Thinking big

As someone who worked in the social impact sector, I believed that impact should be measured in millions. I came to MIT because I wanted to truly understand scale, and to explore the intersection between technological and impact innovation. After engaging with the Emerging Worlds initiative, I now believe that we must push the boundaries of innovation, and aspire to impact billions of lives.   

In January, I traveled to India with a team of MIT scientists as part of the Emerging Worlds’ biannual trip. I was awarded a grant from MIT India and MIT International Science & Technology Initiatives (MISTI) to take part in this experience. Emerging Worlds is an MIT Media Lab initiative that has set up innovation hubs in Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Nashik to use technology to address issues across various sectors, including food and agriculture, financial inclusion, health and wellness, and housing and transportation. Emerging Worlds is unique because it is all about bottom-up innovation. The ecosystem collectively determines what the problem is, and how to go about solving it.

During the Emerging Worlds’ trip, our team connected with government officials in New Delhi, brainstormed with corporate supporters in Mumbai, and mentored young innovators in Nashik. Here are some highlights and insights from my experience:

Emil Kuruvilla works with entrepreneurs to learn about their solutions and business plans. 

Emil Kuruvilla works with entrepreneurs to learn about their solutions and business plans. 

Nilay Kulkarni with an early Ashioto prototype, deployed at Kumbh Mela.

Nilay Kulkarni with an early Ashioto prototype, deployed at Kumbh Mela.

Redefining Entrepreneurship

While at Digital Impact Square (DISQ) in Nashik  (one of the innovation hubs), I met with and mentored innovators. These innovators are focused on researching and really understanding the problem, and developing the best technology to alleviate it. They are bright young engineers and commerce graduates with many opportunities to take jobs at some of India’s top corporations. Instead, they choose to develop technologies that could one day transform the world.

Because the stakeholders, beneficiaries, users and other experts are part of the problem definition process, as well as the solution design, the innovators know that if they create a breakthrough technology, the ecosystem will provide support and scale. It is inspiring to see them unconcerned about venture capital or valuation. Typically, the daunting (as well as thrilling) part of entrepreneurship is the risk-taking element. Emerging Worlds essentially has taken that part out of the early stages of the process.

SPOT PROBE process well-suited to create greatest impact

During the trip, it was an honor to connect with Dr. Ramesh Raskar, the founder of the Camera Culture Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, and the visionary and architect for Emerging Worlds. He talked about how innovation models, used in places such as Silicon Valley, really don’t work for the developing world. He believes strongly that innovation and impact are very different from startup and venture models.

The Emerging Worlds model and approach (see image above) is unique. In the traditional sense, entrepreneurship usually starts with a person and his/her idea. In the case of Emerging Worlds, it's the community that comes together to determine what the problem is. Once the problem is identified, innovators step in and co-innovate with various stakeholders throughout the whole process. My work with the Deshpande Foundation, American India Foundation (AIF), and now with Emerging Worlds, has reinforced the notion that change must happen from the bottom-up. Moving forward, I hope the rest of the development sector will embrace this type of approach.

More than ever, India needs more entrepreneurs, especially on the impact side. I think the Emerging Worlds’ model will encourage more young people in India to look at impact innovation as a viable career option.

Leveraging human capital

While technology is a powerful tool, it alone will not solve some of the world’s biggest problems. One of the core tenets of Emerging Worlds is that the ecosystem must leverage human capital. Throughout the whole innovation process, government officials, community members, beneficiaries, and corporations all take part.

The Tata Consultancy Service (TCS) Foundation, the primary sponsor of DISQ, not only provides funding, but also spends a significant amount of time connecting with the Emerging Worlds’ program team and innovators. It is very apparent that the TCS team is just as passionate about solving these large-scale problems as the innovators. During this visit, I spent a whole day with senior TCS leaders in Mumbai. In my career, I have seen corporations write big checks, but rarely have I seen them deploy their top-level talent to work on the ground. With Emerging Worlds, everyone feels like they have skin in the game. I believe this dynamic has the potential to create big outcomes.  

Billions is the new metric

One in nine people still go to bed hungry. Just 8 people now have the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. The lowest-paid workers in the most precarious conditions are predominantly women and girls. These are all clearly daunting statistics. If we don’t think big, these problems will continue to persist.

Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, one of India’s most respected scientists and a friend of the Emerging Worlds initiative, said, “India is at the tipping point. Its potential impact is enormous. We are talking about over 1.25 billion. You make an impact on 25,000, it means nothing.” The success metric for Emerging Worlds is in the billions. As the effort expands across India and beyond, I hope it will inspire government officials, innovators, and the corporate world to think just as big.

My next steps

Now that I’m back in Cambridge, I have joined the Emerging Worlds’ Leadership Council and will be helping the team think about and improve its programmatic efforts in India. We all can play a role in this amazing initiative. If you are passionate about technological and impact innovation, then I strongly urge you to engage with Emerging Worlds. It will no doubt take a global ecosystem to impact billions of lives. Click here to get involved.

Emil Kuruvilla is an MBA Candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Prior to joining Sloan, he worked for innovative impact organizations, including the American India Foundation (AIF) and the Deshpande Foundation. While with the Deshpande Foundation, Emil headed marketing efforts for the organization’s entrepreneurship centers in India and the U.S.

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