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A pre-incubator for social innovation

Anil Sharma
Head, TCS Foundation Initiative - Digital Impact Square (DISQ)

TCS enables scaling of innovation within the enterprise and in society. In addition to incubating high-impact new businesses, setting up innovation labs for select clients, and establishing governance processes for realizing innovation, TCS has been spurring social entrepreneurship.

This essay is about the Digital Impact Square(DISQ) initiative, begun in 2016 and now supported by the TCS Foundation. DISQ operates from the Indian city of Nashik, Maharashtra. It aspires to create change-makers, powerful agents who in turn will engender the progress essential for the betterment of society.

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DISQ’s mission is to encourage social innovation using digital technologies to address the needs of citizens. By encouraging a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship, DISQ aspires to create change-makers, powerful agents who in turn engender the progress essential for the betterment of society.

DISQ was founded in Nashik within a robust ecosystem that was created through the active participation of academia, the city’s local administration, and the community at large. Close collaboration amongst the participants through a series of innovation camps and build-a-thons led to the birth of DISQ. With the local government playing a key role, DISQ produced remarkable solutions to as many as 15 crucial problems faced by Nashik in its first year.

DISQ’s modus operandi is open in nature. Mentors from TCS bring together university students and young entrepreneurs from all over the country to form multidisciplinary teams so as to to bounce ideas off each other. Structured as a platform, DISQ offers innovators the opportunity to launch their innovations in a mass market, with successful teams retaining their intellectual property (IP). With a focus on social innovation, DISQ develops solutions that are tuned to the needs of the user.

DISQ innovations are categorized into seven application areas: 

  • Health and hygiene

  • Education and skills

  • Financial and personal security

  • Energy, water, and environment

  • Food and agriculture,

  • Housing and transportation

  • Citizen empowerment and transparency

How DISQ Works

DISQ’s incubation process has four phases – Spot, Probe, Grow, and Scale – each with its own stringent elimination criteria. In the Spot phase, DISQ selects teams with proven capability in developing innovative engineering-based solutions that have the potential to raise the quality of life of a significant mass market. Candidates tender detailed applications at the DISQ website (www.digitalimpactsquare.com), pitching their ideas to a panel of domain and technology experts and stakeholders from academia, industry, government, and civil society. The panel sifts through the applications to gauge the potential of ideas, team member profiles, project experience, and professionalism. With regard to students, passion to solve complex societal challenges, entrepreneurial bent of mind are considered as part of the evaluation process. Apart from final year projects, technical and core skills are also assessed.

The teams selected comprise 19- to 27-year-old final-year students of Master’s or Bachelor’s degrees, early-stage start-ups, and budding entrepreneurs. Students hail from the engineering, management, mathematics, statistics, liberal arts, commerce, medicine, design, and architecture streams, are multidisciplinary, and are expected to work collaboratively.

Next comes the Probe phase. During this phase, each idea is developed into a working prototype at DISQ in 6 months, with teams working full-time for 6-12 months, designing, developing, and testing the prototype at the innovation center. Teams are trained to take a human centric design approach to enable designing solution for successful adoption. The teams have access to field-tested research curated by academia and businesses as well as to mentors and experts in the relevant fields who help test their solution locally. From here on, all teams in each phase are guided by TCS’ innovation coaches, design leads, ecosystem mentors, experts, and enablers.

In the Grow phase, the prototype is production-tested. Once it demonstrates business potential, the Scale phase is reached, wherein TCS connects the teams to strategic partners and investors, to help the product attain marketability and real-world viability.

Grown and Scaled

So far, over 300 innovators from 70 cities have worked in DISQ labs. Of them, more than 45 have formed start-ups, with six teams moving to Scale and four to Grow, covering a user/customer base of over 8,00,000 between them.

Vesatogo. One of DISQ’s showcase solutions is Vesatogo, an app-based system for marginal farmers to transport their harvests at the highest profits to markets of their choice. Vesatogo connects all upstream echelons in the agriculture supply chain – farmer, transporter, wholesaler, and the processing unit. Procurement agencies – farmer producer organizations, traders, and processing units – log their demand on the app. Their requirement is visible to all farmers and triggers producer-procurer bidding. Based on the information, farmers close deals with the next echelon. Additionally, Vesatogo aggregates transport vehicles and tracks all shipping particulars. This allows farmers who use the app to select the best transporter to ship their produce to the wholesaler or processing unit.

Third I. This solution has helped the 9000-strong Nashik police department anticipate and prevent crimes faster and improved their responsiveness toward the general public through informed and intelligent decision-making. Third I is a real-time, centralized data assessment and visualization solution. It’s a Scale-level solution.

Kibo xs: Trestle Lab’s Kibo (Japanese for “hope”) is a device that reads out printed, handwritten, and digital text for people with visual impairment and learning and intellectual disabilities. Kibo requires the user to merely place the desired text on a pad approximately a foot from a table lamp-like device; and the software instantly reads aloud the text at normal speed. The current version of Kibo is enabled for English and nine Indian languages, including Hindi. Now, Kibo users can dispense with bulky Braille texts which are hard to come by. It is also the reason behind a 50 percent dropout rate among blind people in pursuing college education.

What makes DISQ tick? It could be the inventor’s thrill or perhaps the maker’s jubilation. It could be the team member’s joy, a user’s relief, or even the facilitator’s satisfaction. We like to think it’s all of the above.

Use Case

GG Talk – GappaGoshti®

2015 was the watershed year. Over three days that year, during August-September, 30 million people visited Nashik, a city which then had a population of over 2 million. The reason? The Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu festival that came once every 12 years to the city, during which pilgrims gathered en masse for a holy dip in the River Godavari, around which Nashik had grown.

Crowd management during the Kumbh Mela had historically been a nightmare for the Nashik municipal administration. Every Kumbh Mela before 2015 had seen thousands of pilgrims going missing; a few dying.

But, that year onwards, history would not repeat itself.

Eighteen months before the 2015 Kumbh festival, the Boston, MA-based MIT Media Lab, Nashik’s civic administration, and some corporate business houses organized “Kumbhathon,” a hackathon in which 800 students, entrepreneurs, and start-ups collaborated to develop 12 social media innovations. TCS was the technology mentor for the initiative.

Thanks to GGTalk – GappaGoshti®, a home grown, TCS patented social collaboration platform,roving volunteers on the ground posted real-time photos, videos, and audio messages, including updates, alerting a central control room to emergencies and hazards related to crowds, traffic, missing persons, sanitation and hygiene, and parking. All ground-up communication was hashtagged for efficient categorization and action. Using location heat maps, trend analyses, issue recurrences, and impact assessments, the control room, in turn, collated the live feeds and furnished situation reports to the top-level civic authorities – the State Kumbh Administration, the Nashik Municipal Commissioner, the Divisional Commissioner, the District Collector, and the Police Commissioner – who then mustered and deployed rapid-action task forces to defuse the crises.

The result: zero deaths, no stampedes, zero epidemics, and no missing persons at end of day.

Kumbhathon’s overwhelming success proved that technology-led social innovations developed by young talent is a demonstration of how India’s heart beats for the commoner.

With inputs from — Sanjay Kimbahune - Pankaj Doke

Further reading:

https://brailleworks.com/braille-literacy-statistics/

https://nashik.com/kumbhamela-2015-16/

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