Addressing the unmet social needs through NEP: fix and redesign the shoe where it pinches


The new education policy requires higher education to: …..

…form the basis for knowledge creation and innovation thereby contributing to a growing national economy. The purpose of quality higher education is, therefore, more than the creation of greater opportunities for individual employment. It represents the key to more vibrant, socially engaged, cooperative communities and a happier, cohesive, cultured, productive, innovative, progressive, and prosperous nation.

…Research in the arts and humanities, along with innovations in the sciences and social sciences, are, therefore, extremely important for the progress and enlightened nature of a nation. ..Research and innovation at educational institutions in India, particularly those that are engaged in higher education, is critical. 

While there is no specific reference to connect the pursuit of excellence and innovation with unmet needs of the society, the concept of community engagement has been referred to at several places in the policy.  The Institutional Development Plan [IDP] is supposed to include innovation in teaching, research, pedagogy, etc., to serve the institution and community.  The community outreach is supposed to be one of the marks of excellence.  I would argue in this note that the clear focus on the 4S model of social connectivity for inclusive innovation may help in achieving the goal of the NEP.   The operational strategy has to be based on four premises of democratisation.  The proposed alternative should be affordable, accessible, accountable and available to every actor in the educational institutions including schools and colleges.  Though our focus is more on higher educational institutions [HEI], the principle will work across the entire spectrum of the educational system.  

The 4S are: Search, Spread, sustain/Celebrate and Sense the unmet needs.  Recently in a class of undergraduate students at one of the leading institutes of excellence, each student was asked to identify one unmet need in and around the family.  Since most students are at home, it was expected that it should not be too difficult for them to do so.  Most students focussed on some temporary problem of everyday life leaving more durable wicked problems as such. Further, they could not try to find the problems of various service providers such as domestic helps, sanitation workers, guards and drivers and other service providers like newspaper vendors, etc.  The problem of casual workers who came for repairs often using archaic tools also remained unnoticed.  The moral of the story is that teachers will have to make extra efforts in sensitising the students as to how to define their proximal and distant environments.  How to define the communities with which our life is linked with in one or the other way.  What are the values which make us feel responsible for, and accountable towards those who live around us even if not directly connecting to us.  Unless we consider somebody as a part of our community, we may not treat them as a part of a sentient being.  For instance, the birds, squirrels, other animals, etc.  The students have to recognise that both human and non-human sentient beings constitute an inalienable part of our community.  Having understood that an inclusive society evolves through such connections made across various cognitive boundaries, the young mind may start sensing their unmet needs.   For instance, a group of students were asked as, in how many cases did their mothers eat the last after feeding the warm food to the rest of the family.   How many of them tried to feed their mothers warm food.  Along with Prof. B Chakravarthy of Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay, we asked the students to make Rotis for a week so that they would understand the design issue in the height, inclined versus horizontal planes, hook for holding the rolling pin and other characteristics of rolling plates and pins.  Not only gender sensitivity will increase, but also gender division will decrease. The design of everyday tools used in the kitchen may also undergo modifications, reducing drudgery, increasing the safety, comfort and productivity.  Similarly, the students need to identify the ergonomic and other design defects in the way they perform various chores in and around our home by ourselves or other service providers.  The problems of farmworkers, sanitation workers (who may not have been trained and provided tools for handling covid19 based waste from our residential communities), domestic help, tribal communities  etc., need notice.. 

Identifying unmet needs is also one of the goals of Shodhyatra pursued in summer, winter and autumn with the students but also other learner volunteers.  We try to learn from four teachers viz., the teacher within, among peers, in nature and among common people.  The identification of unmet needs can be a powerful driver of innovation across disciplines, domain and dimensions of a problem.  Our students at IIMA had gone to the valley of flowers as a part of Shodhyatra course in 2010.  On the way back, we met the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and present Education Minister and shared some of the learnings.  For instance, all along the way, there was hardly any product made by local communities, packaged and branded by them sold in local shops..  Even the juice of Rhododendronflowers with numerous nutritional and medicinal properties was sold in empty bottles of some other drink at that time.  In the recent years, a few brands have come up selling this product but none at a scale at which people drink a soft drink in the region.  Similarly, there was no app which will tell the shodhyatris  at different marked points about local floral and faunal biodiversity or an app with the database of the sound of birds and their preferred habitats which young learners can use to educate themselves. The students also did not come across the use of hydram for generating power from the fast-flowing river alongside.  There were no centres of driftwood design alongside the river bank which outside travellers could buy and feel inspired.  Despite such a rich biodiversity hotspot, students didn’t get a chance to buy local herbal tea and other products.  Every unmet need can be a trigger to future innovation, action research and deeper investigation. Every educational institution must encourage students to undertake walking courses/shodhyatras and look at the society they are supposed to serve from their vantage point of view.    The search and spread of innovations will help young minds and their teachers constantly discover the creativity at grassroots as well as innovations from and for grassroots.  To sustain the innovation culture, it is important to celebrate the spirit by inviting innovators to the classrooms.  The Former President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee used to inaugurate the National Innovation Club and an exhibition of local innovations whenever he visited any central university for convocation or otherwise.  If every Educational Minister in the state and the centre would also do likewise, the accountability and responsibility will increase enormously.  Outstanding efforts in scouting the solutions for and from grassroots can be recognised at district, state and central level on Independence Day and Republic Day.  In a conference of 300 village panchayat leaders held at IIMA in collaboration with Gujarat Government  a long time ago, it was proposed that on 15 August every village or community should recognise the outstanding achievers men, women and children in any domain of life.  On 26 January, they should recognise the outstanding achievers from other communities.  The culture of recognising outstanding innovators within and outside the community will transform the national mood and meaning of how a creative and inclusive society can be evolved. 

The operational strategy for inventorying the unmet needs of all sectors and at all levels will transform the innovation agenda.  The unmet needs can also be identified from the passengers in the train journey or  long-distance bus journey or through the post office.   The much-neglected postman is one of the most sincere grassroots workers can become a national scout for local innovations in mapping local unmet needs for all the 650,000 villages.  This process can be updated every year in the lean season when people have less work in the farm and are willing to talk to the postman/postwomen.  On one hand, students, millions of them will work on the 4S model and to have redundancy and independent feedback, postmen and postwomen will also be involved.  The scientists and technologists can deliver DIY [Do It Yourself] solutions through this network.  Every district planning and development committee should have a standing committee on science, technology, innovation and excellence to review the action to be taken for promoting the innovations and for solving the wicked problems.  The District Innovation Fund needs to be completely redesigned for the purpose.  Each village panchayat should also have a similar committee at the village level.    We have to use new pedagogies, new methods, new mechanisms for operationalizing the lofty goals of NEP.   While the wearer knows where the shoe pinches, we have to be the cobbler who will not only fix the shoe but also design the better ones by doing away with the pain and structural design defect of earlier models.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place