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New concepts for the new normal

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on February 11, 2021

Seize the moment: The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered innumerable grassroots and inclusive innovations the world over   -  ISTOCK.COM

Along with supplies to last a lockdown, people came up with ideas for the way forward — from contactless beds to interactive soaps to encourage hand hygiene among children. A global competition became the platform for such inclusive innovations. A report

* While it was in late 2019 that UNDP launched its Accelerator Lab in India to speed up the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, GIAN has long been associated with the UNDP Innovation Lab for managing inclusive innovation and solutions for social transformation the world over

* Over 2,500 entries from 87 countries — including the Philippines, Ecuador, Iraq and India — were screened by academic researchers and practitioners at the primary stage followed by an expert jury review

* The interactive soap isn’t the only idea that has transitioned from local to global. Some ideas that germinated in the education sector, too, had takers beyond borders to prevent disruption to learning

* The advantage of these grassroots ideas and inclusive innovations is that they work in all contexts and cultures

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“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.” That is what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French aviator and author of The Little Prince, had once said.

Along similar lines a bed ceased to be a simple bed when Ashok Kumar Aasrani from Jaipur contemplated it with the idea of isolation to ensure social distancing. A detachable transparent enclosure with a window that can be mounted on a patient’s bed ensures that the patient is attended to with minimum contact.

Safety net: Jaipur’s Ashok Kumar Aasrani designed a patient bed with a detachable transparent enclosure and a window   -  HBNCRIIA & GIAN

 

“Ever since the pandemic broke out, I noticed medical staff were scared and reluctant to go near patients,” recalls the 33-year-old innovator, who is employed as a clerk in a government agency but also dabbles in furniture design. “That is when I thought of making such a bed to facilitate hazardless interaction between a patient and health workers.” Aasrani’s name also features in the Limca Book of Records, Golden Book of World Records and the India Book of Records for creating a kerosene lantern with 12 mm x 23 mm dimensions. He also won the first prize from National Innovation Foundation for developing multiple physiotherapy devices in 2010.

The cost of Aasrani’s patient bed is around ₹10,000 and while two have been purchased by an NGO in Jaipur, he is awaiting a response from the department of science and technology (under the Union ministry of science and technology) to make this scalable.

The contactless bed is among the innumerable grassroots and inclusive innovations that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered the world over. As the virus attacked — apart from the human respiratory system — jobs, education and lifestyles, people across continents scrambled to adjust to sweeping changes. Along with supplies required to survive lockdowns, people also realised the need for products and facilities that are in sync with the ‘new normal’.

“It is a question of survival,” emphasises Rex Lor, head of solutions mapping, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Philippines Accelerator Lab. “At a virtual international seminar we organised towards the end of 2020, we observed that the quality and depth of innovative ideas had accelerated; there was a spike in marginalised people’s ability to find a solution.”

There is merit in what Lor highlights. The Honey Bee Network Creativity & Inclusive Innovation Awards — the first-ever international annual competition jointly organised by Honey Bee Network and Global Initiatives of Academic Networks (GIAN) — corroborates what Lor outlined. The awards, announced in December, seek to give global recognition to innovations from the grassroots and for the grassroots, and address unmet social and environmental needs.

The timing couldn’t have been more apt.

While it was in late 2019 that UNDP launched its Accelerator Lab in India to speed up the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, GIAN has long been associated with the UNDP Innovation Lab for managing inclusive innovation and solutions for social transformation the world over. “Our association with UNDP provided us with access to a wider global database of ideas and at the end of 2020, we decided to organise this competition for promoting cross pollination of ideas,” says Padma Shri recipient Anil Gupta, visiting faculty, IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Bombay, and founder of Honey Bee Network that works for the cause of creative communities and grassroots innovation.

Over 2,500 entries from 87 countries — including the Philippines, Ecuador, Iraq and India — were screened by academic researchers and practitioners at the primary stage. This was followed by an expert jury review comprising academicians and scientists from the world over — from IIT Delhi and Bombay, and IIM Ahmedabad to MIT, Boston, and from the University of Oxford to the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture.

Cross-pollination of ideas is already in the offing. During these Covid-19 times, the makerspace launched in Iraq by Field Ready, a group of non-governmental, non-profit organisations with partners worldwide, developed an interactive soap to ensure hygiene. The soap contains a toy inside to motivate children to wash their hands thoroughly with it to get to the toy. The soaps are produced locally, and the toys are manufactured using the 3D printing mechanism. “We’d like to replicate this idea — both simple and cost-effective — in the Philippines, especially in the slums and informal sectors, as getting children to wash their hands is a challenge. If we can tie up with an FMCG company to make the soap, this can be implemented easily,” Lor says.

