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Rohini Nilekani’s Comments at Launch of the #DigitalDecade to Strengthen Public Institutions

Societal Platforms | Sep 18, 2020

New America hosted an online event on the margins of the 2020 UN General Assembly to launch a #DigitalDecade to develop open source technology solutions that will strengthen public institutions in countries worldwide.


00:00 Anne-Marie: And it leads perfectly to our next speaker, Rohini Nilekani, who is the Founder and Chairperson of Arghyam, and she will tell us more about that. Rohini, technology is only one aspect of building open digital ecosystems that can unlock broader support of digital platforms that serve society. Tech platforms need communities around them to amplify, iterate, and customize systems to meet the needs of many different groups. What would one key insight be from your experience on how to build stronger communities to support this work?

00:46 Rohini Nilekani: Namaste everyone. Thank you, Anne-Marie, for this. I am actually going to use my four minutes to share a presentation with you. So I’m going to share my screen now, and it’s going to be very short and hopefully, it’s all going to come together and work. So, can you all see my screen? Let me see. No, not yet, but you will soon see it. Can you see my screen now?

01:13 Anne-Marie: Not yet. Yeah, here it goes. Yes.

01:15 RN: Here we go. Thank you. So I’m calling it platforms in service of society, and I think looking at all this, that we’ve reached a tipping point when it comes to digital public platforms and that’s marvellous news. And I believe that the word, society, societal platforms is the most critical thing to focus on in these times, because when we forget to do that, I really believe that markets and the state become far too powerful. And if we want to really move towards our goals of equity and sustainability, then we have to design for the inclusion of all those in whose name states and markets function, right? So we call this effort as a team Societal Platform thinking, and it has design principles and core values to guide that, and we really intend to empower the first mile, not the last mile, we call it the first mile, where the problem manifests and we aim to restore agency.

02:12 RN: So we all know that societal problems are large, complex, dynamic, and that any effort to address them has to be anchored in the creative collaboration between society, state and markets. But how do you reduce this natural friction to collaborate? How can you create platforms that allow for contextual problem-solving? How can these be designed in a way that are unified, but not uniform, so that we can support rich diversity at scale? And that’s what keeps our teams awake at night. And to solve these complex problems, maybe we don’t need a single platform, but an ecosystem of platforms that play different roles. So some will act as context-independent foundations, like mobile or cloud or GPS. And this is the digital public goods infra that we are talking about, that allows everyone a unified platform to engage with. The second layer we say is the context-aware layer, which allows the co-creation of tools that build the trust that Jim was talking about. That allows all actors to work together with a shared understanding of processes. And third layer is the context intensive layer and it’s very domain-intensive too because it allows people to actually deploy and amplify the solutions in specific sectors, whichever they may be, livelihoods or water, or education.

03:41 RN: And to us, Societal Platform thinking is a kind of wrap-around that allows all these platforms to work together to actually serve society. So let me give you a very quick example in education, which we all know is highly complex, and that while we try to keep the child at the centre, a host of people and institutions are required to help children learn and to keep them learning, right? So the team used all our new thinking to help India’s union government to build a national education platform that they wanted to call DIKSHA, and this educational infrastructure also creates a bridge between the familiar physical world of the textbook and the classroom, and bridges it to the emerging digital world. So for example, through this effort, India’s state governments had printed QR codes in 600 million textbooks in about 16 languages in this past year, and teachers are creating digital content on this platform that links to the static chapters in the textbook and makes students get any time access to learning.

04:51 RN: And just see where that led us recently. When the pandemic forced our schools and colleges to shut down, the education system had to go online. It was extremely urgent to stem the loss of learning to 320 million children in India. And surprisingly teachers, parents, and children seem to adapt and shift very quickly to this platform. And just look at these statistics. 1.2 million teachers trained, 175 million learning sessions done, on this government platform, just in these past few months. And a lot of innovation, Anne-Marie, has also gone into making sure that those who don’t have access to digital devices can also participate, and we call that online for offline. And that is the power that public institutions can pull together in this digital age. But to achieve this, we really believe that every actor, and every institution has to hold one core value that we as a team hold very dear, and that is restore agency, because we all know that talent and innovation is everywhere, we have to unleash it so that more people can become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem.

06:02 RN: And the point is, after all digital platforms are digital platforms, okay, but what makes it play well for society is the power of the intent. And even the power of the intent is not enough, we have to deploy the grammar of that intent. And that’s why we think what we call Societal Platform thinking, but it is just one way, many other people are doing similar things, is critical, because it incorporates the design principles shown here, that allow people to appreciate that grammar of that intent and to use that grammar to, I suppose, create their own language, their own poetry, their own prose, if you will, to fulfil their societal missions. And as a team, we are very excited with this approach and the potential of this digital age. We are eager and impatient to collaborate with everybody, and what’s happening here is music to our ears, so let’s just get together and make digital technology work harder to service society. That’s where we are coming from. I’m happy to participate. Thank you for this opportunity.


07:13 Anne-Marie: Rohini, thanks so much. The work of the Societal Platform is truly exciting and inspiring.

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