Design for Well-Being is a podcast produced by the D-Lab to explore how design can complement the work of leadership across sectors to improve the well-being of people, organizations, and the natural world.
A Conversation with Sam Pitroda
In this episode, Patrick Whitney hosts Sam Pitroda, to discuss his recent book Redesign the World: A Global Call to Action. Sam Pitroda, known as the “Father of India’s IT revolution” is an inventor and entrepreneur who has spent over 55 years in telecom development. Together they discuss the need to redesign systems and organizations to respond to the hyper-connectivity of today’s world, to shift from power and profit to people and the planet, and for greater inclusivity when designing solutions for our greatest global challenges.
From the Design Lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Welcome to the Design for Well-Being podcast. The many challenges we face today that seem intractable require bold and audacious leaps and the way we approach and act upon them. This podcast explores how design can complement the work of leaders across sectors to improve the well-being of people, organizations, and the natural world.
My name is Mo Sook Park, a member of the Design Lab team.
In this episode, Patrick Whitney hosts Sam Pitroda to discuss his recent book, Redesign the World: A Global Call to Action. Sam is an inventor and entrepreneur who has spent over 55 years in telecom development. Sam is known for having laid the foundation of India’s technology and telecommunications revolution and served as an advisor to the prime minister of India.
Patrick Whitney, the host of this podcast, is the co-founder and director of the [00:01:00] Design Lab and Professor in Residence in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
Here at the Design Lab, we investigate the interconnectivity between the well-being of people, organizations, and the natural world, and how systems can be designed to promote wellbeing. Sam speaks to this directly in his own book, Redesign the World.
In this wide-ranging discussion. Sam talks about the need to reorient the economy from power and profit to people and the planet. They also discuss the issues of consumption, competing global narratives, the need for greater inclusivity, and the opportunities and pitfalls of hyper-connectivity
Patrick: Delighted to be here with Sam, a friend and colleague, and my board member, various different relationships. I’m delighted to be talking to him today about, Redesigning the World. It’s his book that is a call [00:02:00] for action. Welcome to the podcast.
Sam: Thank you, Patrick. Thank you very much.
Patrick: I’m going to start by, asking you a question, but what’s the problem? Why are you calling for a redesign of the world and why do we need to do this?
Sam: Once again, thank you. Thank you, Patrick.
I got caught up like all of us during COVID 19 in self-quarantine at home, and that gave me time to think a little bit about my own journey. And I realized that the world was last designed just about the time I was born in 1942.
Patrick: That was the end of the second world war.
Sam: And that design was predominantly led by the us, which gave birth to UN. World bank IMF, WTO, WHO, ultimately NATO, and also give world a rule based system with some measurements on economy like [00:03:00] GDP, GMP, per capita income. I believe that design is basically obsolete in a hyper-connected world.
For the first time in the human history, we are all connected, never happened before. All 8 billion people are essentially connected in a very special way.
Time is instant today, and distance is basically dead. What does it mean to have this connected world? And how do we use this connectivity to take human civilization to the next level? That’s the question I started asking. We still haven’t sorted out the problems of hunger, poverty, and we have made a lot of blunders when it comes to environment, global warming.
And the key issue that I think need to be addressed, relates [00:04:00] mainly to how do we create a better world? That’s the reason to think about redesigning the world.
Patrick: So, one of the things that characterize these organizations is they were very much big believers in big plans, knowing precisely what they wanted to achieve, not doing anything that they couldn’t measure.
Everything was top down and big.
Patrick: How do you see things being different from that?
Sam: Well, I think if you really look at the old design, which was predominantly based on democracy, human rights, capitalism consumption, and military, that design did pretty well for a while. It did maintain peace, improved longevity, decrease infant mortality lifted millions out of poverty, but at the same time, it did create environmental blunders.
