Looking back, a Socratus Retrospective.
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Looking back, a Socratus Retrospective.

October 2, 2021

Origins

When Ananth and I met over coffee at the end of 2018, we discovered that we were both committed to a flourishing India while recognising that climate change will complicate our road to flourishing. What's our path to development? How do we get there? These were the questions we kept coming back to again and again over the next few months.

There’s no simple answer to these questions, no magical device that will lift us all up at the press of a button. Collective flourishing is a wicked problem and as we like to say at Socratus: only wicked minds can solve wicked problems. ‘Wicked Wisdom’ was the background against which Socratus was born at the end of 2019, a year after Ananth and I finished our coffee. The language of wicked problems and systems change remained abstract when we made the rounds in January 2020, but in an unexpected and unwelcome development, the world was about to demonstrate its wickedness to everyone. By April, we were all in lockdown, the first simultaneously shared event in all of human history.

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It’s now clear that the future is going to be quite different from the past, with COVID only the first messenger. Socratus’ work feels more urgent than ever and the only way we can address the challenges heading our way is by replicating wicked minds as quickly as possible.

Starting with ourselves.

Our Wicked Minds

People are at the heart of any organization, and that’s where I will start the recounting of what we have achieved in the last twenty months. Socratus has been very lucky in attracting a diverse team over the last two years. Since we believe in practising what we preach, the wicked minds of Socratus are spread across the country, divided between core staff, project fellows and part-time staff who are helping us with art, tech & design. We also have a thriving community of friends, volunteers and close partners, many of whom are captured in the picture.

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Socratus’ Theory of Change

The pandemic has made it clear we live in an interconnected world in which complacency must be replaced by wisdom. Like its namesake, Socratus isn’t wise, but midwives the collective wisdom of our fellow Indians with a view to solving (or dissolving) the wicked problems that prevent India from being a flourishing society on a flourishing planet. Twenty months later, we have a few stories to tell and this letter is my way of sharing them with you: our partners, well-wishers, donors and fellow-travelers. As midwives of collective wisdom, we tell our story by telling OUR story. That is the story of India, which remains to be written.

India is an ancient civilisation, but it’s also a young country - younger than the computer - and Indians are far younger on average, not even 30 years old. What are our ideas of flourishing? Today’s dominant images of wealth and success are those of carbon prosperity, but for better or worse, climate change will prevent India from ever becoming “developed” on that path. India needs new ideals of flourishing for a young, dynamic society. We have to imagine our future in a dramatically different world than the one in which the first world developed, and as the last eighteen months have shown, there are many obstacles on the way. To give two examples:

  • India has been an agrarian country for all of recorded history, but farming is now increasingly unsustainable: financially, socially and environmentally. How can farmers lead a dignified life under these circumstances?
  • Migrants found themselves homeless after the lockdown, with tens of millions being forced to walk hundreds of kilometres back home. How can we prevent such tragedies? How can we ensure that migrants are treated as full citizens?
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Whether it’s food systems challenges or delivering livelihoods to ten million new entrants to the labour force every year, we are faced with many wicked problems. Addressing them will take collective wisdom -- of which Socratus sees itself as the midwife. Nevertheless: whose wisdom and how are we going to elicit it? No single entity or even a group of entities - not even the State - has the capacity to respond adaptively to rapidly changing circumstances across the country. We are better off investing in the distributed capacity to ‘solve wicked problems’ by the very agents who are embedded in them. That agent could be a bureaucrat tasked with recasting the fertilizer subsidy or a migrant seeking better conditions in Mumbai.

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Socratus’ first crack at wicked problems consists of spaces that enable agents to take charge of their own destiny. In the last twenty months, we have prototyped two spaces for addressing wicked problems: a space for collecting the wisdom of influential people called the ‘Wicked Sprint’ and a space for collecting the wisdom of the ordinary citizen called ‘Janta ka Faisla.” These have been deployed across our ‘problem domains’: food systems, citizenship and our umbrella domain that we call ‘Greenup.’ I will turn to those spaces in the next few sections followed by a few words on our current understanding of spacemaking as a practice.

It’s a long document already, so the description of our activities is compressed - if you’re interested in the details, there’s a link to a complete report.

