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Rohini’s address at “Building India’s Digital Highways: The Potential of Open Digital Ecosystems”

Societal Platforms | Civil Society | Aug 27, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk on Open Digital Ecosystems.

Globally, as well as in India, we are seeing more people realising that we need to create enabling infrastructure if we really want to address some of society’s most critical and complex problems. We need to reduce the friction to collaborate between all the actors that are needed to solve societal problems, i.e. Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. The problems that we are facing today are constantly evolving and sometimes their solutions lead to other problems. So we need to envision a more holistic and systemic framework to solve them.

Over the last few years we have witnessed the convergence of many technologies leading to breakthrough thinking. Perhaps the 21st century will result in the creation of shared public infrastructure that reduces the friction to collaborate. I think that this would have to have a digital backbone, but one that ensures that these ecosystems of collaboration will not be technology led, but technology-enabled. For the last several years Nandan and I, along with many of our colleagues, have been working on some of these very complex challenges, including education, water, financial inclusion, etc. Through our experiences, we have abstracted some of the philosophical underpinnings of what we are trying to achieve – we call it ‘societal platform thinking’.

While there may be many digital platforms that are trying to address societal problems, there still needs to be a horizontal underpinning of values that ensure that the technologies and frameworks deployed actually achieve certain clear societal goals, such as universal access and inclusion. They need to be able to restore agency to everybody, so that they can be a part of the solution and not remain part of the problem.

We have the technology, but that technology has to be used to design for inclusion, creative collaboration, and solutions that can be co-created, not simply to ensure cookie-cutter impact at scale. When I co-founded Pratham Books in 2004, although technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now, we understood that if we wanted to put a book in every child’s hand, we couldn’t only rely on the current ecosystem of publishers to deliver goods. We had to unlock the potential of the community, in this nation of storytellers.

We wanted to increase the number of writers, illustrators, translators, and editors, so that we could expand the idea of books and create technology-enabled stories that could reach every child in India, as well as children in other countries. To do so, we used some of the main principles that form societal platform thinking – instead of pushing one solution down the pipeline, we tried to distribute the ability to solve.
Once we understood that there are storytellers everywhere, suddenly what seemed like a scarce resource of writers and publishers, broke open to allow everyone to participate in creating public goods for all. After 15 years, Pratham Books has been able to give millions of children access to books, through online as well as physical copies. This is how we can design for intuition, by using online and offline together, involving and enmeshing the community as part of the solution. By using today’s digital infrastructure, we can redesign a sort of collaborative approach to solving complex societal problems.

In addition to this, we need to consider how these new digital ecosystems might be governed. We can think about this in three layers. One is the creation of a basic, shared, open, public digital infrastructure which would form the backbone of the framework. On top of that, there’s another layer of co-creation where distributing the ability to solve comes in. We should be able to add more nodes where people discover each other and work together to solve the problem that the platform is set up for. Finally, there’s the amplification network, which is spread out through various ways online and offline, so that other people can start building on and expanding at scale what the shared digital infrastructure has allowed the co-creators to do.
It’s important to note that when I say co-creators, I don’t just mean the experts. It could be almost anybody. For example, with our DIKSHA platform, although we are focussing on empowering teachers, we understand that that same shared public infrastructure also allows parents, grandparents, older siblings, and anyone else who is around the child to get involved. So we can use the power of this technology to unleash the agency of everybody around the child.

There is still a huge digital divide in India that we have to find a way to bridge. We know that the future is digital, so we must enable every single person to have access to some kind of digital device, even if it’s a shared device. That is the unfinished business of both the state and the market. We must create a digitally-enabled civil society as well. Civil society needs to come into this digital age without resisting it, because there are many issues that are going to come up in terms of privacy, access, and the undesirable consequences that technology can unleash. So we need a civil society that is willing to tackle those problems head-on, and become part of the solution on the digital platforms themselves. That remains an unfinished task, even as we are all trying to build out these open digital ecosystems.

This ecosystem of platforms are developing exciting 21st century ways of addressing complex societal problems. However, the most important element is the philosophical thinking, the societal platform thinking, with its core values of distributing agency, distributing the ability to solve, and making sure there is a contextual resolution of problems. We don’t need technology structures that are uniform, we need ones that are unified and allow many people to come together and do what they do best, whether it is the Samaaj, Bazaar or Sarkaar.

The most exciting thing about these new, open digital ecosystems, is that unlike closed market ecosystems, these are public goods. They are meant for the participation of people in an appropriate and contextual way. Underlying all this is the fact that these are Samaaj-based platforms that invite all of Samaaj to participate in. Hopefully, this will help us really solve some of the most complex issues that we have been facing and the challenges we will have to tackle in the future.

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