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Innovation and entrepreneurship do not always go hand-in-hand, especially when one is looking at social innovation. India-born and Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and investor, Guruaj ‘Desh’ Deshpande, tried to do this in India almost a decade earlier, with the starting of Sandbox at Hubballi in Karnataka in 2006. In an interview with Raghu Krishnan and Bibhu Mishra, he talks about the success of that model and why there is a growing need of social innovation in India. Edited excerpts: Taking innovations and problem solving ability to the bottom of the pyramid has been Sandbox’s motto. What has been your learning in the past 10 years? We started the programme with the premise that social innovation is different from the other part of the innovation. There are people with disposable income and those who don’t. Ten years ago, when we started working on social innovation, the intent was to have an impact on that part of the world which is really about relevance plus innovation. Which means you have to co-create the solution with the people who need to build capacity within that community to create the solution. That one area is what we focus on at Sandbox. Why is co-creation so important for social innovation? When smart people try to create solutions for them, it’s very hard because they don’t understand customer problems. You have to co-create the solution with them. The basic difference between a vibrant community and an impoverished one is the attitude of its people. If you look at impoverished communities or organisations, problems become chronic; the dominant culture in any impoverished community is complaining and helplessness. The only way you make an impoverished community into a vibrant one is by converting complainers into problem solvers. The essence of Sandbox is to do that, so they feel in charge. Do the people come up with problems or do you help them in identifying these? You don’t have to identify problems. That’s the fundamental of life.
If you turn people into problem solvers, they’d know the problem better than anybody else. So, all we do is to make them problem solvers. Take our programmes for college students. We have thousands of them, doing something or the other. We’ve just completed a campus which has the ability to house 1,200 boys and 800 girls. They are of the 18-25 years age group. School dropouts or perhaps having completed 10th grade, perhaps pre-university, graduation or even a master’s in subjects like commerce or social welfare. But, the education does not help them to land a job. In our four-month residential programme, we help them have a big shift in their approach, employability.What is your plan to scale up the Sandbox model nationwide? I think the first 10 years would be all about co-creating the solutions, prove that within the community and so on. The way they can scale up and have a little financial impact is either by having a lot of sandboxes – say around 100 in India –or by taking the programmes that come up within the Sandbox to go nationally. Akshaya Patra (the non-government programme to end child hunger), for example; it was not a part of Sandbox but we are a big part of it. So, the theme that we are working on for the next 10 years is, can we bring non-linear thinking to programmes that are proven here, so that we can scale. How about taking the model globally? We took this model to the US, where we have a programme called EforAll or Entrepreneurship for All. Right now, we are around five places and there, too, we are trying to get this non-linear approach in terms of technology, back-end and funding to scale it up. If you look at the US, the ratio of people who have disposable income and those who don’t is around 80:20, as compared to 20:80 in India. But, this 20 per cent still is a large number.