Centre for Internet & Society
Design!PubliC — Innovation and the Public Interest

Participants at the Design!PubliC Conference in Bangalore

On the 14th of October, 2011, the Center for Knowledge Societies organized the second edition of the Design Public Conclave, a conversation on how innovation can serve the Public Interest. The conclave was held at the lovely premises of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore.

The conclave was highly interactive and brought together representatives from technology houses like Intel, GE, TCS, Infosys, and Seimens, with social sector organizations like Arghyam and funding agencies like the Gates Foundation and HIVOS. Officials from the National Planning Commission and Karnataka State Innovation Council were also involved. Speakers included the philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, interaction design expert Reto Wettach, policy advisor Ashwin Mahesh, design thinker M.P. Ranjan, among other experts from India, Sri Lanka, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the UK and the US.

The Conclave began with three panel discussions, each of which focused on the relationship between innovation and a specific sector of society: the private/corporate sector, the social sector, and the public/government sector. Each panel consisted of a moderator and four to six domain experts, but the audience was asked an encouraged to participate freely along with the discussants.


"When designing public and social initiatives, both structure and intuition are invaluable, and neither should be ignored in favor of the other."
Sunil Abraham
Centre for Internet and Society
Sunil Abraham "Where there is no trust, there will be no creativity, and therefore no innovation."
Aditya Dev Sood
Center for Knowledge Societies
Aditya Dev Sood
"In startups, people are free to experiment without always being bogged down by commercialism, like in large corporations."
Aditya Mishra
Headstart Foundation
Aditya Mishra Harsh Srivastava
"When discussing the public interest, it is important to think about which public we’re talking about, and to specify whose interest we are working towards."
Harsh Srivastava
National Planning Commission

"There is a general perception that the government doesn’t listen to us, but my perception is that not enough of us are trying to be heard."
Ashwin Mahesh
Ashwini Mahesh
"There are many interest groups and each one believes that only their interests matter. We have to be able to compromise and collaborate."
Rohini Nilekani
Rohini Nilekani "Design is like dancing while wearing handcuffs; you have to work with constraints and
try and create the best  possible solutions."

Reto Wettach
Interaction Design Studios
Reto Wattach
"Innovation is about designing
something radically new, which transforms our experience of the world."

M.P. Ranjan
Design for India
MP Rajan
"Public-private partnerships are often the best way to ensure that innovation happens in the public interest."
Sneha Raman
Center for Knowledge Societies
Sneha Raman

PANEL 1 Innovation and the Indian Corporation

Panel 1

This discussion focused on whether Indian corporations and how they can help bring about a culture of innovation. Panelists agreed that while Indian society is highly innovative, large Indian corporations are usually not.

The successes of large corporations often render them less willing to take risks. Also, the hierarchical decision-making structure of corporations can inhibit innovation, leaving little incentive or opportunity for subordinates to be creative.

Large corporations can play a substantial role, though, by collaborating with small entrepreneurs and working on social issues. This way, the technological expertise and infrastructural capabilities of large companies can be married with the empathetic, lived knowledge of grassroots innovators.

PANEL 2 Is Innovation in the Public and Social Sectors Possible?

This discussion focused on whether the public and social sectors can innovate. Panelists agreed that collaboration and participation are the key ingredients when innovating for the public interest. This also makes the entire process more transparent and hence keep power imbalances and misuse in check.

Private-public partnerships are the best means for innovation to happen, where governments can provide the policies and structures that support innovation, and private firms provide their expertise in developing solutions.

Another major concern that was brought up is the challenge of trust, the lack of willingness to take risks, and the fear of failure. These are all institutional challenges that need to be overcome before the social and public sectors can become capable of innovation.

Panel 2

PANEL 3 The Challenge of Startup Innovation

Panel 3

The panelists talked about startups in India and how people’s conception of them is often limited to technological products and services, largely because people are unaware that there can be startups for governance, for the social sector, for public services, and more.

They spoke about the need for a more robust and supportive startup ecology, for which the biggest problem now is no longer a lack of funding, but rather a lack of consumer belief and trust in startups. Additionally, cultural factors can contribute to the success or failure of this startup ecology: Indian society, for example, is too risk-averse and unforgiving of failure. There is, therefore, the need for an ‘innovation incubator,’ with the right architecture, guidance, mentorship, financial support and other necessary resources, to help make socially valuable startups happen.


Participants 1 Participants 2  
Participants 3 Participants 4 Participants
PANEL 4 The Theory and Practice of Innovation
Panel 4 After lunch, panelists grappled with the question of whether innovation can be routinized, and if design is the means to do so. They talked about how good innovation necessarily stems from good design, which means adding meaningful value to a product or service.

