From labs to local: How global innovation is building local resilience in South Asia
Sipu-Naya Basti is a village in Uttarakhand in India, too high and remote for roads and internet but often the first stop for heavy rains and cloud bursts. In this Himalayan hamlet, Sameera, an industrious homemaker, and a mother of two has been living life between lockdowns (COVID-19) and landslides. Until recently.
Sameera, and scores of other women gathered around a computer, recorder, and a transmitter, and with a click, they connected with 15 signal-dark villages—that had no cellular or internet connectivity—through a community Wi-Fi radio, locally known as Rang Radio (color in Hindi).
Rang Radio is used to transmit timely early-warnings to the villages, to help them prepare and respond to weather events and other disruptions—be it the incessant rainfall and landslides last year or even public service information like COVID-19 vaccination.
This low cost, low-tech connectivity solution is the brainchild of Girish Vedanthi, the founder of Pragathi Foundation. The radio waves create a local mesh network that generate a WiFi hotspot with a 100 meters radius. The solar powered radio can record messages and amplify extremely faint internet signals to connect remote areas to the outside world. It even supports livelihoods for the locals. A village cafeteria has been set up where new voices assemble and contribute to the radio.
Girish’s immensely scalable, easily deployable solution is one among the 10 winners of the World Bank Group’s TechEmerge Resilience India Challenge—a US$1 million global initiative to crowdsource and deploy technology solutions to prepare, respond, and increase resilience to climate impacts and disasters amidst constraints like remoteness (signal dark), data, and resource deficiency.
It also provided scalability to deploy solutions at low costs in other states and countries facing similar challenges. Solutions were chosen from global innovators across 40 countries after a multi-stage user-centric process. The team worked in close partnership with India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and state DMAs, right from developing a user-defined needs assessment to live demos, matchmaking of innovators and users, and user-evaluated winners.
Besides Girish’s WiFi radio, other innovations included an AI-based flood forecasting system, drones and autonomous crafts to help with real-time flood rescue in remote areas, and an AI-based earthquake early warning system in Uttarakhand.
The program, which was implemented over two years, had some valuable lessons on utilizing crowdsourcing innovation model that can help other parts of South Asia and similar contexts. A few of them include:
Technology comes last
Some solutions had to deal with lack of enabling regulations, data deficiency, or local incapacity than gaps in the technology itself. Hence, even before thinking tech, thoroughly assess the needs, institutional capacity, enabling infrastructure and regulations, future operations and maintenance resources, and availability of local partners.
Clear and real problem statements, customized solutions
The journey from labs to local needs user-customization. No innovation can address the challenge if the needs and constraints are not clearly defined. The team interacted with all stakeholders to gather on-the-ground needs, and to ensure that the local context is not missed. Based on this, ready-to-deploy products were identified and customized, local partners were assigned so the governments did not need to risk untested off-the-shelf products.
Financing and follow-up
Grants can support deployment of pilots and de-risk failure. But scale-up requires user/government commitment of financial and human resources. Hence, we encouraged state governments to utilize some of their own budgets to scale the pilots. But solutions themselves need to be cost-effective so that they can be rapidly scaled up in low-middle-income contexts. Fiduciary due diligence is also critical to draw the most legitimate solution providers.
Partnership is key
It is important to create an innovation ecosystem to close the loop, from ideation-to-impact. For that, user-centric engagement, and incredible partnerships with the ‘users’—in this case the NDMA, and state DMAs from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh—was important. We ensured that the solutions reflected the real needs on the ground, and there was local deployment support. While the IFC gave us the robust innovation crowdsourcing methodology of the TechEmerge Program, our partnership with the technology industry— the Consumer Technology Association (United States), IBM, and India’s NASSCOM— helped the Challenge reach thousands of global innovators and tap into India’s own massive startup ecosystem. The regional implementing agency the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, ensured that on-ground deployments went smoothly.
Innovation-accelerating initiatives like TechEmerge Resilience Challenge can help governments globally to leverage best-fit, low-risk, customized, and scalable solutions to rapidly prepare, respond, and adapt to extreme events and disasters that continue to grow more frequent and intense. Since TechEmerge Resilience Challenge, a number of other sectors, institutions and countries, particularly in South Asia have launched similar initiatives.
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