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The interactive soap isn’t the only idea that has transitioned from local to global. Some ideas that germinated in the education sector, too, had takers beyond borders to prevent disruption to learning.

Balaji Jadhav, assistant teacher at ZP Primary School Vijaynagar in the Satara district of Maharashtra, came up with the idea of teaching children of Std II to Std V over conference calls. “Eighty per cent of the parents of children in my school, which is in a fairly remote area, are farmers or labourers with no smartphones or access to the internet.” So since April last year, Jadhav started doing conference calls, and used a storytelling format to teach. “I began to narrate stories in different subjects such as geography and history in the morning. In the evening I would ask the children to narrate the same story. That way it helped develop their listening and speaking skills,” Jadhav tells BLink.

Dial a lesson: Balaji Jadhav, a primary school teacher in Maharashtra, came up with the idea of teaching children through stories narrated over conference calls   -  HBNCRIIA & GIAN

 

Thereafter he asked the children to write down the stories narrated on the phone call. “I would then go around to each student’s house to correct what he/she has written and that way they developed their writing skills.” As the school gets CSR funding, Jadhav has now purchased tabs for his students, and has taught them to record these stories to facilitate knowledge sharing. “Listening, speaking, writing and recording — I have been able to develop all these skills in my students. I had thereafter participated in a virtual conference where I had elaborated on this concept. Some teachers emailed to thank me for this idea and mentioned that they, too, were implementing this storytelling concept in their own schools,” he says. At present, this model has been replicated not only in 20 districts of Maharashtra and other states but also in Melbourne and Tokyo.

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The advantage of these grassroots ideas and inclusive innovations is that they work in all contexts and cultures. Take for instance the Pisonet, an innovation by a group of computer technicians in Quiapo, one of the oldest commercial centres in Manila. It attempts to democratise the internet, make it affordable for those without smartphones, computers and access to the internet. Referring to the innovators, Lor underlines, “When we look closely enough and allow ourselves to embrace the possibilities, we realise that innovation, like magic, is everywhere. Our job is to identify these, develop capacity and connect them to relevant stakeholder groups.”

Pisonets — made by assembling old cannibalised computer parts, CRT/ LCD monitor, a digital coin slot and timer — are stand-alone internet kiosks that can be operated by inserting Php1.00 coins in exchange for 5 minutes of internet use. In a shared economy, this solution can benefit millions in remote locations for whom internet connectivity is a huge challenge, and who do not otherwise have access to a computer or the internet. “In a vast country such as India, if we can promote such decentralised internet cafés, they can work wonders for schoolgoing children and the youth, and contribute towards making Digital India a reality,” Gupta says.

Another entry that won an award also reveals how passion and commitment can help achieve wonders. This was an innovative idea that took root in Shankheswar town, Gujarat. “Few people in this region have cellphones or a net connection,” says Ashok Dave, principal, PC Prajapati High School, Shankheswar. “Our school is close to the (local) cable network office. In a conversation one day, I discovered it was easy to do a live telecast with the help of a cameraman, using the local channel that is used to communicate instructions and notices to subscribers. So we converted the cable network room into a studio and our teachers came in to do live telecasts. We provided a timetable in advance, so the series ran smoothly,” says Dave. Three hundred and fifty teachers delivered lectures on cable network, with free services provided by operators covering schools of 70 villages and 20,000 children of the Shankheshwar block.

Screen time: In Gujarat’s Shankheshwar, 350 teachers delivered lectures on cable network that reached schools of 70 villages and 20,000 children   -  HBNCRIIA & GIAN

 

This innovative teaching method has set a precedent worth emulating elsewhere.

“We have already shared these ideas with Accelerator Labs all over the world so as to ensure that we can connect the innovators and provide them with an enabling ecosystem,” says Anamika Dey, CEO of GIAN. “Some of these are do-it-yourself, but for others we need to leverage country partners to help scale up and build capacity. While GIAN has a micro venture innovation fund owing to its partnership with the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI), we’d be happy if people feel inspired to copy, replicate or invest in some of these inclusive innovative solutions.”

That is worth contemplation. After all, inclusive innovation is about ordinary people doing ordinary things but extraordinarily well.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent researcher and works for a professional services firm

Published on February 11, 2021

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