[Podcast] Solutions Cast | Episode 1: Trends and disruptions in time of COVID-19

Solutions Cast is a podcast series hosted by Innovation-AccLab Pakistan. In this series, we explore conversations on the disruptive impact of COVID-19, and also highlight local innovation and solution that are accelerated by the crisis.

In our first episode we go deeper into the current trends and disruptions that COVID has brought in Pakistan. Has experimentation increased? Is there a focus on a circular economy? What are some of futuristic trends? With the UNDP Innovation-AccLab team Pakistan we explore these questions. 

[00:00] Tabindah Anwar: Welcome to Solutions Cast; a podcast series hosted by Innovation-Acc Lab Pakistan. COVID-19 has brought drastic changes in our global and local systems. While there are setbacks, we’re also seeing acceleration in digitalisation and local innovation. In this series, we want to understand the disruptive impact of COVID-19, and also talk about the local innovation and solutions that the crisis has catalysed. 

In our first episode we go deeper into the current trends and disruptions that COVID has brought in Pakistan. Has experimentation increased? Is there a focus on a circular economy? What are some of futuristic trends? With the Innovation-AccLab team we explore these questions.

With me I have Beenisch Tahir, Head of Innovation AccLab and Exploration Lead; Javeria Masood, Head of Solutions Mapping, and Ehsan Gul, Head of Experimentation.

And I’m your host Tabindah Anwar.

Welcome to the podcast!

[01:14] Tabindah Anwar: Javeria we’ll start with you, you wrote a blog that presents a systematic scan of current to futuristic trends; from the lens of a designer, what are some of the emerging trends we’re seeing, in space of work, urbanization, and the way our health care system is designed?

[01:30] Javeria Masood: so essentially the lens of a designer is that you’re curious of people, and patterns and behavior, and there is a strong bias towards solutions. So whenever you look at anything, by default, just your brain is wired to identify gaps, and places where you can intervene and identify a way forward. So at the very beginning of COVID we did a systematic scan to identify what are some of the emerging signals of disruption. Few things, I mean a lot emerges right, so maybe I can talk about two to three things?

One thing that is very evident to notice is hyper-localization; at multiple scales. You see that at macro national scale where import and export has largely been affected, because transportation can cause a lot of transmission of the virus so that had to be halted. Similarly, you know you’re now confined because of social distancing, you’re confined to just your neighborhood. So that has largely given way to a lot of local industries and local store owners and retail to get a lot of benefit from it. And I think the same trend will continue in terms of production. We’re seeing that there are products and resources that we did not have internally. And we’re now seeing that we’re not self-sustained in that way. So that kind of pushes us to re-evaluate and reignite things.

And then another thing that is very interesting and exciting to notice is the experimentation. Because COVID came out of no-where, so there was no readiness and preparedness for it. Industries and government, and generally people everyone had to make quick decisions. So large organisations had to decide, literally, overnight, to change their work modalities. So that’s an experiment within itself. So organisations started experimenting with different work modalities. They had to change their work plans for the entire year, experimentation under this uncertainty.

We’re seeing health care systems experimenting a lot of with tele-medicine, with distant consulting. Government has been very quick in some of the responses. You will see that there is new emphasis on social welfare, there is new emphasis on creating models of support; whether that is through micro-loans or micro-financing or employing people through the Green Stimulus Programme. So you see that essentially if you follow the cycle of policy or change, it’s very slow. And in this case because there was no time, and because of large accountability aspect, so people are very quick to pivot their things. So government would try something, and it didn’t work, so the next day they would change it in a different way. So this experimentation lens is very interesting, and I hope that it retains itself.

A third thing I would like to point out is behavior. So people are generally super adaptive, so whatever comes our way, we have a fight or flight response. But in this case, as Pakistani society, we’re largely conformed by our social structures, what our social pressures are, what people around us are saying. So now even when we’re not meeting our family so often, it’s kind of strange to see some quality time interaction expanding, and some interactions completely becoming non-existent. So it would be interesting to see whether these things leave a long-term footprint; will this change the way that we interact with each other? And COVID has in a lot of ways acted as a disruptive element. And if we wanted innovation in an organization, and adaptability, COVID just came in a kind of took care of that. In the same way we’re seeing a huge scope of future of work, we’re seeing our health care systems being much more adaptive, and much more resilient. And priority in terms of policy is being shifted.

[06:56] Tabindah Anwar: Definitely, I agree. COVID has created a scope for future of work. Thank you Javeria!

We’re seeing an increasing trend of digitization in the government, in Pakistan. An example being the tele-health portal that maps and provides employment opportunities to people.

Beenisch, my question to you is, does this increasing trends of digitization in public sector mean that we’re well on our path to have an inclusive innovation policy for start-ups?

[07:25] Beenisch Tahir: So I think it’s really important to place this question within its context. So, pre-COVID —and all of our discussions will always be pre-COVID— and now post-COVID, yes we’re seeing increasing digitization. We see it in the Ehsass Programme; the emergency relief Programme for the most vulnerable, we see tele-health, something that is actually taking over world over. I saw an app for citizens to use in Islamabad for various government services. So there are a lot of those attempts taking place.

