Transforming noble ideas into novel solutions

Opinion

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The beacon of development often conjures up images of radical innovations, disruptive models and leapfrog technologies. And yet, as nations attempt to embrace the promises of development, there is often a colossal failure of both imagination and execution in providing for even the most basic of human needs. Measurable social change, ensuring a degree of social equity and fundamental provisions, is critical in securing any significant socio-economic transformation. Pervasive deprivations and glaring inequities create a corrosive burden on our societies — violating our sensibilities and fomenting adversity.

This makes the decision of the CRISP (Chevening Rolls-Royce Science and Innovation Program) scholars to set up CRISP Social Ventures India (“CSVI”) all the more heartening. In addition to the CRISP cohort, the venture draws upon the collaborative energies of a range of professors and institutions such as the UK Business Council and the British High Commission in India. To catalyse social innovation initiatives, CSVI extends mentoring to help grow ventures with manifest social impact and incubates innovative ideas that can address critical social needs. With the overarching ambition of promoting substantive social development in India, CSVI aims to develop a wide range of sectors to benefit marginalized communities in tangible ways.

CRISP, supported by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Rolls-Royce, is a custom executive education program for high-flying mid-career Indian professionals on the cusp of transition towards top leadership positions. With a customized 11-week-long approach developed by Said Business School, University of Oxford, the CRISP program each year draws a group of exceptional professionals. The eclectic group usually has an even mix of government officials, public and private sector employees, academicians and entrepreneurs. During their tenure of intense immersion in the corridors of the University of Oxford, the exceptional participants explore innovation and science policy from an academic, practical and personal perspective.

The thought-provoking learning environment, along with fruitful idea exchanges, aligns the energies and socially sensitized inclinations of the CRISP scholars. Through CSVI, the CRISP scholars seek to marshal resources and galvanize actions to transform the social landscape. Realizing that the highway of economic growth and social advance cannot skirt the imperatives of ensuring basic social amenities and pragmatic, sustainable solutions at scale, CSVI is currently supporting two projects: Powerhouse and Toilet Run.

Powerhouse aspires to bring together a collaborative team of architects, engineers, renewable energy experts, policy-makers and financiers to help conceive, develop and deliver a holistic, modular housing solution for the poor in India. The overarching goal is that these “net positive” homes, which create more energy than they consume, will also function as an economic development engine by selling excess energy back to the grid. The consequent income can help pay for part of mortgages taken to buy the homes.

On the other hand, Toilet Run is an app that crowdsources locations and conditions of public toilets in India to help address public health issues. Today, access to information about where toilets are located is quite a challenge due to the lack of resources and awareness. Using mobile as a medium, the app will help find clean available toilets, alleviating a major health problem and inconvenience. The project is attempting to blend innovative data gathering strategies and international best practices in delivering a readily deployable solution.

Clearly, the scale of challenges that the CRISP scholars have taken upon their shoulders requires navigating multiple terrains, institutions, political equations and prevailing social codes. However, the "Chevening" qualities — ambition, drive and leadership potential, a commitment to change and organizational development, and a talent for innovation and creativity — primed by the learning and support of the CRISP program, equip them to successfully execute upon their ambitions.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Pankaj Upadhyay, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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