This is the Social Development space, dude! Don’t you get it, we are driven by passion and sweat and the human touch. The cold tendrils of Technology have no place here.
Thus went the reprise when I started working in the Social Development space, not such a long time ago, as a matter of fact. And this was from the mouths of grey-haired men and women, the men oftentimes having salt and pepper beards to match, who had spent years and years in the field and not the greenhorns.
Interestingly, however, the conversations I’ve been having off late have been markedly different from the ones above. There is all around acknowledgement that Technology has an increasingly important role to play in this sector. Fortunately, we have an increasing number of Technology players in the social sector providing a variety of solutions. Very recently, Namita Vikas, in an article published on May 5, 2018 on The CSR Journal portal spoke eloquently about some of the enabling technologies for the sector.
What I would like to do in the next few paragraphs is to actually take a step back and look at some of the broad ways in which Technology is being leveraged in the sector and some of its future possibilities. Here I am assuming a more liberal definition of “Technology” being a process and including innovation rather than just products. Also, rather than looking at this from a Technology perspective, my lens will focus on the basic structure of the Social Development space and look for the gaps that need filling and what “Technology” has to offer.
So, let us start with the structure
One way to look at this sector is to visualise it like a pyramid divided into three broad layers. The bottom layer is the grassroots layer, the middle is the organisation layer and the top is the ecosystem layer. The three layers while being quite distinct, are, in fact, very intricately intertwined.
Now, let us briefly discuss the role of Technology in each of these layers:
This is where the maximum amount of activity is taking place. A lot of the activity is centred around product innovation. This is also the layer where a lot of start-ups and social enterprises are functioning. The product range extends from app-based marketplaces for farmers, to modularised low cost testing machines for patients, to microgrid solutions for local renewable power.
Most activity, however, tends to stay niche / local. The good news is that these innovations do not have geographical boundaries, with a lot of products and ideas flowing in and out of India. Also, there appears to be a healthy appetite among impact investors for investing in such ideas, which also acts as a sanity check for the innovations.
We should see more broad-based solutions emerging in the future, hopefully from within India. One pre-cursor for that will be establishing standards in the ‘ecosystem’ that allow different products and solutions to talk to each other, so that individual solutions can have a greater collective impact. Also, innovative Financial instruments such as Social Impact Bonds will also help innovation flourish.
There are a number of players in this space attempting to automate the processes for both Donors and Implementors. There are several products that do so, as well as bespoke solutions built to cater to individual organisations’ needs. They mostly tend to cater to the larger organisations that have the capacity to pay for these solutions and almost always operate in silos.
Also, these solutions mostly tend to automate processes as they are, rather than do a lot of process re-engineering or introduce innovation. There are several organisations I have seen that do have some excellent ideas on innovation in this space. The future here lies in cheaper, more flexible systems that are capable of interoperability, through block chain and similar technologies.
As a trickle-up effect of the silos and fragmentation at the lower two layers, the Indian social development ecosystem, including the CSR sub-ecosystem is quite deeply subdivided. These subdivisions are further accentuated by a lot of efforts being centred on individual goals such as brand-building and promotion of personal agendas. This has several ramifications, such as, creating barriers for sharing of best and worst practices, duplication of efforts, standardisation of reporting, comparable measurement of SROI etc.
This has a significant impact on the standard measures of any process / system, namely, Productivity or efficiency and Transparency or Governance, with a commensurate knock-on effect on the overall Risk.
While part of the solution lies in fixing the gaps identified in the layers lying below this one, there is significant amount of ecosystem level work that needs to be done. Big Data clearly has a role to play here, but we also need the Software Development Project Management kind of disciplined approach, need to evolve standards like in the Technology sphere, create platforms like NASSCOM for sharing best practices etc.
Additionally, there is a need to align these efforts with the UN SDGs, which India has committed to, but does not have a formal framework in place to encourage, measure and report progress along the same.
This article was originally published in the August 2018 print edition of The CSR Journal.
BSE Sammaan CSR Ltd. is a fully owned Subsidiary of BSE Ltd. The author holds a Management degree from IIM Kolkatta and an Engineering degree from IIT Chennai. He has taken over the helm of BSE Sammaan after 26 years in the Financial Services industry, both in India and overseas.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.
Thank you for reading the column until the very end. We appreciate the time you have given us. In addition, your thoughts and inputs will genuinely make a difference to us. Please do drop in a line and help us do better.
The CSR Journal Team