The ant and the elephant

Designing for 100 million users is different from designing for 100 users and scaling it up for 100 million, says Shankar Maruwada, co-founder of EkStep Foundation

N S Ramnath

In the acknowledgements for The Aadhaar Effect, my colleague Charles Assisi and I expressed our thanks to Shankar Maruwada, co-founder of EkStep Foundation, thus: “There is much we owe Shankar Maruwada, who co-founded the not-for-profit EkStep with Nandan and Rohini Nilekani. He was part of the founding team at UIDAI, is a close confidante of Nilekani, and has a ringside view of the man’s mind. Most importantly, he possesses the remarkable ability to connect the dots. Our conversations with him helped us appreciate why identity matters to an individual. They cut through the noise that surrounds polarizing debates and made us think about what the future of platforms may look like. He pushed us as well to ask questions that lie at the intersection of technology, society, and philosophy.”

When we were reporting on Aadhaar in 2016-17, Shankar and his team were just starting to build EkStep Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation working on technology to enable the education system to do a better job of helping millions of children learn basic skills. Since then, the digital infrastructure built by EkStep is being used by the Central government for its DIKSHA platform, which offers teachers, students and parents engaging learning material relevant to the prescribed school curriculum; and it has been adopted by over 25 states. 

In a conversation with Founding Fuel, in our podcast series Virtuoso, hosted by Anna Assisi, Shankar traces the journey of EkStep and distills some of the key lessons for entrepreneurs and builders. Here are five takeaways from the conversation:

Designing for scale scaling up: In fact, in 2015, the goal was by 2020 we will reach 200 million children. That mission was non-negotiable. 

But in achieving the mission, we realized we would make a lot of mistakes and that's the entrepreneurial nature of things. We realized we would fail a lot. We realized we would meet a lot of resistance. But the questions were more important to us than the answers. Which is “what will work at a scale of 200 million and not what will work, and then how can we scale it to 200 million?

Don’t just focus on scarcity, leverage on abundance: What was abundant was the presence of the humble textbook. We print a billion textbooks every year as a country. How do we leverage the abundance of textbooks in every household? How do we bridge that to the digital world of content and technology that people talk about in education? How do we bridge the existing habits and routines and rituals of actors to the new habits? How do we bridge the physical world to the digital world? How do we bridge the current capabilities that the system has to the new capabilities and how do we use technology to enable the country to leapfrog?

Don’t just ask what’s the right thing to do, also ask what the ecosystem wants to do: It is not what we think is the right thing to do. It is also what the ecosystem—the existing ecosystem of government actors, for-profits, and not-for-profits—what do they want to do? What are they doing? Because finally they are the players. You're just helping them achieve the goals.

Ask if it’s sustainable: As someone said, you can't put 20,000 ants together and create an elephant. The DNA of an elephant is fundamentally different from the DNA of an ant. If you want an elephant, you need to design for an elephant. So a lot of the initial thinking was about what will work at the scale, diversity, complexity of India? What will work in a manner that is sustainable? So tomorrow, whether EkStep exists or not, it should be sustainable at the scale of India.

Practice ‘plus one’ thinking: Plus one is an approach to co-creating solutions, such that those solutions are vaguely familiar to people, but yet minds open. What do I mean by that? If you take the example of QR codes in textbooks, the idea of QR codes, people were familiar with. Textbooks, people were familiar with. But QR code in textbooks, which when you click gives you content… to that particular topic was a mind opening idea because the humble textbook suddenly contained these little windows, the QR codes, through which you could access relevant content. But this came about because as part of the design, what we strive to do was make the change for each of the actors involved as small as possible. So plus one means they should only do one incremental step to what they are already doing—their current habits, their current rituals, their current capabilities, but the end result of everyone making that one extra step is a mind opening transformation for the system. Why is it mind opening? Because, once you have seen this and used it, you cannot go back to the previous status quo.


Virtuoso features conversations with a cross-section of veteran entrepreneurs, business strategists and thought leaders from India and abroad

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Pokuri Srinivasarao on Jan 30, 2022 5:54 p.m. said

Myself pokuri srinivasa Rao from Andhra Pradesh, I really appreciate the work done by ekstep in understanding the needs of states and making DIKSHA as one nation one platform, after getting the independence this is one of the best initiative which followed the democratic approache in bringing entire nation on to a platfom, AP is proude to be one of the early users of DIKSHA, the spirit behind making of DIKSHA is AP.
taking this as an example NDEAR can be achieved. Senkar garu you vision and approach is success for DIKSHA victory

About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Editor

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a member of the founding team & Lead - Newsroom Innovation at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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