Incubating the Revolution

by Aditya Dev Sood

This is new dispatch from the frontlines of Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi. Links to earlier dispatches appear at the end of this stand-alone piece.

Aap guysOn Saturday we went to see Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party take his oath of office as Chief Minister of the state of Delhi. We rode the metro out to Ramlila Maidan, Delhi’s traditional center for agitations and large public ceremonies. I was with Namit Arora and Usha Alexander, also sometime correspondents of 3QD, along with another friend of theirs, Pran Kurup, who had had a role in the online campaign. It was a bright winter’s day and a festive scene at the maidan, where volunteers were giving out stickers, banners and those trademark hats which we also put on. Kejriwal spoke about inclusion and participation and about his plans of making Delhi a city free from corruption. If anyone asks you for a bribe, he began smiling at his trademark line, never say no, setting kar dena, put your phone recorder on and record the official demanding a bribe. And then report him to us so we can begin disciplinary action.

Waving from the stageThe holacratic revolution is taking so many shapes and forms all over the world, whereby new services, new forms of decision making, new kinds of patterns of interaction and financial flow are coming about. This is its first and most memorable articulation in India. No complex audio-visual equipment, no CCTV required, just a record function already included in just about every smart and feature phone on the market and in the pocket of every second citizen of Delhi. The extortionary optic of the state is suddenly subverted, power is distributed everywhere and to everyone with the means to participate in the network. It is a powerful and true instantiation of the change the Aam Aadmi Party wants to bring about, but it is surely only the very first and initial step. And yet, the solution envisioned by Kejriwal to report such incidences of citizen extortion, a hotline number, seems in no way related to the much higher sophistication of a digital recorder situated on mobile OS. Shouldn’t that digital just go into an app somehow, time and location stamped, with some metadata concerning the identity of the officer being reported on? Shouldn’t this be the very first app that this administration puts into production?

These were my preoccupations, at any rate, as I headed back to campus for our Saturday afternoon session with our startup cohort. I’d asked the group needing more time and attention to come in early, while the startups at the head of the pack came in later. After some collective presentations we broke out into three groups huddled together to address their go to market strategies. I asked each of them to think about the feedback they’d received and whether there was someone in the cohort or in the mentor network who might actually possess the resources or skills they were looking for. Subir said he’d like to connect with Raj further, who had skills around data analytics and platform growth. Ishita said she’d like to connect with Anurag who seemed quite on the ball in terms of hiring and managing android developers. I suggested to Dipesh that he might connect with Ishita and Rashmi around customer engagement, outbound marketing and Google Adwords. Our own internal team at Startup Tunnel decided they wanted to speak to both Raj and Ishita on ways of growing audience. It was an interesting moment, for the boundaries between our nine startup teams had temporarily dissolved, and one could see here a significant concentration of complementary talent which could have been reorganized and directed to a great many number of different kinds of challenges, including, for instance, the challenge of using mobile social media to create a better self-organizing city.

The question of how to use innovation and technology to create better citizen experiences has preoccupied me for a while now. Last year, I worked with Namrata Mehta to plan a public convening on this question, for which we’d looked at some innovative ways in which big data was being used to improve civic services. Social Cops, for instance, is an angel-funded startup that first came up with the idea of citizen social reporting of infrastructure or service fails. There are many challenges for them to still overcome, but if they’re successful in using data analytics to partner with different government agencies we might yet see a new threshold of accountability and monitoring in how civic agencies acquit their responsibilities. In a related vein, we documented the social enterprise NextDrop, which has built an innovative kind of service model based on citizens texting back to their servers whenever their locality doesn’t have enough water running through their pipes. The company feeds this information to linesmen directly working for the city’s water supply, who in fact are working the pipes either blind or through a legacy regimen, and they then redirect water through the city in ways that makes the texting stop.

We also discovered that despite relatively low standard of municipal services delivery, India had claimed an astounding tenth place in the global open data index, which now tracks ninety-seven participating nations. This means that there is already a mechanism in place to render government data public and open. We also learned that the officers in charge of were eager and interested to partner with the startup scene, and were actually looking for the right kinds of partners to mediate and host this ecosystem for them. And conversely, there is a new kind of energy in urban India to volunteer time and expertise towards rethinking and rebuilding civic infrastructure, not least through the efforts of the anonymous activist group The Ugly Indian, which hosts flash-mob-style clean up parties in the public spaces of different towns and cities all across the country.

It’s really only from the perspective of actually running an incubator that one can see a way to address these needs in a new way. We’re already able to bring together young and committed talent that has the capability to work together in complementary ways. What’s required is for us also to be able to focus that talent on challenges that will really have impact in this social market. One of the ways one might do that is by running a weekend hackathon, for instance. We tried this last year in partnership with Startup Weekend, a global network with a large chapter in Delhi. We had some seventy wannapreneurs and developers in our space, who reorganized themselves into some seven teams to pitch different product and business ideas related to challenges of governance. More recently, Khosla Labs had hosted a similar hackathon related to the Aadhar number, India’s national identity program, out of which some 36 actionable ideas apparently emerged, some of which are now attracting venture funding. And beyond hosting these kinds of hookup and meetup events, perhaps there’s a role for us in merely publicizing the fact that we would like to work with entrepreneurs who are themselves committed to addressing civic challenges through their business and product ideas. That kind of signaling can have a transformative power on the market dynamic over time, creating a channel or funnel for civic entrepreneurship where none exists today. In the early period of this transformation, moreover, we might need to partner with more patient capital or donor funding to support future civic entrepreneurs through a grant funding model while they develop the understandings and insights required for them to arrive at a growth model that can attract private capital.

Even though the Aam Aadmi Party’s public messaging is still focused on the issue of citizen extortion, the grape vine suggests that they’re now thinking about water, sanitation, power, transportation and a host of other more complex areas of citizen services delivery. Yesterday, Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that he would devote himself to finding systemic governance and technology solutions to Delhi’s problems. Now that smartphones are widely distributed in the urban landscape, we might see citizen reporting of infrastructure failures, for instance, like the lack of running water or flooding in the city, or of domestic violence, or confirmations of new babies born needing vaccination, or perhaps citizen participation in the delivery of those services in the form of flash mobbed volunteer action. An entire new class of mobile apps could emerge — civicapps, if you will. With this dizzying plethora of possibilities, the challenge is to figure out how we can best enable these changes to come about.

That weird sense of anomie I was feeling at the end of a heady day that began at Ramlila Maidan had to do with the already existing co-presence of all the different kinds of intellectual assets and resources that one might need to bring about tremendous change. At issue was only the prospect of recombining that talent, directing it towards the real challenges of our times and bringing together the right model with the right members of an implementing team. This cannot be done through old forms of agitation, legislation, command or control. It requires a more subtle and recombinant approach to needs identification and solutions development. This is ultimately the work we do at Startup Tunnel. I’m beginning to see that we can and must use the social technology of incubation to address civic and governance challenges, working if we can with this new and hopeful government installed in Delhi.

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This is a new dispatch from the frontlines of Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi. Check out dispatches 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.