Technological advances in mobile devices and the increasing presence of the Internet have transformed the business of innovation.
Instead of operating within the existing social-political framework using the same incentives and elements that are not producing results, there are people who are asking questions that promise to alter the system and enable large numbers of citizens to participate in — and drive — social change.
While social innovators grow in leaps and bounds, voices are emerging to question the efficacy of the prevalent models.
www.Aarogya.com is the case in point. The comprehensive health portal is a web-based initiative that offers video-testimonials, counsellors and relevant information in the audio-visual format and has a database of 64,000 doctors.
The portal facilitates job fairs and matrimonial services for people with cancer and AIDS, and profits when pharmaceutical companies advertise on it. “Every health service seeker needs a health service provider, and we create a platform for services to surface,” says Anand Shinde, director (operations), Aarogya.
Or take SmsOne, a text-based advertising supported by a local community newsletter to inform residents of local happenings, functional in the States of south India and Maharashtra. SmsOne uses a network of unemployed youth, often school dropouts from rural areas, who send members of identified groups messages on announcements, telephone bill due dates, emergency numbers, health camps, instructions from the police and various other events. “We provide relevant, localised and principally professional messages,” says Ravi Ghate, director, SmsOne.
While these and similar initiatives have achieved considerable success, there is a growing chorus of scepticism. “It's quite fashionable to use the term ‘social innovation' these days,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Professor, IIT-Madras.
“The question in bigger social innovations is from where the money comes and where it goes. Every social innovation needs to have a check on itself.”
Centre for Internet and Security Director Nishant Shah concurs. “Due to funding fashions and international concerns at particular areas, certain individuals or concerns become the highlight of much of the social innovation,” he says.
And how sustainable is an employment model that facilitates earning without having the need to obtain an educational qualification remains to be debated. “Often these projects are so immersed in techno-narratives that they focus on a particular condition without realising that they are part of a complex ecology of circumstances and contexts,” Mr. Shah adds.
Mr. Ghate, however, justifies his venture. “We take only school dropouts who won't go to school any more. A lot of research goes when we choose the people who want to affiliate themselves with us.”
Mr. Shinde points out that since money spent on advertising is yet to reach a sustainable mark, attempts to reach out to rural masses are hampered by lack of funds. Mr. Ghate blames government, media and other organisations that are slow to support social sector business ventures.
As the trend of social innovation catches on, Mr. Shah's opinion seems to remain a relevant scale to analyse the phenomenon. “While the drive for social innovation — for profit or otherwise — is important because it tries to address certain problems, one needs to examine whether the projects are involving the local communities in the shaping of the project rather than creating a framework based on borrowed techno-narratives.”