There was already an effort from the Government, for the last five years or so to develop and enhance the ecosystem for digitization of services. There was, just before last year at the end of November, we had the Digital Pakistan Launch. Again this was very intentional policy to drive tech-solutions. We also had the ignite Fund, where they had funded many start-ups, using tech specifically, and also incorporating the SDGs. And then we have had the National Incubation Centers, where the ecosystem of startups, largely developing solutions around tech were there. So we already had the ecosystem building. And it’s great that that work was already being done, and that the government had already understood what a start-up is and what they can potentially do.

Now post-COVID, I’m not sure what are the next steps, in-terms of making inclusive innovation policies, because the same issues as before remain. It is still hard to set-up a start-up, there is still no understanding of what a social enterprise is. Now with COVID, there is even more emphasis for a circular economy. Which means you need sustainable businesses, being sustainable and creating a business that has very little waste, is already sort of taking up the social enterprise space. So how is the government going to create a regulatory system; a policy system for these start-ups to scale eventually? It’s still heavy, that needs to loosen up. Maybe it will, after what the start-up ecosystem has done. But I also want to expand on what inclusive innovation can mean. It’s not only just digital technology. It is also embracing the local solutions coming up from communities.  There might be lead-user innovations, people who have suffered, for example from a health issue, and they have created their own solutions out of it. Or in a rural community, there might be a local juggards (solutions) they are coming up with. So we also have to expand what we mean by inclusive innovation; it’s not just the techie startups, there are broader innovations happening across the country. That can be included in policy as a solutions. And it might be more inclusive in that way, and more effective to do it in that way. So I think the hope is that after the government is having to be very experimental, working rapidly with new innovative solutions, that this understanding of being innovative becomes mainstream, and it’s just the way we now do work, and we continue to find more and more innovative solutions to come into policy making. And that policy making is not just the few experts sitting at the table, but that we continue to have platforms like Digital Pakistan, NIC, and more, to bring local solutions together.

[12:30] Tabindah Anwar: Yes, I agree. There is broader innovation happening in the country, and there is hope that local innovation becomes part of policy as solutions. And I also see the emphasis globally for a circular economy.

Ehsan, as an experimenter, what has been some of the interesting ways of finding local solutions from the innovation ecosystem?

[12:50] Ehsan Gul: Thank you, I will echo what Javeria and Beenisch said that yes it’s a vibrant and disruptive time where COVID has played a role. But I would also say that the power of community has really come forward. Yes, we already had an identified innovation community, of the government itself was thinking of ways through Digital Pakistan, or other ways they wanted to mobilize the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We can right now see the sense and solidarity of the community coming together and giving spaces to people to think differently. For instance, the moment when we saw that ventilators were of need for COVID patients, we saw Facebook groups, open sourced documents that people were sharing, engineers coming forward, investors coming forward, even medical technologist coming forward, and there was this sense of community of people coming together. Similarly, there was this need and all the innovation ecosystem was like how do we get to the nuggets of local solutions of how people are thinking differently. And one technique was you saw multiple National level, and Provincial level Hackathons happening, one supported by the Ministry of Health and National Incubation Center. UNDP also supported that hackathon. Other than that, we did one on disaster risk reduction with Disaster Risk Management Authorities. So there were multiple of these, and few we don’t even know about. That’s the beauty of the process, where you let go; rather than the government deciding which solution would work, give the power to the community, let it go granular. Let it go at grassroots level. And we saw all these ideas coming forward.

One such example I saw is “MyUrran”, it’s this qamati (savings) system. For people who are listening from the global audience, it’s like a savings method that is quite popular locally. And in “MyUrran”, it’s a digital savings system, just to help people who are suffering from COVID. It was smart, and the line they had written on their Instagram ‘We’re prototyping’— I loved it! As an experimenter I jumped and said I need to talk to these people! I don’t know if those people have studied innovation, or experimentation? Maybe they are just people who realize that there is a need for a local solution to a real pertinent problem. The biggest pain right now is economic and financial inclusivity of these people. I got a call yesterday from a friend, she works in one of the partner organization of UNDP, and she said we’re working with women entrepreneurs, and women marginalized groups, and they have come to realize that they have been pushed and moved more into vulnerabilities because of COVID. And one of the bigger learning question for them right now to explore is; how to make them digitally and financially inclusive?

And she said it’s the infrastructure and the system that is not helping us to come up with the right ideas; but who is in the system? So you kind of see these germs of human centered design or systematic thinking or you name it. People are thinking that way, they might not even know, but then COVID has made them realize that there is much more than one linear solution; and it’s a system together with which we need to rethink. And I feel that, yes, the ecosystem has somehow sprouted a little of those seeds right now where grass-root and local innovation is coming forward. So, yeah, COVID definitely is a disrupter in a positive way for the innovation community! 

[17:50] Tabindah Anwar: yes, COVID is definitely a disrupter in a positive way for the innovation ecosystem! Thank you for your time, Beenisch, Javeria and Ehsan. It was great having you on the show.

To our listeners, thank you for listening, this is Solutions Cast, hosted by Innovation-AccLab Pakistan! Watch our space for more!