There’s a saying in English: “Necessity is the mother of invention” – but this has always struck me as incomplete. Necessity is also the mother of innovation, i.e. a novelty that generates a profit or something of value for a community, as in a social innovation. What follows is the story of our drive for community engagement and nudge therapy, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Around early March 2020, I started getting the same questions from my international students in Maastricht and my NGO team back in India, who are mostly home-schooled and living in a coastal village. “What’s all this with the coronavirus? Why should we practise social distancing?” The number of queries betrayed a near universal confusion. So the question was: should we do something or not?
Maria Tomai, one of my PhD fellows in Maastricht, said: “Imagine you see two motorcyclists crash into each other – first you have to signal the accident, second, you have to make sure that the injured do not move and nobody else crashes into them, i.e. you have to protect everybody; and finally, you have to change the system so that there are fewer accidents in the first place. The coronavirus is a bit like that. It’s been signaled, but we now have to deal with those who are sick and ensure more don’t get sick. We must act.” And thus, our team comprising Rita Bakunda, Jairaj Gopalkrishnan, Anurag Kanaujia, Maria Tomai and myself – wrote a simple note on the need to flatten the curve of the pandemic. This was version#1 of our social innovation!
Then the same thing happened again! From the Indian village to the old Dutch city – I heard: “Madam/Professor Ramani – but nobody seems to care!” Another phenomenon noted by innovation scholars had been demonstrated. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink! Science, technology and innovation may provide great solutions, but they’re useless if nobody actually uses them. So we started work on a truly engaging social innovation campaign.
First, we assembled the content. Anurag insisted, “In this post-truth world, our campaign should be based on research, scientific evidence and the rational expectations emerging from these.” We agreed (despite being upset to find out that the dolphins’ ‘return’ to Venice was actually fake news).
“A campaign should also give us hope – this pandemic is aggravating stress, depression and loneliness” pointed out Raja, our NGO senior advisor. So we added all the key elements, took a step back – and swooned with boredom! We needed colour, infographics, and some kind of human touch to make it engaging. To make people care. But when I searched online there was simply no free clipart that resembled people from India, Africa and other developing countries. Simply nothing we could identify with. How were we to create this?
When a firm does not have the knowledge to create an innovation component, it looks to external sources, even the international market to acquire it. This is especially how emerging country firms caught up during the last 50 years in terms of technological capabilities. Likewise, I reached out to Abhishek Mitra from the Kerala State Institute of Design, which I had visited as part of the Cat Chain Project.
Abhishek set to work and quickly shot back: “Madam, you are right! I also could not find appropriate open source clipart – so I made some myself.” And, as you can see, they were brilliant. Abhishek had re-engineered content from Humaaans, an open source site and was going to make his work also open source. “Let me teach the programme to you and you can adapt them any way you want to your campaign,” he offered. Fair enough, but knowledge is useless unless you have absorptive capabilities for learning, and I knew I didn’t! So I pushed Rita and Jay, Bachelor’s students at Maastricht University and interns at our SITE4Society NGO, to learn the programme post-haste – and they managed not only with speed but also great success! Again, through team work, honest feedback loops and trust, an excellent education campaign was created – our very own social innovation!
Next step was localisation (i.e. translating and adapting our content to engage specific audience groups) and building a delivery platform – both very important to innovation diffusion. Indeed, it is well known that the diffusion of product innovations rely on networks and social capital. So we mobilised our combined linguistic capabilities, while drawing on the networks of FIN and SITE4Society to adapt and replicate the education campaign in 15 other languages.
Finally, was it worth it? In terms of cost, we estimate that between the core team and all the volunteers, around 300 to 500 hours of work must have been invested. Benefits were at multiple levels, of different nature and over different geographies.
We all got the warm glow that comes from ‘doing good’ with like-minded people. Rita said poignantly: “I have been told so many times that knowledge empowers. I never understood what that meant till now! By participating in this campaign, I have learnt so much about pandemics, to go back to writing in my mother tongue (Kinyarwanda) and to explain the logic of social distancing to others so that they too can teach it. This is power!”
Most volunteers shared it with their networks and so it trickled out to many regions as well as schools and universities there. Finally, in the FIN village it was printed and shared and read. Indeed, when nine young people working or studying in the Netherlands, UK, Thailand, Hong Kong, Dubai and Malaysia returned home to the village, and were quarantined, our ladies were able to explain why and get them to respect social distancing. Then they began asking us questions such as: “How can we make a mask?” Jairaj did the research, identified what seemed like a good model to build in resource scarce conditions, and now in Kameswaram village, with the help of the local government, masks are being produced and distributed freely to those below the poverty line and for 1.2 cents to others.
Yes, economists have pointed out that the drive to generate a warm glow may be founded in diverse ulterior motives, but I think this spontaneous initiative helped tackle a humanitarian crisis in a war against viruses, by developing a human networked information system! To my eyes, it was definitely worth it.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Pexels / N. Kumar
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