Does Innovation amount to Impatient Optimism?

The Gates Foundation is slowly growing into a powerful global force driving innovation around the world. Its health and developmental agendas have gradually be revised and realigned into a framework that increasingly blends improving the world with doing new things in order to be able to improve the world. Their motto, impatient optimism, seems to capture that sense of purpose and vision rather well.

Here at CKS we’ve been working closely with the Gates Foundation since 2009, when we began ethnographic research and design activities in Bihar around vaccine delivery services. The Foundation is a sponsor of our upcoming Design Public Conclave and we’ll have several of their key personnel at the event as well.

I sat down yesterday to talk with Ashok Alexander, the Country Head of the Gates Foundation in India. He talked to me about the need for immersive engagement, intimacy, understanding, between those who are trying to do good and those one is trying to help. In the case of Avahan, for instance, the Gates-supported HIV-AIDS program, Ashok said that learning about sex-workers and their lives, livelihoods, challenges and threats was all critical for designing the intervention. That kind of approach, and the learnings that came from understanding how to prevent violence against women in urban environments, turned out to have surprising impacts on how the Foundation was able to think about maternal and child health in rural areas, including in the state of Bihar.

Ashok Alexander will be speaking at the Design Public Conclave on how to better imagine India as an innovation society. He’s got the kind of engaged, critical and visionary perspective that we need to institutionalize in new ways to actually transform ourselves into an innovation society.

Effective Technology in Education Innovation

Khan Academy, which began in 2004 as a small collection of youtube tutorials by Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard, has become a library of free educational videos that has has earned the recognition and support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. With over 3,000 mini lectures in 15 subjects, mostly in sciences, technology, and math, Khan Academy’s mission of “providing a free world class education to anyone, anywhere,” is reaching across the globe, from rural Asia to classrooms in America, and is transforming the paradigm of education with a de-centralized, student-centered approach to learning.

At KhanAcademy.org, video lectures are simple, the only audio being Khan’s voice and the only visual a colorful virtual whiteboard. They are also short, each lesson about fifteen minutes long, despite covering subjects in diverse fields levels K-12. However, Khan has found that he simplicity lends accessibility. In an interview with 60 minutes he said, “I’ve got a lot of feedback from people who say it feels like I’m sitting next to them and we’re looking at the paper together…I think that’s what people like, the humanity of it.” In addition, the website also offers practice exercises and peer-to-peer tutorials, and software to track one’s own progress.
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One Size Doesn’t Fit All: An Interview with Ekta Ohri

By Ayesha Vemuri

Ekta Ohri, the Head of Project Operations at CKS, recently attended a workshop organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in Seattle. I spoke with Ekta about her experience there, and wanted to share some excerpts from our conversation.

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Ekta: The workshop was a four-day event organized by the Gates Foundation because they want to develop an integrated ICT platform in Bihar for all their grantees. They wanted to discuss how to set up the platform, what its component pieces would need to be, and for the grantees to come to a common understanding in order to work together to develop, deploy and manage the platform. My role – and CKS’s role – in this workshop was to bring in the knowledge around developing effective solutions for improving maternal and child healthcare in Bihar, acquired in the process of working on other Gates Foundation initiatives.

Ayesha: What did you learn by being at this workshop? Is there any one insight that really struck you?

Ekta: It was very interesting, naturally, to meet with the different participants and to learn about their different initiatives in Bihar. But I guess that one lesson to take away from the entire experience is that user-centered approach to innovation is really necessary for creating solutions that create an impact on ground.

For instance, it was discussed that to register beneficiaries into the health system one also needs to map their cultural background (religion, caste) besides recording other vitals. But on the other hand, I knew from the extensive shadowing of health workers we’ve done as part of ethnographic processes in the past in Bihar, that while Hindu workers do face resistance from Muslim communities, areas that are very remote or hard to reach tend to be more excluded as workers consciously avoid visiting such areas. Hence, it would be more useful for the registration tool to take both geography and terrain into account in addition to the cultural background of beneficiaries.

Also we learnt while conducting ethnographic research in Bihar that all the different frontline health workers have different roles, different motivation levels and varying literacy and knowledge levels. Therefore, a single service or application – or even a single type of mobile device – may not be appropriate or valuable for all. Many ASHAs, for instance, have only completed primary school, whereas ANMs may have studied until 12th grade. So if you give them all JAVA enabled mobile phones to support applications designed as job aids, for example, ASHAs may not benefit at all because they may not be able to effectively use the applications.

Ayesha: So I guess one size doesn’t fit all, and that’s where ethnography is really useful – to really investigate and understand what different people need…so that you can design solutions that really do cater to their needs.

Ekta: Yes, absolutely, and that’s where our work – and the work of organizations like CKS – can really add value. In order to design more effective solutions, the first step would be to conduct this kind of in-depth ethnographic research and analysis.

After this, the next very challenging step is to convince the government of the value of that solution. Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is a sensible leader who has shown himself to be passionate and committed to developing the state. So to convince him of the value of a solution, that inherent value must be very apparent. Again, ethnographic research ensures that the solutions are based on the real needs of the people, and have been developed after much research and thought. Ultimately, the whole process may appear to take longer, but in fact it increases the efficacy of solutions creating a more lasting impact on the ground.