Food Systems

It’s no secret that India has been in an agrarian crisis for the last several decades. Sometimes farmer suicides or protests hit the news but the crisis doesn’t abate. As a result, we are at a crossroads; India has about 800 million people of employable age, a number that will increase to 1100 million by 2050. Of these, the vast majority have historically been farmers and will continue to be so unless there’s a dramatic shift towards an urban mode of living. If that happens, almost 600 million which are currently living on agriculture will be driven out of their livelihoods into an economy which cannot support such a huge workforce. Our only choice is to recast our future to ensure small farmer livelihoods, rural non-farm livelihoods and ecological sustainability. Securing these goals is a wicked challenge, one that Socratus has engaged on several fronts.

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Consider the fertilizer subsidy. India spends more than Rs. 1 lakh Crores on its fertilizer subsidy, the second highest subsidy after food. Urea is the fertilizer that’s most subsidized with an adverse impact on our carbon emissions. Fortunately, there appears to be widespread acceptance that a change in the fertilizer subsidy policy is inevitable.

Any shift in the subsidy policy (or any other major agriculture policy like the MSP, see below) will have ramifications on incomes of millions of farmers, agricultural output, the economy and government finances. We cannot recast the fertilizer subsidy without bringing together people who hold different viewpoints and when they are together, we need to go beyond debate to engagement. We need a deeper, respectful exercise of understanding. That’s the purpose of a Wicked Sprint.

A Wicked Sprint is an intensive collaborative workshop specially designed to elicit collective wisdom with a diverse set of stakeholders and experts. Wicked Sprints bring stakeholders together who have not necessarily interacted with each other before so that there is a possible alignment towards potential pathways of change
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Bharat Krishak Samaj and Socratus convened a group of influential stakeholders for a “Wicked Sprint” on recasting the Fertilizer subsidy from October 7th-10th, 2020. A detailed report on the sprint is available here.

Sadly, the fertilizer situation is only one of many crises affecting our food system. Farming is increasingly not viable financially but we can’t go without growing our own food either. Across the globe, governments support farmers because of concern for food security. The support is provided through various mechanisms. In India, farmers are supported via the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime (declared for 24 crops) and a public procurement system that backs it as a price support mechanism.

While the system has worked for some, its design, implementation and operations must evolve to serve the current and future needs of farmers, consumers, and the environment. Redesigning the MSP regime isn’t just a technical challenge: it’s inherently political and involves engaging with the politics of food, food inflation, the changing dynamics of the centre-state relationship, the emerging role of businesses and a just transition that mitigates any pain arising out of changing policies.

Bharat Krishak Samaj and Socratus convened a select group of 24 influential stakeholders for a Wicked Sprint to conceive the MSP for the future from August 27th -30th, 2021. The participants represented all viewpoints and stakeholders (Academia, Central and State Governments, Civil Society, Farmer unions, Agribusinesses, Media and Political representatives). A detailed report on the MSP sprint can be found here.

On a positive note, we also worked with RYSS and ATCEF to help them crystallize their vision of natural farming. Led by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), Andhra Pradesh's initiative on Natural Farming is the largest such program in the world. A.T.E. Chandra Foundation (ATECF) has been supporting Natural Farming initiatives as part of its work on sustainable rural development. There are many organizations that are promoting sustainable agriculture, not limited to Natural Farming, at different locations in their own ways. However, adoption of Natural Farming remains on the margins at an all-India level.

ATECF, RySS and Socratus organized a visioning journey consisting of multiple consultations over many months. These consultations culminated in a Wicked Sprint in May 2021 where participants came together to co-create a future vision for Natural Farming. Instead of saying anything more, let me direct your attention to this video which was the main artifact produced by the visioning Wicked Sprint.

Ultimately, we believe that both the vision and the solutions to India’s agrarian challenges will come from those who are embedded in the food system, farmers being the most important stakeholders. That’s true of other wicked problems as well, but it’s in the very nature of hierarchy that ordinary citizens don’t get to shape their own futures. Socratus’ work on citizenship addresses the power differential between those who decide and those who experience the consequences of these decisions.

Citizenship

In the usual definition, “citizen” is a noun, a person with attributes recognized by a constitution and protected by the state. Dictionary.com defines the term as:

a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection (distinguished from alien).

