Searching for the one best solution (Day 5 of Brianna at OASiS)

I was awake at 6, but Anu was not feeling well today so we did not go for our walk. I used the time to do some more writing. I had breakfast with her and her mother a few hours later. Mrs. M. had clipped an article from the Delhi News for me – a travel guide to Toronto! It was a bit surreal to be sitting in their living room reading an article about home.

After my breakfast (macaroni with white sauce, cheese and vegetables; potatoes and another kind of mango – no picture, sorry! I ate it too fast :P ), Piyush picked me up by motorbike and we went to the Ghosh home. Day two on the motorbike was a significant advancement from day one. Able to balance myself without too much effort, I was able to look up and around at the people, dogs, cows and goats milling around (some more purposefully than others).

There, I talked with Pradeep about day two of my attempts to learn with the students. I had been thinking about how to enrich the experience on both sides and suggested that I be treated as an exhibit. We could set up a personal interview of sorts where the children could ask me questions about my life (and eventually I could do the same to them). To my surprise (and I probably shouldn’t have been that surprised), he told me that the students would already be familiar with this format of learning. OASiS runs a camp every year for students from privileged and underprivileged families. The students are all treated equally, wearing the same clothes and doing the same activities. They are also able to have personal interviews with children of the other ‘group’ so that they can gain a better understanding of their lives.

They are also able to have personal interviews with children of the other ‘group’ so that they can gain a better understanding of their lives.

He challenged me to try this interview format without an interpreter. “Language should not be a barrier to learning,” is one of the mottos of the school. Challenge accepted, I guess! I’ll report back once we do it. Another idea we had was that I should try to explain a museum exhibit to the children; one they had not been taught before.

We moved into a conversation about risk. I brought up the tension between sticking with something that ‘works’ and trying something new that could fail. How do you justify the risk that comes with proposing and piloting a potentially innovative idea?

“Have you ever allowed yourself to fail?” he asked me. “Will you ever allow yourself to fail? That is more important.”

Pradeep pointed to the hidden risks that come with sticking with what ‘works’. They can sometimes be more damaging than the apparent risks of trying something new. But then he took the conversation in a direction I was not expecting. “Have you ever allowed yourself to fail?” he asked me. “Will you ever allow yourself to fail? That is more important. There are risks everywhere. Some you can perceive, some you cannot. But when things go badly, if you are headstrong, you can find a workaround. If you treat failure as a learning and not accept it as your fate it will not be your fate.”

If I can be nerdy here (and believe me I can be), I immediately saw a similarity between what Pradeep was advocating and the continual exploring, experimenting and exploiting necessary when working in a complex system (like a community) that is always changing. Approaches need to evolve with the problems. Searching for the one best solution and sticking to it may result in the solution creating larger problems of its own.

“Searching for the one best solution and sticking to it may result in the solution creating larger problems of its own.”

We talked about many other things (and you’ll be able to read more about that later, because part of my internship is to produce a guide to thinking like an OASiS-style social innovator), but I will pull out just one more that I think you will find interesting – the idea that made Pradeep an Ashoka Fellow (international social innovation organization).

The more you spend, the more you will be socially secure.

“Umm, Brianna…”

What’s that? You need more than just a phrase to understand the idea? Yeah, you’re right.

“The more you spend, the more you will be socially secure.”

India does not have a social security system administered by the government. There are insurance agencies, yes, and other institutions like we have in Canada, but there is no system to link them together. Pradeep argued that this difference was why the default mode for Indians is “save” (to cover themselves in case of an emergency) and the default mode for people in the West is “spend”. Yet, in the case of 67% of Indians, who make less than they need to meet their basic needs, saving is not an option. Even if there were a social security system based on taxable income, they would not be able to pay.

Pradeep noticed that the percentage of income spent increases as we travel toward and past the poverty line. I don’t think you’ll fight me on the idea that the poorer are in much more need of social security than the rich. So what he decided to develop was a model where social security was squeezed out of expenditures without increasing expenditures. Sounds impossible? Hear me out.

How much can you save by buying in bulk? “It depends, but sometimes a lot,” you say. Exactly. Pradeep’s idea was to set up a local store in a poorer community, give the ownership of the store over to the locals and let them stock the store with items that the families would normally purchase. These items could be bought in bulk for a lower cost than any one family would get if buying them alone. The items then would be stocked in the store at the “expected” price. What about the “profit” money? That would go into a personal social security account for the family, to be used in emergencies.

The model challenges the either-or relationship between saving and spending and, Pradeep stressed, allows money to change hands more times in its “life cycle” – making the economy more volatile and giving more people the chance to exchange goods and services.

Nearer to the end of our time together that day, I asked a question I had been wanting to ask for a while: “Why are you doing this? Why are you spending all this time with me?”

“I have nothing to lose!” was his answer. “Yes, I have to shuffle around my tasks a bit, but they still get done. And if what I tell you helps you inspire other people to think differently, I will have had more of an impact than if I had just kept working by myself. The more people who become aware possibilities that exist everywhere, the better.”

Fair, I thought. So it was a question of legacy and impact.

Then, he was off to run a class on ethics with some Management students from a local college. He had devised a role-playing game that might induce people into unethical behaviours and was excited to see how it would turn out.

Piyush and I channel surfed, watching Hindi movies (including one about a man-eating tiger) and then it was time for lunch. Shibani, him and I sat down to an awesome meal.

Then, I was off to the museums again. This time, I would be observing a group of volunteers give a presentation to the students and gauging their reactions to different speakers and activities. Before any of this happened, we had a short break. The children took me into the museum of natural history and taught me more animal names. It was a primer for the “real” teaching that would happen on Monday when the school began again.

We filed back outside for the presentation and about fifteen minutes into it, the skies opened. From my dry place under an awning, I watched the fat raindrops smack the cement.

I went back home and had dinner with Anu – we walked to an open air restaurant, ordered dhosas and brought them back to the house to eat. We watched Hindi serials (t.v. shows), including SuperMoms [a dance competition show for dads (“Oh stop being silly, Brianna!” You say. Oh all right, it was for moms)] and braided each others’ hair. And played with puppies.

“Wow, you’re really working hard in India, eh?” You say.

It’s a tough job, but some really lucky person has to do it.

Brianna Smrke, who has been working with the SiG@Waterloo simulation team, is visiting the OaSiS Social Innovations Laboratory in Bhopal, India. She is blogging about her experiences at downwithvowelswhich you can also follow here at socialinnovationsimulation.


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