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Collaboration is as much relevant to social innovation as it is for corporate houses for technology innovations. Collaboration, in fact, could provide added advantages with respect to the hidden culture related challenges & budgetary constraints when used for a social cause. In this article by Madhu Mani & Jayesh Badani, you will learn how a consortium of NGOs, Academia and Financial institutions from India, Netherlands and France came together to tap into the power of collaborative innovation.

It is often said that safe sanitation systems formed the last chapter of human development. 1 in every 4 persons in the world does not have access to sanitation. India is a prime illustration where Indian space scientists have put machines on the moon, yet 1 in every 2 persons does not have access to sanitation. Obama in a recent visit said India is not only a rising power but a world power. As many as 600 million people possess mobile phones in India and everyday 638 million people in India resort to open defecation. Indeed, sanitation gets a very low priority not just among the poorer sections of the society, but also with pro-poor politicians, policy makers, scientists and the corporate world.

1 in every 4 persons in the world does not have access to sanitation.

There has been progress, right from the Central Rural Sanitation Programme, which was initiated in 1988 by the Government of India, to the Total Sanitation Campaign launched in the year 1999.  But the adoption rates have still not been up to the expected levels.  Even as the sanitation coverage is improving steadily in India, researchers attached to the FINISH programme, an Indian-Dutch consortium to diffuse 1 million safe toilets in India – noted that all private and public sanitation drives suffer from some common problems.

  1. The quality of constructed toilets is very poor due to budgetary or time constraints and lack of proper control and enforcement.
  2. Lack of clearly defined “standards” for toilet design leading to toilets that end up polluting the environment.
  3. Lack of knowledge of sustainable sanitation models and awareness.
  4. Lack of research into various toilet designs that are most suited for the different ecological terrains in India.

The FINISH ‘Sanitation Challenge Contest’ was a serious attempt to find solutions to these problems. FINISH, which stands for Financial INclusion Improves Sanitation and Health, with other network partners – WASTE, World Toilet Organisation, Ethos India and FIN Society launched an innovation competition to design a innovative sanitation system. The contest was open to all individuals and institutions. Its objective was to arrive at significant, even revolutionary improvements in toilet design and safe disposal system, specifically suited to different climatic, soil, water table conditions, which will ensure sustainable and safe management of the human waste.

Offline collaboration

FINISH called for a 2 days workshop at Ooty, a hill station in south India. The invitees were representatives from 12 NGOs working in sanitation and water areas from various states of India and representatives of sponsors from India, Netherlands and France. The objective of this workshop was NOT to find the solutions, but discuss problems, “only problems”, to make sure they are solving the right problem.

Below quotes were captured from people in villages, while conducting a research around the challenges of sanitation in rural India before the workshop.

“The 3rd toilet was constructed by the NGO even though 2 unused toilets already stand in the same house.” (This tells us that just building toilets won’t solve the issue)


“Women love to go in open as there is a lot of socializing happening there, this is also the only time women get for themselves” (This tells us there are Behavioural and physiological factors which affect the toilet usage.)


One of the top reasons for drop outs from schools for girls is found to be unavailability of toilets in the schools or not having a toilet near the schools. This is where it starts getting more serious. Drop outs from schools around the world, whatever be the reasons, have devastating consequences on the society. Be it Brazil, Afghanistan, America or India.

The workshop finished with a conclusion that sanitation in India is a mix of cultural and technological issues. And a solution needs to address varied expectations, for example:

  • Environmental diversity.
  • Lack of maintenance processes and cost of maintenance plays a role.
  • Water is scarce in many parts, the solution must not use more than 1.5 liters of water per use.
  • Though affordability is not the issue, the cost of one unit cannot be more than 190 Euros.

Getting to the level of such details was crucial, as it is necessary that challenges are formulated with direct involvement of the stakeholders who will be affected by the solution.

Online collaboration

The challenge was formulated by the team using all the input received from the workshop, such that it can provoke the intelligence of the solvers. A right balance of information was arrived at so as to not overload the challenge and confuse the solvers and at the same time not eliminate the complexity of the challenge. While too much information can scare away the solvers, too little won’t catch their attention! This is specifically true in crowd sourcing projects since there are not too many opportunities to interact and explain.

The sponsors agreed to give away reward of 10,000 Euro to providers of the best solutions.

Subsequently – the online sanitation challenge competition was launched for duration of 3.5 months.


The next important phase was the evaluation of solutions. A total of 5 reviewers were invited from reputed organizations around the world and specifically from India. The best practices of requesting each reviewer to independently judge the solutions and not disclosing solution providers identity were followed. Subsequently all stakeholders had a series of Skype and closed room meetings to discuss, critique and agree top solutions.

Innovators from 26 countries participated in this open innovation for sanitation contest, 2500 unique innovators / SMEs showed interest. 3 (+3 consolations) innovators from 4 different countries were identified for the rewards. A total of 10,000 Euro was given away to the winners. Subsequently the work on implementation has also begun. In addition, one of the winning solutions is also being evaluated for a grant from the Miranda and Bill Gates foundation.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Elaborate preparation of challenge helped a lot (one full day workshop and an extensive preparation of 3 months.) In the one day workshop, an anchor had put forward a simple rule, “Talk only problems, don’t try to come up with a solution”. It was soon evident, how concentrating on a problem could unearth diverse view points. Added advantage to such an approach is your team has a better insight to solve the real problem at hand and not what it seems like at the beginning.
  2. The best solution could be an amalgamation of solutions from different individuals and geography. Unlike a delivery of a water cooler, which can be delivered by one single vendor, innovation mostly gets delivered in bits and pieces. You have to keep your eyes open to how you can stitch together seemingly non relevant or incomplete solutions, which come your way.
  3. It is not just cutting edge technologies which can benefit from open innovation and co-creation, but even the basic challenges around water, sanitation and environment can gain tremendously.

By Madhu Mani  & Jayesh Badani

About the authors:

Jayesh Badani is Founder & CEO of ideaken. Before venturing into entrepreneurship, Jayesh worked in Information Technology domain for fourteen years, where he travelled across the cultures, played various roles and enjoyed delivering IT solutions to clients from every continent. Jayesh is passionate about how innovation is achieved using collaboration and in usable methods to make this happen.

Madhu Mani started his professional career as an Information Technology Professional. Over the span of thirteen years, Madhu helped companies all over the world with their IT requirements. Then got interested in innovation domain and how technology can help drive innovation. At ideaken, Madhu is constantly amazed at how the most brilliant ideas come from the most unknown sources.