It did not focus on poverty alleviation. It didn’t really do much dent to [00:05:00] hunger and the world became much more unequal. Inequality increased substantially. But when you look at the design you realize that after the design, many things happened. First, world got decolonized completely in a very short period of time. Then China could rise to a level, no one ever thought. Soviet union fell apart without a gun shot.
Technology became prominent and pervasive. Technology also increased inequality. And finally COVID 19 brought everything to halt. No one ever thought that a small little virus in middle of nowhere will bring entire world to a halt. What it tells me Patrick, is that we are all interconnected, interwoven, interdependent, interrelated,
Patrick: and you see these things are happening. We’re [00:06:00] getting more connected, et cetera. But do you see anyone working at changing what the nature of organizations are to actually…
Sam: well, I don’t think anyone is really paying attention to creating a new system.
Patrick: Do you think there are examples in the developing world or other small examples in the developed world that could be models for us to take action to bring about these changes?
Sam: So, I think first we need to understand the implication of hyper-connectivity. Hyperconnectivity democratizes knowledge. It decentralizes implementation. It demonetizes services. It is about content. It is about context. It is about communication. And it is having huge impact on everything we do today.
Patrick: Some of these are surprising and negative. For example, if you go back to the 1980s and we saw the emergence of the internet and the web, most of us believed that that was going to [00:07:00] expand the information that people had available to them and make more people connected to more other people they didn’t already know. In fact, it seems the reverse has happened. It tribalized people, where people focus on information they already have and dig deeper into it. It isolates people into these groups that live on the web.
Sam: I think we need to fix that. It is fixable. We don’t know how to use all our new tools effectively yet, but the fact is that we are all connected for the first time. This hyper-connectivity is having impact on our economy, trade, technology, manufacturing, financial services, marketing, distribution, delivery, education, health, there isn’t anything here today, Patrick, that is not affected by hyper-connectivity. Of course, what you mentioned is a challenge, but I think we will learn to sort it out [00:08:00] because this may be a very sort of transient phenomena. That needs to be fixed, so we don’t spread lies. We don’t create misinformation.
Patrick: You will know this better than I, but I believe that in the genetic code, in the deep structure of the web, the core value is to get information about people to sell them stuff. I don’t know if the people who built the web viewed that as their goal, but that seems to be the result.
What if the core of the genetic code of the web wasn’t about selling people stuff, but was about getting people trusted information? We can’t trust the information. How do we bring about that change? Where we move from it being a sales tool to a trusted information tool.
Sam: First we need to accept the fact that we are very early in this game, and we have made some mistakes and we will continue to make some more mistakes [00:09:00] before we really fine tune the system. Today, the business model for all the social media focuses on more clicks, more registration. So you have unauthenticated behavior on social media. I could be presented as 10 Sam’s. I can hide behind fake names and start saying things that I would not say if I was authenticated. So I think the fundamental issue today is to understand who is saying what on the web. Is this real? You have too many people, trolling, you have robots trolling, and the information is manipulated.
Patrick: Do we need a new version of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate?
Sam: I think we need people to identify themselves. On digital world, I am a digital citizen. On web, I have certain responsibilities, roles, [00:10:00] obligations, like human rights in a physical world, we need to define human rights in a digital world- that I, Sam is registered only as Sam.
I take responsibility for what I say. I will not hide behind and say nasty things and spread rumors and lies. So we have not yet gotten to a point where we are willing to define the responsibility of a digital citizen
Patrick: Doesn’t that violate privacy concerns or do we have to learn to accept?
Sam: Well, I think we have to learn to accept some privacy concern, but it is my data that I should have access to. And not the guy who is collecting data. Take for example, health industry- my health data is all over, but I don’t have access to it. When I get my blood test results, the company won’t give it to me. They’ll give it to only my doctor. It’s my data. I need to be responsible for my data.[00:11:00]
I need to be monetizing my data. Not the companies that collect.
Patrick: Yes. There’s a phrase that grew up in the 1990s. That information wants to be free.