At least in theory. In practice citizens aren’t treated uniformly; they are a hierarchically organized field with some making decisions and others subjects of those decisions. That hierarchy of power was in full display during the COVID19 crisis – even if you set aside the obvious fault lines of race, religion, caste and gender, citizenship is being marked with extreme inequality.

Those who are making policies, say, about the extent of the lockdown, the distribution of services during the lockdown and the long recovery that will follow all suffer from moral hazard: they are removed from those bearing the brunt of those decisions. Even when services are provided, they are rendered in a paternalistic mode. Even in the best of circumstances, middle class readers and viewers don’t see migrants and other marginal communities as equals, as fellow citizens. The chaos after the first lockdown put the migrants’ plight front and center, and that has unleashed an enormous amount of compassion. But the next disaster is around the corner, and the generosity of the wealthy will run out of steam. The gift of a newly attentive India isn’t really something that disadvantaged people can count on very much.

What’s the alternative? One way of thinking about this differently is to swap the positions of the onlookers and those being looked at. Could we reverse the gaze between the powerless and the powerful? A second difference is to think of what migrants – and other poor people – may be able to demand as rights, rather than obtain as charity. The advantage of this is that what they can insist on as citizens has no expiry date, unlike fleeting empathy. The Janta ka Faisla (JKF) seeks to address the needs of migrant workers and represents them as full citizens of India.

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The first Janta ka Faisla was organised by Socratus in partnership with the National Foundation of India and Chaupal in Raipur between 11 and 14 July. The heart of the JKF is the jury itself, and the life experiences and wisdom they bring to the verdict. A jury of migrants from Chhattisgarh was selected through an intensive process, starting with an initial list of 1.5 lakh migrants collated from various NGO and volunteer databases, followed by an automated round of calls with about 15,000 migrants, at the end of which several rounds of interviews led to a 15-member panel of jurors.

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This jury heard from a range of experts on topics such as employment conditions at destinations, i.e., wage rates, timely payments, workers’ health and safety, and alternatively, local livelihoods in agriculture and non-agricultural industries, livelihoods based on the commons, including forests and inland fisheries; migrants’ entitlements to food security and health and how government schemes such as the PDS can deliver those entitlements in both source and destination states.

Experts include government and industry representatives, civil society actors, lawyers, academics, journalists etc. Advocates deposed in front of the jury, and argued their case; these were in different forms and formats – a perspective, an analysis or a school of thinking, or a practical solution, a defence of interventions already underway, recommendations for improving some existing law or scheme etc. This was followed by jury deliberations, in private, facilitated by the amicus curiae in the presence of members from the oversight panel.The last day was reserved for the compilation of the jury’s views culminating in their final verdict.

The video below (in Hindi) is an overview of JKF:

In short, the JKF was deliberative democracy at work; creating a society of the people, for the people and by the people. We hope and expect that the deliberations and the verdict of the first Janta ka Faisla will become a model for how Indian society should learn from its most vulnerable citizens, both helping them live a life of dignity and in creating a better world for all of us.

We’ll be organising several more JKFs: continuing our migrant juries, but with a focus on other source states (Orissa, for example) and also important destination states (Maharashtra); JKF’s that complement our Wicked Sprints for food systems (an MSP JKF is being planned); and finally, JKFs that inaugurate our work on the Greenup project (I will be talking about those for sure in next year’s retrospective 😀).

Moving on to spacemaking, I have mentioned the word ‘space’ several times in this retrospective already, with wicked sprints as well as JKFs being examples of spaces Socratus has enabled. Why ‘space’? What does ‘spacemaking’ have to do with collective wisdom? Quick answer: spacemaking is the ‘how’ corresponding to ‘wicked problems’ as the ‘what.’ Longer answer: read the next section.

Spacemaking

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Oftentimes, the ‘how’ question becomes a discussion of method. If an organisation uses data to model climate impacts, their staff are trained in methods of data collection and analysis. That’s the direct route to solving problems. Midwifing knowledge and wisdom takes a more indirect route - after all, we aren’t solving problems ourselves as much as enabling the capacity of those who are embedded in the problem.

