build a platform, you build a shared digital infrastructure as the backbone, you bring actors together on top of it and create network effects and co-creation, and then you have an amplification network above it with partners who help the innovation scale fast. The difference in societal and commercial platform is in the intent. If you want to maximize market share, return on investment, competitive strength, etc., that will give you a certain way of configuring your platform. If you want to design for a societal outcome — dignity, choice and agency for the most underserved people, sustainability, interplay between government, civil society and markets — that intent will manifest itself in a very different design.
Frischen: Societal Platforms got a lot of insights from the building out of Aadhaar, the world’s largest digital identity system that got rolled out to 1.2 billion residents in India. Now you’re piloting the approach in different fields. Talk us through one example to show how it works.
Purohit: Let’s take our work in education. For your background, here in India, we are focused on 200 million children who come from some of the most challenged backgrounds, live in different states with different education boards, and speak different languages. There are more than 13 million teachers, and 1.5 million schools. A myriad of lesson plans, content, local governments, etc. So now you have to think through how can you impact all these children, how do you help all these teachers?
Frischen: How? Walk us through your thought process.
Purohit: We knew we had to use the same platform for developing the capacity and capability of students and teachers. Now, one thing that we love in platform thinking is the focus on driving for minimalism. Take GPS, for example. GPS gives a very interesting construct, because it answers only one question at scale: Where am I? When the team built out Aadhaar, it started by answering only one pivotal question: Are you who you claim to be? So with education, we had to think of that one question. We found the answer in: Where are you in your textbook?
Purohit: Yes. We built out the infrastructure to insert QR codes into textbooks. Students use hundreds of millions of textbooks every year, so by knowing the answer to that question we knew we could get a sense of: Where are children in their learning? What are teachers trying to teach? What help might they need? The focus on the textbook allowed us to align the physical and the digital world. The textbook became the root, the gateway to digital. Once you have the root, you can layer all kinds of other resources — lesson plans, teaching content. On top of that, teacher professional development, leadership education. The implementation network includes partners and government, which looks different from state to state, school board to school board. Building this has been a humbling experience over the last few years. We are getting better steadily. The platform is touching the lives of more than a 100 million school children now.
Frischen: What are the conditions, or — looking at it from the other side — the barrier to making Societal Platform Thinking the norm? Is it a mindset? Is it capital? Is it technology?
Purohit: There are five factors. First, the social entrepreneur who leads the transformation must practice distributed leadership. Because of resource constraints, many times, people operate their initiatives with the idea of building their brand to attract attention and funding. But when you create large scale systems, you have to lead from behind. Connected to that is the second factor: Leaders need to think about the entire system, and how to create value for all actors — the government, civil society, the private sector.
Third: we need risk capital. Because these things have never been done before. Sometimes they fail. For instance, it took us many iterations to reach the textbook QR code idea as the root. Before that we tried gamification, we did highly interactive content. It requires flexible capital to be able to actually do this rather than funders giving you task-specific local funding, like saying, “I’m giving you funding for this project in that place, now within six months show me a report on how many children did you teach.”
Fourth is speed. To shift equilibrium, you have to achieve scale fast, otherwise, the problem outgrows you and it becomes a rat race. The good thing available to us today is technology. I am not saying that unless you use technology, you can’t succeed in large scale change. History has shown us many large scale changes. But if you really want to move with speed, and you want to get things done in a reliable, high quality way, then you need technology. We’re not talking about building apps here. It’s really deep tech architecture, internet grade, at population scale.
Fifth: the commitment to build public goods. Most of the time, people want to build private goods, and keep it with them. That’s a very difficult threshold to cross, that you’re actually building public goods. Because if you want something to scale at a national level, then they have to build public goods. They cannot be private goods.
Frischen: How do you ensure that? That the platform’s ownership works for all, the governance protects privacy, allows for diversity of adaptation, and doesn’t come with a concentration of power and decision making?
Purohit: It needs to be baked into design from the get-go. Privacy, agency, empowerment — that cannot be an after thought. All the initiatives that we support are and will be open source and public good. The best way to protect something is to make it open. If it’s open, it belongs to the society at large. So first, the platform has to be technically open, anyone can work with it, take it. Second, it has to be financially open, which means it’s not sitting behind paywalls. Third, It has to be legally open, which means open licensing conditions, so that nobody can capture it. All the knowledge created has to be creative commons.
Frischen: You’re working for segments of society for which businesses typically do not innovate.
Purohit: Correct. But over time, these segments will mature into markets. Social change will only happen when all three sectors come together. The Government will come into the play because they want to serve citizens and they have the ability to scale. The social entrepreneurs will come because they care about the issues. The private sector will come because it will see an investment. Even if it’s a long-term return, there will be returns. But this return is very different. Societal Platform thinking opens up a market that is a high transaction volume, but low unit value play. I believe that in the post-Covid world, this line between business, government and civil society is going to blur further, because Covid has shown the fragility of our systems and we cannot afford to turn a blind eye. Every aspect of our lives, and everyone’s lives will be impacted. Societal platform thinking will be critical. We need to rise to the challenge of our time.
Ultimately, the challenge we are trying to deal with is what does it take to create services for the currently three and a half billion people across the world who live at, or below, poverty lines.
The Societal Platform approach (societalplatform.org) is being incubated at EkStep Foundation, which was co-founded by committed philanthropists Rohini Nilekani (Chairperson, Arghyam) and Nandan Nilekani (Co-Founder, Infosys), and Shankar Maruwada (CEO, EkStep Foundation). In 2019, Societal Platform launched a new initiative in partnership with Ashoka called Project ASPI-Re, to help successful social entrepreneurs amplify their impact leveraging Societal Platform Thinking.
Sanjay Purohit joined EkStep as Chief Curator in 2016, and has been leading its evolution ever since. He has over 30 years of global experience across corporate and societal development sectors. This spans senior leadership and entrepreneurial roles in corporate strategy, digital transformation and sustainable development. He currently advises mission leaders developing Societal Platforms in domains such as, but not limited to, education, micro-finance, healthcare, urban governance, and livelihoods, including systems change initiatives supported by Co-Impact (co-impact.org), a collaborative philanthropy platform. Passionate about mentoring young entrepreneurs, he advises startups supported by Fundamentum (fundamentum.co.in), a scale investment fund, N/Core (ncore.thenudge.org), a not-for-profit incubator and accelerator, and Edumentum (edumentum.org), a not-for-profit incubator focused on education. He is an Innovation Advisor to Unleash (unleash.org), a global design lab for Sustainable Development Goals.
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