I think what that meant is it should be free to big companies and they’re gonna make money.
Do we need a new version of the web to pull this off?
Sam: I think we have a good version of the web 3.0 would be very effective provided we fix some of these problems of authenticated behavior. Registration that is recognizable. Like before I register on web, I need to, you know, give my ID saying I am Sam and nobody else can register as Sam and I am taking the responsibility for what I say, when I say, how I say, and the data that is collected is mine,
Patrick: does this start with government action?
Sam: Oh yes. It requires government action. Absolutely.
But it may not be just government. It’ll be industry, civil society, [00:12:00] government, all we have to work together.
But, you know, that’s one piece of the puzzle. The real piece of the puzzle, according to me is our democracy. How do we build our democracy in a hyper connected world? See today democracy and voting system, according to me, doesn’t really meet the needs of the modern democracy. Somebody who has 1% more words can decide for the hundred percent. Elections can be manipulated.
The real representation of the people is not reflected in the decision-making process. I think we have new tools today with blockchain, with all kinds of security, we need to use these new tools to make our democracy more inclusive. All global conflict, Patrick, come from exclusion. If you look at the human history, conflicts come out of exclusion.
Patrick: So, do you think the first step is increase transparency so that people see what’s going on? Is [00:13:00] that step one?
Sam: Both. I think we need transparency, but we also need to accept the fact that we have not been able to build inclusive society. We need dignity and respect for everybody, equality, justice.
First thing I would suggest in the redesign of the world is to take democracy to inclusion. Second thing I would recommend is that human rights are not good enough.
We need to really focus on providing human needs. We live in an era of surplus. We can produce anything today. The question is what is that we want to produce. We wind up producing only for the rich who can afford to buy and not for the people who need it. So, we really need to provide basic human needs and we can do it today.
You know, we spend $2 trillion on defense every year, and we know that we can eliminate hunger for 200 billion a year, one 10th of the cost of defense, but we have not been able to eliminate [00:14:00] hunger because we haven’t paid attention to it. And then the capitalism hasn’t really done well for the large number of people.
It’s a great system, but we need to have a new economy. We need economy that is coming from bottom up and not top down, which is decentralized. We need whole new idea of how to create wealth for large number of poor people. We need to distribute wealth, little more equitably, and there are a whole lot of issues on economy. And finally, or before that, I would say the whole idea of consumption needs to be relooked at, we need conservation. We need sustainability. And definitely, I hope that we begin to focus on nonviolence.
Patrick: So, what do you think will catalyze this? Do things have to get worse before they get better?
Sam: I think the best way is to really have a new conversation. Unfortunately, today’s conversation is more about geopolitical equation, power and profit. We need to shift that conversation from power [00:15:00] and profit to planet and people.
We can’t go on optimizing power and profit everywhere. We got to think of how do we optimize our planet, our environment, our ecosystem? And how do we optimize things for people at large? Today, planet and people are not in the equation at all.
Patrick: If they are, the planet is in the equation of being a commodity resource for cheap materials or a cheap place to dump things. And people are viewed as either consumers or as an expense.
Sam: Exactly. But end result is profit and result is power. And that has to change. You know, today world has really two visions of the world. One is the American vision, which is based on democracy, human rights, capitalism, consumption, and military. The same vision that we had 80 years ago.
We want to continue that vision. Second vision is now articulated by Chinese, [00:16:00] which is belt and road initially. Go into country, offer them huge amount of financial support to build their infrastructure. What we really need is a third vision because both of these visions are based on command and control.
They’re not based on collaboration, cooperation, co-creation, communication. We need a vision where network of countries come together. We need a vision where no one superpower leads the world. We need a vision where people look at the interest of the humanity and planet and not markets and products and profits.
Today. When you look at G seven meetings or G 20 meetings, it’s all about marketing. It’s all about, you know, trade. No one talks about poverty, hunger, education, health. We found out during COVID 19, that health systems are broken all over the world. In America, we spent 18% of our GDP on health and our health outcomes are not that great.