Design can be seen as any expression of intentionality, rather than being relegated to the realm of the purely visual. All human beings, not only trained designers, are capable of designing, and erroneously think of ourselves as non-designers. This is especially true in social redesign, where citizens from any walk of life can contribute meaningful information and ideas. Hence the need for active community participation in service and policy design, as participation during the solutioneering process will mean fewer problems with implementation and realization.

In the afternoon, participants broke out into groups to brainstorm how innovation can help solve three grand challenges of Indian society. CKS researchers first presented information collected from field visits prior to the conclave in order to focus the session.


Inclusive Higher Education Quality Maternal and Child Healthcare India's Toilet Problem
Despite many government efforts, the number of students pursuing higher education in India is still dismally low. Reasons for this lie in a lack of access to institutes of higher education, insufficient finances and restrictive cultural practices and attitudes.

In order to understand the challenge, CKS researchers and domain experts visited an alternative education center that utilizes omputers and online platforms to teach.

Possible Solutions
  1. The success of online higher education lies in locally relevant solutions
  2. Human interaction is necessary to complement the technological interface.
  3. Create shared learning platforms to encourage collaborative learning.         

Financial and cultural factors are the greatest barriers to education, especially for girls.
Lack of awareness about opportunities, and an absence of local mentors.
Language is the key barrier to using computers and the internet for education.

Maternal and child health in India is amongst the poorest in the world. This grim situation is preventable, however, with good health services, better dissemination of information, and by ensuring proper nutrition and care through pregnancy.

CKS researchers conducted research on ante-natal healthcare in rural areas, in order to understand the the gaps in the delivery of these services.

Possible Solutions
  1. More campaigns to make beneficiaries aware about the services they can avail. 
  2. Offer incentives to healthworkers for providing better care to patients.
  3. Local government should be made stronger and more accountable.
Healthcare providers are three-fold: field healthworkers, public (government) clinics,and private clinics.
Public clinics are cheaper but lower quality, while private clinics are expensive but are better equipped and offer better services.
Field healthworkers are usually more trusted though they may be less knowledgeable.

74 percent of rural India still does not use toilets, which has wide-ranging implications on health, hygiene, safety, convenience, and privacy. The government introduced the Total Sanitation Campaign to bring toilets to all of rural India, but huge gaps in implementation still remain.

CKS researchers and domain experts from Arghyam spent a day in the village of Dandi Kanahalli to understand toilet usage patterns from different respondents.

Possible Solutions
  1. Support more NGOs working in this area.
  2. Create communal toilets that target women
  3. Build stronger local government
Most respondents did not construct toilets until it became compulsory to do so.
The main challenge to toilet construction is the lack of financial resources.
Despite financial constraints, communal toilets are nonexistent.

Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis This edition of Design Public made it clear that innovation was a high priority for different stakeholders in society, but also that many players lack a clear understanding of how to actually go about the process of creating a new product or service. This would suggest that what is really required in India today is training around the fundamentals of innovation, including the process of understanding needs, developing concepts, protyping a solution and then further enhancing the new and innovative solution. In addition, we realized that many of the large scale challenges being faced by Indian society have to do with deficiencies of trust, inadequate avenues and channels for people to participate in decision making processes and that these are the more fundamental barriers to broadbasing a culture and associated practices of innovation in this society. These are the themes that we have resolved to work on further in future editions of Design Public.


Design Public Event Participant 1

A participant questions the panelists during a discussion on startup innovations

Opportunities for Sponsorship and Partnership

The Design Public consortium is now soliciting support and sponsorship from organizations, agencies and corporations that are particularly interested in these topics. Sponsorships follow the following tiered structure:

Institutional Sponsor US $10,000/-
Dinner Sponsor US $5,000/-
Event Partner US $3,000/-

We also welcome contributions of content and other kinds of support in kind that might allow the event to proceed to greater effect. These may include travel support for speakers, accommodation bursaries for worthy cases, student scholarships, sponsored dinners, paid breakfast tables and special expert and media access by arrangement.

To find out how to become part of the Design Public Consortium, please contact CKS team members in New Delhi and Bangalore as below:
New Delhi: Khushboo Hasija | [email protected] | +91 97115 18587
Bangalore: Anand Vijayan | [email protected] | +91 93437 87505

December 2011 | Published by Center for Knowledge Societies
Jamuna Ramakrishna
Jamuna Ramakrishna (HIVOS) in conversation with Dilini Wijeweera (Lirneasia)

Participants from the audience

Participants from the audience contribute to the  discussion on policies and programs for innovation
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