Getting in the Gaps – Reflections from Ashoka OneSolution

Last weekend, after a long hiatus from conventions and gatherings, I attended the Ashoka OneSolution event in Gurgaon. I am especially grateful to the Ashoka team for inviting me, because while it is always pleasant to meet people dealing with challenges similar to the ones we face at हैकरgram, this event was particularly special. The level of empathy and resonance I found at this event was quite unprecedented. I’m using this space to capture some reflections, primarily for the purpose of revisiting later to review.

Changing views on organizational structure and funding

Since हैकरgram is not a registered entity, does not pursue institutional funding and works purely through self sustaining volunteer members, we have always found ourselves somewhat peripheral to the global development sector. At the OneSolution event, I found many people both from the Ashoka fellow network as well as other organizations who seem to be coming around to the same view as us, that institutional grant funding is something to be treated with caution and used in moderation. More and more groups, organizations and individuals are seeking sustainability through value creation and trade, which resonates strongly with the principle of social equity exchange that we have been following and promoting. Where in the past I have had to turn away people interested in writing large scale, high intensity funding oriented proposals, this time I was able to identify many opportunities for low intensity, long term, value based collaborations that show promise of adding to long term sustainability for multiple participants.

Acceptance for the “disappointingly simple” solution

Shortly after leaving the United States and entering the world of Indian non profits, I spent a substantial amount of time evangelizing the notion that “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” and that simple, open source, free tools and processes are of far more benefit than monolithic, single-purpose platforms commissioned for the purpose of specific development projects. At that time, technology typically represented 30-40% of a development proposal budget (anecdotal, no statistical research done). We were recommending spends of 10% or less on technology as a rule. This made us quite unpopular as technologists, because it often ended up making the other parts of the budget look excessive.

I was therefore very pleasantly surprised when in our pre-panel discussion my panel lead, Anand Arkalgud of Socion mentioned the need for “disappointingly simple” solutions. Coming from a veteran scale and impact coach, this was serious validation that our vision has not been misplaced! Even during the session, most participants responded positively to some of the most simple and basic concepts rather than visions of grandeur through technology.

One of the questions during the session was, “How do we effect behavior change through technology?”. My answer probably fell in the category of “disappointingly simple” from the technological perspective and “pseudoscience” from the perspective of the “hard technologists”. However as we teach in our Digital Self Defense course at हैकरgram, information (and consequently its security or lack thereof) influences human behavior only through what is described as the “Ashta Paash” or “Eight Nooses” in the Kularnava Tantra (Ullasa XIII, Verse 90) –
Hate, Doubt, Fear, Shame, Disgust, [attachment to] Community, Wellbeing and Species
(घृणा, शंका, भयं, लज्जा, जुगुप्सा, कुल, शील एवं जाति)

Systems that successfully enable positive leverage of these “leashes” or determinants of behavior are the ones that are most successful in causing behavior change.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see the positive response to this statement, particularly from senior attendees, many of whom have had years of experience before I was even born! I look forward to engaging with many of the attendees on enabling such solutions!

Acknowledgement and acceptance of the “hacker” way

Whenever I tell people that I am a hacker and that I train other hackers, there is always a sense of apprehension. This is shortly followed by the question “Ethical, I hope?”. My usual response is that if you wouldn’t ask a doctor if they are an “ethical doctor”, why would you ask a hacker if they are an “ethical hacker”. Hacking like any other activity is ethics neutral. The person engaging in it is ethical or unethical!
At the OneSolution gathering what was most touching was the number of people who came forward to share either their own experience as hackers as well as the number of people (particularly mothers and grandmothers) who came forward to share their own experiences with young hackers in their families and communities. While I wait for the introductions to these young hackers, I’d like to share this for other people out there who have hackers in their communities and don’t know what to do with them –

Hackers are often misunderstood and feared for no tangible reason. One of the areas that हैकरgram works on is creating a broader conversation around hacking than the one limited to digital security and other technology.
I truly believe that hackers and the hackish approach to thinking can help solve some of the biggest concerns facing us today, primarily in the area of behavior change.
The “infiltrate and subvert” approach, generally associated with breaching computer networks is just as applicable to engineering sustainable behavior change in communities. Whether the behavior change is directed towards more consumerism or towards a positive social outcome is determined by the ethics of the party engineering the change.

The jugaad concepts of Lateral Approach, Medial Applicability and Frugal Utilitarianism (LAMAFU) are as applicable to finding local solutions to chronic problems as they are to building hackish technological solutions to digital concerns.
In fact, I learned one of the most important lessons about hacking from someone who is would not normally be associated with hacking or even technology. At a SRUTI gathering in Mangaon in 2012, I heard Ulka Mahajan ji of the Sarvahara Jan Andolan share this mantra for social change – “No system is monolithic! Every system has gaps. [To change a system] Get in the gaps!”

Through the connections enabled by the OneSolution event, I look forward to enabling a LOT more “getting in the gaps”!


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