In other [00:17:00] countries, they spend 4%, 2%, 3%. So I think education system is broke because it is too expensive. It is elitist. How do you pay $40,000 a year tuition for four years? Why does it take $200,000 to get an MBA? So, I think we need to use hyper-connectivity to address a lot of these issues, which require innovation, new thinking, new design.
And you have been leading the design efforts world over. I learned the idea of redesign from you when you were at the Institute of design in Chicago. And we need that kind of thinking Patrick, to really redesign our systems.
Patrick: I think there’s some basic challenges. One is, people are not good at thinking on the long term. People are not good at thinking about exponential change versus arithmetic change. People are not good about thinking of systems that have more than three steps in them. Everything you’re describing [00:18:00] requires us to think long term, not short term, to think in systems. How are we going to do that?
Sam: I agree that, you know, our thinking is really quarter to quarter, based on financial results in the corporate world. In government, it is about budget. But somebody has to think long-term. Somebody has to have a vision for the world. And many times people will say to me that it is utopian. It is not possible.
I don’t agree with that. I think somebody has to think wild. Somebody has to think outside the box.
Patrick: Henry Ford did it.
Sam: Yes. There are enough capable people in this world. May not be in the government, all may not be the business. But together, if we create a group of thousand thought leaders in the world, I guarantee they will all agree to this design in some form or the other. I’m not saying I have all the answers. All I’m saying is can we have a new conversation?
Patrick: Do you think if we identified, [00:19:00] 50 cultural economic curators, let’s call them curators. And they went around the world, not to the Smithsonian or to Disney or to Silicon Valley, but they went to the villages in South America and villages in India and do co-ops in the United States and sustainable communities in Northern Europe that we would find examples that we could use to…
Sam: Of course we will find examples. But I think it is time to think from your heart and not from your mind. It is time to think, not in terms of money and power, it is time to think in terms of humanity. In terms of planet earth. And I think things begin to look very different, but when you begin to put price tag on it, things change.
And that is a fundamental problem because everything we do today is measured in terms of profit, is measured in terms of power, and you’ve got to think more in terms of people and planet. It’s a shift in the mindset.
Patrick: I’m [00:20:00] reminded of that great mid-20th century philosopher, Jimmy Hendricks said, we have to pay more attention to the power of love rather than the love of power.
Sam: Absolutely and it is in my interest as a human being to think in those terms.
Patrick: relates to the idea that we’ve developed that consumption leads to happiness.
I think that that’s not true. I think it’s more likely that production leads to
Sam: Exactly. I think I remember you saying once that you want to produce, because it gives me happiness. It is fulfilling to produce something- whether it is piece of art or a product or some service. You don’t produce, just because it gives you money.
You got to think big. You got to look at the design. We have tendency to go into micromanagement instantly without looking at a larger picture.
Patrick: Yeah. And organizations are so important because that’s where the action is. People don’t make a difference by themselves. They make a difference in being part of an organization, [00:21:00] whether it’s formal or informal. Giving them the means and the vision is the challenge. Finding the means and the vision is the challenge.
Sam: I think organization leaders to pay attention to this idea of redesign, we need world leaders to pay attention, to focus on people and planet.
We need world leaders to really get off marketing, power and profit. I’m not saying power and profit is not important, but I’m saying some people at the high level will have to think of a larger picture. Unfortunately, you don’t have those kinds of leaders anymore.
Patrick: I suspect we do. I suspect we just haven’t found them and they don’t find their way through the filter of media. When I visit villages in India, you know, this much better than I, I see such an incredible optimism on the part of the people living in these poor villages and they know what will make their life better.
We were just there in Jharkhand where a woman came up to us and said, ‘listen, we just need two things [00:22:00] in the way of help. One is fix our schools and one is fix our health. If we fix health and school, we’ll take care of the rest.’ The level of conversation was at least as good as the conversation we had with graduate students at Harvard. The energy in the vision of people in these villages is remarkable.