Space has an excellent quality: both metaphorically and literally, it can house a disparate group of objects: chairs, dishes and knick-knacks all find a place within our homes. Socratus takes spacemaking seriously, and much of what we have learned over the last twenty months is to architect spaces in which a range of ideas and methods live together without feeling the need to merge into one ‘correct view.’ So far, we have uncovered two dimensions of space-making:

  1. The kind of person who inhabits the space, or is a central figure in it - could be an influential person, an ordinary citizen or a learner.
  2. The kind of artifact or activity that’s central to that space - could be a desirable vision of the future or a problem that needs to be solved now.

A wicked sprint that envisions the future of natural farming is an example of a convening of the influential (type of person) with the output taking the form of a vision (type of artifact). It is this architectural knowledge that we see underlying our approach to wicked problems in every domain. I haven’t said much about learner spaces in this retrospective, but I will end it with a few words about how a learning space we organised gave us insights into our plans for the next year and beyond.

“India Story, Climate Grammar”

I started this retrospective with a conversation over coffee about a flourishing India but soon got into the weeds of Food Systems and Citizenship. Fortunately, we can put the elephant back together again. That elephant would be Greenup, our umbrella-project that imagines the future of India in the era of climate change.

Why Greenup?

India, like many developing countries, faces several critical challenges in addition to the climate challenge. Key amongst these is eliminating poverty, an imperative for jobs and access to effective basic services. We are calling this cluster of ideas and actions “Green up,” a deep transformation of the Indian economy including measures for innovation, adaptation and resilience. A Greenup plan for India would provide an opportunity for a very wide community of actors to participate in, and contribute to, helping India navigate the consequences of a warming world and other ecological risks, meeting its socio-economic goals and forging a vision for a young country with enormous aspirations.

How can India become a climate leader while addressing the development needs of a young, growing and aspirational population where climate impacts are already disruptive? How to spark a response to climate change that places a deep transformation of the Indian economy and society at its core? The enormous excitement around the Green New Deal in the US suggests an alternative to the emissions centric discourse on climate change. Instead of “drawing down,” we need to imagine a different, better world, one in which a broader conception of justice is conceived and implemented in parallel with implementing the transformations that lead to a climate friendly future. Such an alternative is particularly important in a young country such as India where images of “carbon prosperity” are the only viable images in the public domain right now.

COVID slowed our Greenup plans a little but we are about to embark on our Greenup journey in the coming months, one that I expect to write about in great detail in next year’s retrospective. We will be looking at flourishing cities in the era of climate change and we will be talking to young politicians who might make climate change central to their career. All that and more soon.

I will leave you with a prospectus at the end of this retrospective. Socratus organised a course on Imagining India (in the era of climate change) at the end of which the students wrote a letter from their future selves to their current self. They said:

Standing here in India in 2030, it feels like the country has changed dramatically and for the better. In 2020, India stood at the crossroads of making crucial choices about its path to future development. With climate change looming, India’s most significant challenges at that time included rapid unplanned urbanization, scarcity of resources, malnutrition, high levels of poverty, as well as severe gender and human rights violations.

But the solution to those problems is to unlock the energy and the wisdom of the collective, by taking the journey from I to We to Us to Ours:

I to We to Us to Ours
I to We to Us to Ours

In a more expanded form:

  1. India is a young country with huge aspirations
  2. Much of India remains to be imagined, let alone built
  3. All of that future will have to be made real in the era of climate change
  4. However, the story will always be about the needs and aspirations of Indians.

Or if you want to see those bullet points as a word cloud:

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It's not surprising that 'climate,' 'world' and 'change' are prominent - the course was about climate change after all. But look at the single most used word: it's 'people.' Our students tacitly understood that people will be central to any response to climate change. in their visions was "people." We call that way of thinking about climate change: India Story, Climate Grammar, which illustrates our agent centric approach to climate change. In our approach, citizens take charge of the systems they we want to create in the future: education systems, transportation systems, and health systems, but then embed a response to climate change into every single one of them. We may never mention the word climate change when we talk about agriculture, food security and nutrition, but we will have to make sure that the changing rainfall patterns and heat waves due to climate change are factored into our imagination of a food secure India and a dignified life for farmers.

“India Story, Climate Grammar” is the promise of Greenup. Let’s see what the rest of 2021 & 2022 brings to that story.

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