How platform know-how can drive social inclusion and empower billions

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sanjay Purohit, Chief Curator, Societal Platforms, EkStep Foundation & François Bonnici, Director Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Head Social Innovation, World Economic Forum


  • E-commerce giants have revolutionised the way we buy goods and services by allowing third parties to sell through their digital platforms.
  • COVID-19 is driving further inequality, pushing millions more into poverty and further from access to education, health and economic participation.
  • Social innovators are building societal platforms as shared public goods with open digital infrastructure that allows a plurality of approaches on a common backbone to promote inclusion and agency at scale

COVID-19 put 1.6 billion children out of school globally, in addition to 250 million who already did not have access to education systems.

How do we extend resources and services to the millions of children – in rural schools and in families without access to technologies – who have been disproportionately excluded in these times?

To address these problems in the most affected communities around the world and bridge inequalities in access in areas such as education, health and livelihoods, we need to think at the same scale as the challenges – and move with urgency. One innovative way to achieve impact at scale is to learn from the digital technology platforms that are reshaping our economies and societies.

E-commerce giants like Amazon, eBay, Uber and Airbnb have revolutionised the way we buy goods and services by allowing third parties to sell through their digital platforms. India’s Aadhaar, the world’s largest digital identity system, has enrolled more than 1.2 billion residents and the country’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) system is now transacting $60 billion a month. Crucially, these platforms have moved at both scale and speed.

Social innovators, such as those awarded by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, have recognised that we now have the opportunity to apply this approach more broadly by using digital architecture to build a new generation of societal platforms to address social challenges.

In this case, instead of designing systems that are focused on retaining customer attention and maximising sales – the cornerstone of the e-commerce model – these platforms will restore agency among those facing systemic and structural barriers of exclusion and the millions living in poverty across small farms, remote classrooms, rural clinics and beyond.

Why we need societal platforms

The need to leverage a methodology likesocietal platform to scale up development efforts has never been greater. The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out decades of progress, setting back previous advances in areas such as lifting people out of poverty, getting more children in school and improving conditions for women. As a result, there has been a regression in nearly all the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since the beginning of 2020. This is a dangerous moment.

According to the World Bank, more than 40% of the world’s population – some 3.3 billion people – are estimated to live at or below the poverty line on less than $5.5 a day. Due to COVID, hundreds of millions more have been added to this tally.

The impact of COVID-19 on global poverty
The impact of COVID-19 on global poverty Image: World Bank

The world cannot afford to wait for slow, incremental progress to resume once the pandemic is over. It is clear that the traditional approach of replicating individual programmes and solutions in a piecemeal fashion is not going to move the dial sufficiently.

Instead, we need to find exponential ways to elicit change. Carefully constructed societal platforms offer one way to build large-scale ecosystems by design and hence drive rapid and widespread change.

As in e-commerce, societal platforms use a shared digital infrastructure that allows different players to come together along a common backbone to create a network of engagement. The difference, of course, is that the goal is not to build market share or increase return on investment but to improve choice and agency for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. This means that while commercial and societal platforms may share a common heritage, their specific design requirements and intended impact are very different.

Societal Platform vs. Commercial Platform
Societal Platform vs. Commercial Platform

3 examples of societal platforms in action

DIKSHA, India’s national platform for education, provides a glimpse of how this works in practice and what is possible. With 1.5 million schools, 10 million teachers and 200 million schoolchildren spread across different states and often speaking different languages, the Indian education system is crying out for a network that can corral resources.

DIKSHA offers a solution by bringing together multiple public and private organisations on a single platform to supply teachers with training content, in-class resources and assessment aids. They can access this information on their smartphones, tablets and other devices at any time.

In health, Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) does something equally impactful. Using an innovative tele-mentoring model, ECHO facilitates knowledge sharing among healthcare professionals through virtual clinics. This global network now operates across 44 countries and covers more than 160 disease areas.

The ECHO model offers expertise in a range of areas where local doctors may have limited personal experience, such as tuberculosis, cancer, mental and maternal health, viral hepatitis – and now COVID-19. By 2025, the aim is to reach 1 billion people around the world through this networked health programme.

A partnership between two Schwab Foundation Awardees, Neelam Chhibber, Managing Director, Industree, and Prashant Mehra, Chief Architect, Social Inclusion, Mindtree, and Vrutti, a non-profit focused on sustainable livelihoods of small farmers, has resulted in the Platform for Inclusive Entrepreneurship (PIE). This platform operates across a broad front with the aim to help more than 100 million small farmers and artisans in India.

Currently, these producers are little more than providers of cheap labour in the value chain and they receive meagre compensation for their entrepreneurship.

But it does not have to be this way. By connecting them with the right support services via the PIE network, the aim is to aggregate producers into self-owned enterprises, help them build market connections, and access skills and capital.

In all of these cases, intentional methodologies of societal platform design have been central to their success. This design approach extends the current boundaries of leveraging technology to solve societal problems and calls for restoring agency (as in ECHO), orchestrating co-creation between government, civil society and private sector (as in PIE), and leverage a unified and minimalistic architecture that can reach a large population rapidly (as in DIKSHA). The design also needs to foster trust, guard privacy and ensure security of data.

What is the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

The COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship is a coalition of 85 global leaders, hosted by the World Economic Forum. Its mission: Join hands in support of social entrepreneurs everywhere as vital first responders to the pandemic and as pioneers of a green, inclusive economic reality.

Its COVID Social Enterprise Action Agenda, outlines 25 concrete recommendations for key stakeholder groups, including funders and philanthropists, investors, government institutions, support organizations, and corporations. In January of 2021, its members launched its 2021 Roadmap through which its members will roll out an ambitious set of 21 action projects in 10 areas of work. Including corporate access and policy change in support of a social economy.

For more information see the Alliance website or its “impact story” here.

What makes a societal platform fly?

So, what exactly does it take to make a societal platform fly – and what do we need to do to embed the practice across more sectors?

  • Platform pioneers need to practice shared or distributed leadership. The key to success is collaboration and one individual cannot drive the ecosystem.
  • The process must be data-driven and ideologically agnostic.
  • Deep technology skills are required – and these may be difficult to access given the private sector’s ability to pay more.
  • Ownership and governance structure must be sustainable.
  • Societal platforms need to access a pool of patient risk capital, since many of the payoffs will be long-term.

Ticking all these boxes is a big ask. It demands a readiness to address development issues in a new way for the sake of empowering billions of people around the world.

But when it all falls into place, societal platforms can provide a powerful framework within which true multi-stakeholder partnerships can thrive.

Societal Platform is under a Creative Commons BY ND 4.0 International Licencse. © 2021 EkStep Foundation. www.societalplatform.org

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