Centre for Internet & Society

The 6th edition of the Design Public Conclave was hosted by Civic Labs, an initiative of the Center for Knowledge Studies, and part of the Vihara Innovation Network, in partnership with Social Innovation Exchange, Okapi, Business World, Business World for Smart Cities, and the Delhi Jal Board.


This edition of the conclave was focused on the challenges and opportunities faced by Indian cities. It sought to explore new mechanisms for integrating collaborative dialogue and problem solving into processes of government and citizen interaction. Participants included individuals from organisations such as Okapi, Hyderabad Urban Labs, Fields of View, Innovation Academy, Hewlett Packard, LIRNEasia, among others.

The conclave began with a round of light yoga before moving into the introductory session. Namit Arora, a member of the Delhi Dialogue Commission, who gave the opening remarks introduced some of the subjects to be discussed and raised issues of citizen engagement, massive migration, pollution, unplanned growth, housing, water and power shortage, social problems like sectarianism and crime as some of the challenges faced in civic innovation. He stressed the lack of engagement between public and private parties and the issue of having no sense of commons in civic life in India.

What is Civic Innovation?

The first panel titled “What is civic innovation?” comprised Diastika Rahwidiati from Pulse Lab, Pavan Srinath from Takshashila Institution, Sriganesh Lokanathan from LIRNEasia and Aditya Dev Sood from Vihara Innovation Network. Pavan raised questions about how more people can be involved in civic issues, and spoke about the training program for public governance run by the Takshashila Institution as a means towards that. He also shared the example of Bangalore Political Action Committee, a citizen’s collective that includes several eminent personalities from the city that aims to improve the quality of life in the city. The panel continued to discuss how technology can be harnessed for social activism, and how the data revolution and data sciences can be used for civic innovation. Questions were asked about whether digital activism, such as civic hackathons, is not just a passing fad. A lot of solutions that are only technological in nature, can be misinformed, and so it is essential that other actors are involved along with technologists.

The Vision of a Smart City

Next, Sumit D. Chowdhury from the Ministry of Urban Development, Karuna Gopal from Foundation for Futuristic Cities, Parvathi Menon from Innovation Alchemy, Debashish Rao from HP, Bharath Palavalli from Fields of View and Namrata Mehta from CivicLabs spoke about how smart cities can be built. Parvathi Menon kicked off the conversation by saying that while it is impossible to design smart cities, it is possible to design smart communities. Sumit Chowdhury shared some of the factors that, in his opinion, make a smart city—the creation of scalable infrastructure, transparency in governance, velocity of business and quality of life. A city that can measure itself and use that knowledge to improve itself is a true smart city. Bharat Palavalli chimed in that while technology can make cities more efficient, efficiency can be dangerous. It can become easy to forget who the city is becoming more efficient for. Here, Sumit brought up the example of Shivpur in Maharashtra, where there are water meters in every village, public consciousness about planning and services and timely payment of taxes by citizen to drive the point that smart cities are driven by communities, and technology plays a role in enabling processes and the State in institutionalizing successful solutions. Finally, it was pointed out that under the 100 Smart Cities Initiative, the MoUD does not have a consistent understanding of what smart cities should be.

Dialogue between Society and State

This panel was followed by Elizabeth Elson’s keynote talk, “The dialogue between society and the state.” She spoke about the the power struggle between citizens and the government even in the case of technological application about who brings about change. She shared her experiences from the MAMPU programme. She pointed out some issues faced during the programme like too much focus on symptoms without really understanding the underlying causes, the use of intermediaries, creating mutually empowering coalitions. Elizabeth Elson pointed out that the terms, innovation and technology are used interchangeably . She pointed out that this was problematic as all technological solutions were not innovative. Another important issue that she raised was the need for technological intervention make media more accountable to the society. This session was followed by lunch.

Changing Society and Governments

The next session was moderated by Sumadro Chattapadhyay of Centre for Internet and Society. This panel included Garima Agarwal from Ashoka Innovators, Bangalore and Maesy Angelina from MAMPU programme, Jakarta. The session focussed on what were the appropriate modes of dialogues between civil society, private sector and government. Maesy Angelina focussed on design thinking as one of key methodologies for social innovation. Garima Agarwal emphasised on the importance of developing empathy as an institution. The panel said that while civil society and private sector could continue to point out the issues to the government, very often there is a failure of the government apparatus in that they do not know how to respond to these issues.

Civic Tech Demos

After lunch, there was a small session of brief pitches of examples of civic technological innovations. These include Local Circles, Meri Awaaz, SocialCops, On Track Media and BusBud. The issues that the solutions sought to addressed ranged from citizen engagement, awareness about reproductive issues, MNREGA, public transport and parking. I was reminded of the words of Pia Mancini who felt that she had failed in leveraging technology to solve governance issues as those problems were not technological but cultural. Having said that, a number of the ideas and the desire of use technology to solve social problems were laudable and one hopes to see more applications like these in future.

Breakout Sessions

This was followed by three simultaneous breakout sessions on the following topics – 1) Form and Function: Data Protocols for Civic Innovation, 2) Water Management for Improved Urban Health, and 3) Gaming for Decentralized Waste Management. I was part of the group discussing data protocols for civic innovation. Various question were raised with the implications of open data. One of the recurring themes was  the question of ownership of data and who had a rightful claim over it. We broke the discussion down into two heads – risks of data and opportunities for governance and solutions. Among risks, we discussed issues such as privacy risks, chilling effects on free speech, reliability of data, profusion of data without clear insights, social profiling and re-identification of anonymised data. We look at different forms and opportunities for governance including licensing and control, cross linking of data silos, clear guidelines on who controls and owns data. The failure of conventional data protection principles like collection limitation and data minimisation principles were also considered and alternate models which involved having hierarchies of different kinds of data based on potential harm through misuse were discussed. After the breakout sessions, each group made a presentation of their observation.


The final session was on accelerating civic innovation. The panel comprised Kartik Desai from ASHA Impact, Delhi, Nishesh Mehta from Water Co-Lab, Ahmedabad, AIyong Paul Seong from USAID, Delhi, Santosh Singh from World Bank, Delhi and Aditya Dev Sood from Vihara Innovation Network. The discussion was focussed on what kinds of services can have an impact on the way citizens interact with the state. Elizabeth Elson’s keynote on the dialogues between the state and the citizens is also relevant with regard to this discussion. Different actors including citizens, civil society actors, government institutions and industry were discussed as agents who may create the new platforms for interaction. The conclave concluded with dinner and drinks in the lawns of the Vihara Innovation Campus.


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