Sustainable Innovation


Social innovation has been a near and dear subject to me for several years.  Since I left my corporate life, my main objective is to understand – how one can be a catalyst to create social innovation ecosystem.  During my last two visits in a year, meetings with so many new socially minded friends, visits to few leading NGOs like SEWA, SEWA Rural and Aravind Eye, and recent book on Aravind Eye – “Infinite Vision”.   Based on current work so far, I would like to propose a potential approach to create a socially disruptive impact with aim of a deep impact.  My main purpose is to invite a discussion, improve this concept and potentially lead toward series of solutions.

Sustainable Innovation

A systematic approach is needed to build a sustainable and scalable socially impact.  Though many social innovators are focusing in this space for a while, we still haven’t reached a tipping point due to well documented reasons such as access to funding (for BOPs) and lack of distribution network.  When I came to India this time in December 2011, I came with an intention to take a first step in creating a social ecosystem in couple of sectors – rural health care and sustainable energy for BOP.  Through my initial work here so far, my path is leading me to a surprising a different conclusion.
Though much has been talked about social enterprise and lot has been written on this subject, I am surprisingly coming to different conclusions, if we are going to scale up innovation in various sectors.  I would like to first explain this approach with an example in a sustainable energy development and propose a radically new approach for social innovation.   To illustrate, I decided to review few examples in various sectors.  I found surprisingly small number of innovators who have demonstrated self-sustaining business model with remarkably high scalability and replicability.  One such example is leader in cure of blindness, Aravind Eye.   If lessons, learnt from such a sector can be applied to others such as healthcare and sustainable energy, I feel that we have a best chance to create sustainable innovations.
We have reached a phase where there is no scarcity of good social enterprises and some have demonstrably reached a scale that are worth mentioning such as SELCO in sustainable energy space and IDE in irrigation space.    The founder of IDE, Dr. Paul Polak continues to advocate market based approach which I believe is a right approach.   Though, surprisingly absent from this discussion is “NGO as social innovator”.  Though NGOs is a much maligned sector in developing countries, there are still good number of leading NGOs.  I propose that if we apply right lessons from successful example such as Aravind Eye to other leading NGO such as SEWA, we can create a scalable and sustainable social impact and spread similar innovations for national replication.

SEWA and Sustainable Energy

Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a member-based organization of poor self-employed women workers. It has a membership of 1.36 million women across 7 states. The objectives of SEWA are Self-Reliance & Full Employment for its members.  SEWA, legally a trade union, has already been leveraging many services internally such as SEWA Banking, Health Care, Child Care, VimoSEWA (Insurance), Capacity Building and Housing/Infrastructure.   Recently, they are planning to implement an ambitious sustainable energy Hariyali program by deploying very large number of smokeless chula and solar lanterns and solar pumping in a phased manner.  Many familiar with solar lanterns/pumps and smokeless Chula, should be well aware of how difficult it is to build distribution network, funding and marketing to scale this social business.  In fact, without a clear existing model, it has been very challenging for many of the vendors in this space to scale their innovation.  However, SEWA offers an enviable platform and vision which can not only revolutionize this domain, but the lessons from their deployment can help them introduce many income generating products in the future.   Like Arvaind, if solutions are deployed right, it can eventually share success solutions for many other BOPs creating sustainable innovations. Here is a short proposal on how SEWA can create and manage such an ambitious effort.

Proposed Plan

Organizations such as SEWA’s first and foremost responsibility is to provide service to their members.  In addition, their additional stated goal is to create self-reliant and full employment.   If SEWA is to remain true to this objective, they must focus on developing right core competences.   Although it is fine to start with vendor procurement approach, ultimate goal should be to design and develop or co-sourcing these products in long run.   This requires SEWA to create culture of innovation and work with external partners to learn design and manufacturing process.  Some products are expensive to be built in-house such as cook-stoves and solar products should be co-sourced (i.e. raw toolkit with manufacturing and assembly in-house), and build a supply chain and customer support system.

If SEWA is to realize this dream, they must first find right partner that can continue to invest in SEWA in providing design innovations and designs in an open source model or shared intellectual property model. Goal would to find a leading organization willing to share such a design for the benefit of overall cause.  This model is very analogues to what Seva Foundation in Berkeley, USA did for Aravind Eye in early phase for developing intraocular lenses (IOL) and other practices.  Without this selfless support from Seva Foudation, Aravind Eye couldn’t have succeeded in their dream.  Indians for Collective Action (ICA)’s – Bhupen Mehta has been proposing such an effort to create a R&D “Institute of Sustainable Energy for the Poor (ISEP)” similar to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) for the US utilities.  As more details for ISEP formation are being developed, ICA invites ideas for developing such an institute for the benefit of SEWA and the entire BOP population of India.

However, there is another challenge and opportunity in this energy sector that is worth discussing.   Even if SEWA figures out a business model to build products that can truly benefit their members, it needs a new infrastructure for the distribution and customer management of products.  SEWA or for that reason any scalable initiative needs to develop financing and marketing/distribution network.  Interestingly enough SEWA has solved the finance through SEWA Bank and distribution network through their existing membership structure.  However, missing element is an Information Technology Services such as carbon credit service, micro-finance service, and product inventory and distribution management service and membership data management. Rather than building these competencies, I propose that foundations interested in solving this challenge should support open innovations and shared services and make SEWA successful first.  The lessons and reusable components can later be reapplied and replicated similar to how Aravind works with many external Ophthalmology partners.

ICA is building a platform to encourage such an open innovations or in some cases private solution (for time to market).   Though open innovation is not always feasible, SEWA should clearly document requirements with the help from ICA and encourage open innovation or source cloud based services.  Though full connectivity and information architecture needs to be developed, based on my current understanding of challenges, cloud based mobile services are key to any successful deployment.

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