January 2016 | Philip Chacko

In search of that creative edge

Innovation in technology and solutions is crucial in the Tata Trusts quest to enhance the reach and execution of its programmes

Innovation and social enterprises, the new rubric in the Tata Trusts portfolio of philanthropic endeavours, is the standout indicator of the change in tack that will define the course the institution takes in the years ahead. This thematic nomenclature is also a sign of the broadening of vision at the Trusts, an expansion of the canvas it works on and the impact it expects to make.

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The refreshed approach of the Trusts puts the pursuit of innovation high on the agenda in the quest for breakthrough technologies in the social development sphere. And it places a premium on providing social entrepreneurs access to capital, markets, talent and services, and the means to attain success in conventional and unconventional ways.

“This has happened due to the altered approach of the Trusts in the last couple of years,” says Ganesh Neelam, who anchors the theme. “There were innovations in our programmes earlier, too, but there was limited attention given to innovations happening in the wider social development environment. We felt it was important to create a small group for this purpose, to learn about and source innovations that are relevant to the different fields we are involved with.”

Mr Neelam and his colleagues have the responsibility of scouting for innovative technologies that can bring path-breaking advances, and it requires people dedicated to the task for goals to be realised. “The Trusts’ teams on the ground are engrossed in implementation,” explains Mr Neelam. “Our role is to search for and pinpoint technologies that can be of use to them.”

There is a bunch of different areas that are under the scanner. In ‘open source pharma’, the idea is to seek out affordable innovations that can help the developing world confront public health challenges — malaria and tuberculosis, for instance — that mainstream pharmaceutical companies are inclined to ignore.

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The Trust has supported the setting up of the Open Source Foundation, a first of its kind, to help develop solutions and therapies to tackle diseases of the poor. Perhaps the most striking of the initiatives under the innovation theme, the Foundation aims to enable the finding of drugs and treatment protocols through crowd-sourced, computer-driver discovery; collaborative research that costs comparatively little, clinical trials with open data; and the manufacture of generics.

In promoting social entrepreneurs, the thrust is on meeting the challenges faced by the Trusts in the field: identifying enterprises that can address the scaling up issue; supporting investments in research as well as for piloting and testing products and services; and ground-level backing and linkages with the community. Social value and the revenue model are of equal importance in the conceptualisation of programmes in the space.

The clean cooking project that the Trusts run in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan is a fine example of how this works. Women federations have been tapped in these states to identify and seed individual entrepreneurs, who are supplied with expertise, products, finances and supply-chain help to make a living while serving a cause.

The ‘connected learning initiative’ — targeted to reach 1,000 schools in four states over a two-year period — blends well-designed curricula and technology to improve the education prospects of high school students from underserved sections of society.

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The ‘India nutrition initiative’, perhaps the most ambitious intervention by the Trusts, is concerned with reducing the rampant malnutrition in the country and advancing food security. The plan is to do this through sustainable nutrition strategies and partnerships with government agencies, businesses, academia and other philanthropic organisations, both in India and abroad.

Technology as an aid in securing government services is the focus of the partnership the Tata Trusts has forged with Prodea Systems, to better connect the people of Rajasthan to services delivered by the state and non-government organisations, in health, education, agriculture, banking and entrepreneurship.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Mr Neelam and his team are pursuing innovations already out there that can be applied to the Indian context. The positives are plentiful for Mr Neelam and his band of innovation explorers. After all, scalability and sustainability are critical factors with the programmes that the Tata Trusts undertakes, and innovation can be invaluable in ensuring both.

Getting inventive
Driven by technology, the innovation and social entrepreneurship theme at the Tata Trusts takes in a varied set of programmes in different social development spheres.

  • The ‘open source pharma’ initiative seeks out affordable innovations that can help the developing world confront public health challenges such as malaria and tuberculosis.
  • Social value and the revenue model are of equal importance in the social entrepreneurship space. Entrepreneurs are provided access to capital, markets, talent and services.
  • The ‘connected learning initiative’ blends well-designed curricula and technology to improve the education prospects of high school students. The target is to reach 1,000 schools in four states over a two-year period.
  • The ‘India nutrition initiative’ is aimed at reducing the rampant malnutrition in the country and advancing food security.

This article is part of the cover story about the Tata Trusts featured in the January 2016 issue of Tata Review:
Philanthropy fine-tuned
The Tata Trusts has — through integration, use of technology, advocacy, partnerships and more — set course for a renewal aimed at deepening the impact of its numerous charity endeavours
Read the complete articles, and more, in Tata Review
'The Tata Trusts will have to keep renewing itself'
Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Trusts, talks about the trusts' evolving philanthropic approach, future growth and priority issues facing India
A flavoured solution
A unique public-private partnership involving the Tata Trusts has ensured that thousands of tribal schoolchildren enjoy wholesome meals
Food way forward
Tackling malnutrition in India is a pressing need, and one of the focus areas for the Tata Trusts
Net gains are cooking
The clean cooking and internet awareness programmes that the Tata Trusts runs with its partners in Gujarat are a reflection of the organisation's intent and impact
Schooled for uplift
A spread of education centres in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are enjoying a renaissance thanks to a project undertaken with the support of the Tata Trusts
Equity and excellence
Linking the Tata Trusts' initiatives in the education sector to improving the overall quality of life of the community has worked to the advantage of beneficiaries
Harvesting hopes, reaping rewards
A Tata Trusts initiative in the interiors of Maharashtra is providing succour to thousands of poor farmers, who have been encouraged to shift away from the traditional and grow more profitable crops
Rural riches
The rural livelihoods and communities portfolio of the Tata Trusts targets poverty reduction through a host of measures
Building the future, brick by brick
Backing from the Tata Trusts has enabled thousands of migrant workers, especially in Gujarat, to secure better working conditions, find financial security and transform their lives
An urban variant of a rural malaise
The Tata Trusts trained its spotlight on urban poverty and livelihoods as an issue that required focused intervention at a time when most philanthropic agencies were focusing on rural poverty
Going against the flow
Water is considered an elixir in the high ranges of Uttarakhand, and the help rendered by the Tata Trusts and its partners in delivering it has changed lives and fortunes
Mission maximum
The Tata Water Mission has been calibrated to make the most of the social development capabilities residing in the Tata Trusts
Rhythm reloaded
A project in Kutch in Gujarat is, with a push from the Tata Trusts, working to revitalise the folk music tradition of the region by creating new opportunities for musicians practicing the craft
A canvas widened
The media, arts and culture theme of the Tata Trusts concentrates attention of conserving India's civilizational heritage and those who embody it