Home Leaders Speak Dr Krishnan Srinivasaraghavan, Rozita Singh and Swetha Kolluri from UNDP Accelerator Lab...

Dr Krishnan Srinivasaraghavan, Rozita Singh and Swetha Kolluri from UNDP Accelerator Lab India talk about Innovative Solutions to Development Challenges

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The UNDP Accelerator Lab in India is part of the world’s largest and fastest learning network working with development challenges. Globally it was launched in 2019 by the Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany. The network taps into local innovations to create actionable insights and reimagine sustainable development for the 21st century. On National Pollution Control Day, let us understand the working of the Accelerator Lab India and its role in controlling the pollution in the country.
UNDP Accelerator Lab India leverages technology to evaluate localized problems and address the solutions in partnership with local stakeholders, thus augmenting the success of SDG goals in the country. In a bid to find differentiated solutions to problems, the Accelerator Lab India works at three levels – policy engagement, institution building and technology augmentation to achieve the maximum impact on the ground. The Accelerator labs globally are trying to address development challenges, especially Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues by scouting for local solutions and integrating the learnings through an international network. The accelerator labs globally are working on three parameters: Solutions Mapping, Exploration and Experimentation to design the best way forward in each localized areas and bringing back the learning to the network and scaling up the best solutions.
The Accelerator Lab India has launched a first-of-its-kind Grassroot Innovation Database (GRID) on its first year anniversary to foster inclusive development. It contains 1,500 solutions, ranging from simple to complex in design, which can be implemented at the community level. These innovative solutions have been developed by grass-root communities, individuals, start-ups, students and other innovators from various states across India. The unique database caters to various sectors which include livelihood, natural resource management, agriculture, agro-biodiversity, pest management, water management, farm machinery, biodiversity conservation, augmentation, inclusive growth, waste management, circular economy amongst others.
The UNDP Accelerator Lab India has taken several portfolio initiatives to combat air pollution. In an exclusive interview with The CSR Journal, Rozita Singh, Head of Solutions Mapping, Krishnan Srinivasaraghavan, Head of Exploration, and Swetha Kolluri, Head of Experimentation, from Accelerator Lab, UNDP India talk about innovative solutions to tackle air pollution and other development challenges. Below are the excerpts from the interview.

1. How does UNDP Accelerator Labs work in order to address air pollution in India?

Dr Krishnan Srinivasaraghavan: UNDP Accelerator Labs approaches any problem with a portfolio of solutions. In order to address air pollution in India, UNDP Accelerator Labs organized an ‘Innovation Challenge’ on air pollution in the last year. The top three projects of this challenge were to receive support from the UNDP with respect to scaling up of the innovations. Through this innovation challenge, we shortlisted three very innovative solutions for air pollution.
One of the solutions is about Stubble Burning based on the concept of turning ‘waste into wealth’. The solution was brought about by a Punjab-based startup that incentivizes the farmers for not burning the stubble and procuring the same to convert it into energy fuels.
Another solution that we shortlisted addresses the problem of indoor air quality. This was provided by a startup founded by IIT alumni, who used plants that has the capacity to purify the air and potted it in a pot with a unique design. The pot has a suction pump and a fan in it which pulls in the polluted air and transports it into the roots of the plant. The air pollutants are then removed from the air with the help of the plant and soil microbes, releasing pure air in the room.
The third solution that we shortlisted was by another startup which introduced ‘Carbon Cutters’. These carbon cutters are of different designs to cut emissions from public spaces and industrial emissions. The startup also has similar equipment that can be installed in vehicles to cut vehicular pollution. The carbon cutter designed to tackle industrial emissions uses a filter-less technology which absorbs all the industrial pollutants from the exhaust and releases clean air in the atmosphere.
We are negotiating with the Uttarakhand Government and Punjab Government to pilot these solutions. The indoor air quality solution is being piloted in the UN house. Based on the success rate we achieve in these pilots, we plan to scale it up nationally.
Rozita Singh: UNDP Accelerator lab also has a targeted program that we are working on in partnership with the Nottingham University. The partnership is working to regulate the air pollution emissions generated from the brick manufacturing units in India using Geo-Spatial technology. A Geo AI platform has been designed through combined efforts of this partnership which is aimed at providing more actionable insights for policymakers.
The Geo AI platform enables targeting of the air pollution hotspots from space which can help the policymakers in developing interventions. We intend to collaborate with the district administration as well as the pollution control boards who can use the platform to develop policy or regulatory framework.

2. How can the initiatives by accelerator labs help India in achieving a circular economy?

Rozita Singh: We at the India country office of UNDP have a dedicated portfolio on plastic waste management and circular economy. The UNDP team is working extensively to address the plastic menace by establishing ‘Swachhata Kendras’ in 40 cities of the country. The Swachhata Kendras are dry waste material recovery centres which employ ‘safai sathis’ who are involved in collecting and sorting this dry waste from the cities. The waste is then transferred for upcycling them in the creation of various products. UNDP is supporting the value chain by being involved in the collecting space of the chain and by forming partnerships with implementing agencies that upcycle the waste.
This plastic is used in the development of roads, infrastructure, construction materials and many more products. The UNDP team contributed in showcasing how a house or a basic facility can be made from recycled plastic which was displayed in the ‘Demonstration Centre’ inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in celebration of the Swachhata Mission.

