Centre for Internet & Society
Bangalore + Sustainability Summit

People participating in the make-a-thon in Bangalore. Picture by Indian Express, September 22, 2013, http://bit.ly/1h8lKzv

The power of technology to create youth engagement and positive social change were discussed at the Bangalore + Sustainability Summit on September 21, 2013 at the Centre for Internet and Society(CIS) , Bangalore. The event, in conjunction with the Social Good Summit that took place in New York during the same weekend, explored creative and tech-based avenues to solve sustainability challenges and promote social good.

Our interest in understanding the role of digital natives in our society stems from the possibilities technology brings for the social good. This concept, a variation of the notion of the ‘common good’, is nowadays a popular and widely utilized term, both in its secular and religious variations. It conveys values and actions that benefit the well-being of society and in Mill’s utilitarian view:  one which promotes the moral, intellectual and active traits of its citizens. Nowadays, its social justice undertones are part of the human rights discourse that characterizes twenty-first century civil society and citizen action, which are at the same time becoming increasingly connected in the context of network societies, leading to the new socialized form of the common good. The buzzword was there at the core of the Social Good Summit that took place in New York from September 22 to 24, as well as of the Bangalore + Sustainability workshop, organized by Ashoka India in partnership with Green Lungi and IDEX on September 21 at  CIS office in Bangalore.

Local leaders and change-makers in Bangalore discussed the power of technology and its potential to provide sustainable solutions for the city’s greatest challenges at the event. The workshop was dynamic in structure and inspiring in content, as the participants were divided into make-a-thon sessions to collaboratively design technology-based prototypes that tackle the problems with feasible and impactful solutions. In the opening session Meera Vijayann, consultant for Ashoka India, commented on the nature of sustainability and how technological design must tackle all of its fronts, including environmental, government, public and citizenship engagement, to name a few, establishing a working framework for the day. This was followed by four panelists who gave brief talks highlighting their professional backgrounds and some of the lessons learned in the pursuit of social good.

The first to present was Kuldeep Dantewadia, founder of Reap Benefit, a start-up that provides low-cost solutions to encourage behavioural change around waste, water and biodiversity management. Inspiring attendees to “be fools”, and take chances, based on Ranjan Maliks’s talk: The Fool and his kind of Innovation, he  spoke about environmental issues as a man-made disease with behavioural solutions, as opposed to an external crisis requiring intervention. His social approach within a workshop discussing the power of technology was, as the representative of IDEX, Daniel Oxenhandler said, a great entry point to start thinking of the leaps of good-will and risks to be taken in the field of social change. Encouraging the participants to be foolish, he invited them to be bold and inventive with their ideas throughout the day.

He was followed by Raahul Khadaliya, who defines himself as a thinker, observer and explorer of design for sustainability. He delved on the ultimate purpose of design and framed it as a problem-solving tool that ought to bring benefits for the masses. Stressing that design is not only concerned about how tools works, but instead on “how they work in a given environment” he brought up the importance of context and historicity in design, an important discussion point , incidentally also explored by the Making Change project by CIS in conjunction with the HIVOS Knowledge Program. Digital technologies and derived platforms do not carry value in themselves when pursuing social change, unless they speak to the locality and respond to the crises lingering in their given ecosystem. Khadaliya ended his presentation with a slide that read “design is a behaviour”, adding to the recurring theme of the day: the need for citizen behavioural change, being it in creation, participation or conservation of resources.

Coming from a different angle, Kalpana Kar, who contributed to the Bangalore Agenda Task Force in an urban governance project, gave an insightful account of the role of public policy and private-public partnerships. Her talk came across as an insightful set of advice tackling considerations around space and how it intersects with collectives and their sense of entitlement and territoriality. Notions of power, pride and hierarchical arrangements are determining accessibility to public spaces, a highly relevant reflection that also applies to digital participation in online platforms, as explored in the Digital Natives framework. She added that creating technological solutions with social impact calls for a change in our behaviour and how we gauge our individual needs against the social good. “Enthusiasm can take you far, but not further”, for which she appealed to participants to “be real, practical and foolish” in their interventions and focus on designs that have impact with scale and economic viability. This vision puts the private sector on a par with sustainability state policies, and sets the ground for mechanisms of social accountability as an important complement of technological design.

The last panelist Sharath Chandra Ram, researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society and instructor at the Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology brought the aforementioned points together and based his talk on alternatives to bridge the distance between the citizen and the state through online-offline interventions. He focused on the enabling of citizen voices and freedoms in governance as a fundamental mandate for tech innovators of our times.  “Models must maintain cultural specificities and have a holistic approach” to facilitate engagement in the globalized socio-political arena. He provided three of examples of citizen involvement in information and state governance: citizen journalism, citizen uprisings and citizen governance, coupled with a showcase of low-cost technologies designed at the CIS Metaculture Media Lab that would allow larger online access and offline participation if made pervasive. His pragmatic approach provided tangible and innovative examples, using every day apparatuses, to enable connection and overcome the social and political roadblocks in our networks; an interesting and inspiring segue into team formation and the make-a-thon to come up next.

Following the panel, the 40+ participants divided into working groups moderated by the organizers and delved into discussion on one out the five proposed problem statements: road safety, waste management, gender-inclusive spaces, forestation and public infrastructures. Brainstorm props provided, the groups created mind maps, Lego structures and comic strips to shape, frame and later pitch their idea to the rest of the workshop. While the use of technology was mandatory, the social good impact brought forward by these apps and campaigns took precedence in the presentations. The event all in all embodied an opportunity to bring ideas, skills and experience together from their different walks of life and yield innovation. In fact, as Ira Snissar, Venture Associate for Ashoka mentioned in her closing speech: three or four of the presented ideas had the potential to comprise business plans for future start-ups. The remark concluded the session by highlighting the need to create marketable and economically viable solutions to ensure sustainability of social good tools in market systems, defeating the long-standing tensions between corporate interests and social responsibility.

The four themes brought forward by the panelists: audacious innovation, large-scale design, power negotiations and citizen governance, as well as the group discussions reiterated a fundamental idea throughout the day: the need for behavioral change in the name of social good. While the state, the private sector and of course technologies were present as important actors in the making of change, the citizen was framed as the main engine and beneficiary of these processes. Stronger citizen engagement, improved negotiation between individual and collective needs, and diminished contestation in spaces of power are among the main objectives to attain these long-sought social good objectives. Technological solutions come across as enablers and amplifiers, perhaps necessary in a networked environment, yet not sufficient if not coupled with sustainable behavioural change. In this respect the question that should precede events like this one should focus on the substance behind the summit’s buzzword: what does ‘the social good’ entail? And attempt to understand the alignments of these understandings considering different models of citizenship and activism.

As of now, the implications and nuances of the social good remain under-theorized and lack epistemological consensus, yet the concept still represents an interesting pathway of research within the Digital Natives project. Is it possible to instill the need for behavioural change in the social imaginary? Is it feasible to establish solidarity networks through pervasive technologies? These are some of the avenues to be taken at the aftermath of the Bangalore + Sustainability event. The willingness to work together towards what benefits all was very prominent in the summit, suggesting that the feel-good nature of the concept and its social justice foundations make it a powerful drive to mobilize people and ideas. The challenge remains on how to extrapolate it and as advised by the panelists, have it derive into large scale impact among the masses.


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