3. How is UNDP accelerator labs incorporating the United Nation’s call for Solidarity and the UNDP innovation facilities’ work ethic of ‘Working out Loud’ in tackling the developmental challenges in India?

Krishnan Srinivasaraghavan: Accelerator Labs is branded by UNDP as ‘World’s Fastest and Largest Learning Network’ on development challenges. In the span of one year, 90 accelerator labs have been established across 114 countries of the world. Many of these countries have similar development challenges. The idea of the accelerator labs is not trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’; but to identify the already existing solutions and rapidly test them to figure out which solution works best in the local context.
For example, the problem of stubble burning is common to North India as well as Ukraine. In order to address this, we are sharing our lessons on innovative business models and technological solutions with Ukraine. If they find those solutions working for them, it will be very easy to transfer the models and scale up in a way that is fit for them. This model of working is not just about sharing lessons but is also a gateway to transfer of technologies and solutions.

4. The Accelerator labs were launched last year before the pandemic happened. Thus, the roadmap for its operations must be prepared before as well. How has it changed after the pandemic?

Rozita Singh: The pandemic came at a time when we were planning to conduct a lot of fieldwork, which became a challenge at the time. But looking back at the last six months – the entire duration of time we have been working remotely – we have been able to innovate despite that. Many of our interventions are a mixture of different roles involving policy, technology or the community. To deal with these different roles, we have a very diverse set of innovation portfolio which has helped us overcome the challenges posed because of the pandemic. This has been especially true for our digital and technological innovations as we were able to continue working on them; in fact, we were able to accelerate some of our work during the pandemic because we were able to get focused insights and energies to work on them.
Swetha Kolluri: The pandemic caused a bit of disruption in our ability to conduct fieldwork and interact with the community. This would normally pose a challenge in conducting experiments. However, we were able to overcome this by teaming up with a high-tech farmer in Tamil Nadu. This farmer had installed all the necessary cameras, sensors and other equipment which allowed us to monitor the farm, allowing us to conduct a quick experiment in agriculture through a virtual mode. The equipment installed at his farm allowed us to access the data that we required on a minute-to-minute basis, allowing us to come to some very interesting conclusions.

5. NITI Aayog has recently said that India is far from achieving its targets to meet the UNSDGs by 2030. How will the UNDP accelerator lab accelerate the achievement of these targets?

Rozita Singh: The UNDP accelerator labs were established with the goal that we are only ten years away from the 2030 agenda goals and we need to work to achieve speed and scale the solutions to achieve UNSDGs. Definitely, there is a lot of progress that has to be made in order to meet the SDG targets. However, we have to look at it with a solution-oriented mindset. We need to find the solutions, experiment them in the local context and use the results to implement the best practices. In order to effectively achieve these targets, it is important to work with multiple stakeholders by bringing together various entities including people working in sustainability, organizations active at the grassroots level, civil society networks, technology players, policymakers and so on.
It is important to understand that even within sustainability, things can become sector-specific. In order to deal with the challenges holistically, UNDP accelerator labs have a sector-agnostic team in place which can work at the intersection of several SDGs. Such a structure of our organization combined with our unique methods allows us to pick any challenge and work on it.

6. What are some of the initiatives of accelerator labs that are particularly designed for rural development? Do these initiatives focus in the aspirational districts of the country?

Swetha Kolluri: UNDP certainly has a program which focuses on the aspirational districts of the country.  The organization has made a lot of efforts in order to support the rural economy during the pandemic. During the pandemic, UNDP has supported the rural Indians by connecting people to various social security schemes, providing them with the necessary medical equipment and ensuring healthy supply chain and accessibility of medicines and other important items in the rural areas and remote locations of the country.
The Accelerator Lab is coming up with portfolio solutions for women entrepreneurs in rural areas. We are calling this ‘DEWI’ i.e. Digital Empowerment of Women through Innovations. Women entrepreneurs are severely impacted during COVID – at a much larger scale than any other micro-entrepreneurs or male entrepreneurs. The women entrepreneurs have very limited access to credit or market. In order to support these women entrepreneurs, we are developing a data science solution, which will help them in sustaining their enterprises and also enhancing their incomes.

7. How is the private sector in India participating in the initiatives by the accelerator labs?

Krishnan Srinivasaraghavan: UNDP Accelerator lab is working with different levels of the private sector. At the startup level, we are trying to encourage the startups to innovate, connect them to networks and scale up their innovations. With medium and large enterprises, we are forming partnerships by helping them execute some of our innovations in their geography.
Taking an example of Bosch, the organization is wanting to work with us in disseminating some of the blockchain or digital agriculture solutions. In the roundtable discussion conducted on the occasion of the first year anniversary celebration of the UNDP accelerator labs, focused on “How investments can accelerate innovation”, private sector organizations including Intel, Philips and many more joined us to discuss how they can collaborate with UNDP in jointly scaling up the innovations and how strategic investments can be pooled together to accelerate innovations. Private Sector plays a very important part in whatever we do because the government or UNDP cannot alone solve all problems at once.
Swetha Kolluri: Private Sector engagement is very important these days. The Government of India and the UNDP’s engagement with the private sector has increased manifold in the last decade.
UNDP accelerator Lab has associated with the Government of Telangana for a very interesting program called ‘Artificial intelligence for agriculture innovations’. Various entities including private sector companies, NASSCOM as well as World Economic Forum have collaborated for this program. We are expecting that the involvement of the private sector in this program will bring about a lot of efficiency and pace in the ecosystem.