And to think that there are billions of them.
Sam: True. When I say we don’t have leader, I mean, we don’t have visible. These leaders are not visible today. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I agree with you there. A lot of enthusiasm in developing world, including in India, because they see an opportunity through technology to transform.
I think technology has become pervasive in the last 20, 30 years. What we have achieved is absolutely remarkable. You know, transistor was born after I was born and look at what transistor has done in 70 years, it has changed everything and [00:23:00] it gives us hope.
Sam: That technology can help us going forward.
Patrick: Yes, but I think what we see is frequently the case of what we call leaders racing forward with new technology, but looking backwards at the way life works. We have to get them to look forward at what life could be, not the way it’s worked in the past.
Sam: Agree. People extrapolate things. People look at history and get stuck. People don’t think beyond a short-term vision, and you need to really rethink through our design. And I agree that people only think of small changes. We need mega change. We need to shake the system.
PatrickI agree with the goal, but I think that we’re not going to get to mega system by talking and planning about it. We need prototypes. We need to try a thousand things and see which can work and then try a thousand more.
Sam: No, we need 5,000 things, but with a goal that is [00:24:00] different. We need 5,000 things to make our planet better. We need 5,000 things to bring equality, inclusion, safety, security. We need 5,000 things to provide basic human needs. We need 5,000 things to eliminate hunger, reduce violence.
You have spent your life in design.
Do you think it makes sense? Do you think I make sense?
Patrick: Well, if it was anyone else talking about it, if there was anyone else who hadn’t built telecom in India, and at the same time, figured out how to inoculate 12 million women in India from a disease sort of on the side, I would say they were crazy. But you’ve shown us that the people with crazy ideas can bring them about. You’ve done it.
And I think there are other people in the world who can do this too. but we have to find them. The heroes of the world shouldn’t be the leaders of BlackRock and Goldman Sachs heroes of the world should be [00:25:00] people doing things that are small scale and local, but have a big effect. My colleagues and I are interested in this issue of scale, but we think that scale might be better achieved than making one small organization huge. Instead make one small organization copied by a thousand other organization, so that they can each copy, and use the idea from the initiator and adapt it and adopt it in ways that makes sense to them.
People have a view of the world is having limited resources, including the resources from people. And if you think of people as creators of value, not, not costs, then making everyone healthy and happy and productive enriches us all.
Sam: I believe it is possible to live with the technology we have with the resources we have with the human capacity we have. It is possible to provide enough [00:26:00] food, to eliminate hunger, to create safe world, but you can’t do that if you spend $2 trillion on building hardware to kill people.
Patrick: True, maybe what we need is a new world’s fair one that goes out to the world and finds these examples and get kids at 50 universities around the world to create visions of the future based upon what they learned from.
Maybe it’s a generational shift by several fold. Maybe we bring together a thousand thought leaders, but make sure none of them are older than 24 years old.
Sam: Possible! We have to try everything. I don’t know what is the answer.
Patrick: You once to told me, I asked you, how do you make these organizations that you build work? How do you build telecom? You said that it’s easy. You get people who are 22, don’t tell them you’re giving them something impossible to do. They go and do something impossible. And by the time the 27, you helped them get a stable job somewhere and they can retire.
[00:27:00] I’m a great believer in young talent. They are smart. They don’t know it can’t be done. And ignorance at times is a great asset. By the time they grow up, they always develop this attitude that – ‘oh my God, this is not possible!’ When they are young, they make it possible.
Patrick: Maybe this is the optimistic note we should end the conversation on- spiraling into the future with 24 year old’s leading us is maybe one thing worth considering.
Sam: Thank you, Patrick. Really appreciate your taking time out from your busy schedule to talk to me.
Patrick: Thank you for your book.
Sam: Now it is available also in Spanish language and it’s not a very complicated, very big book. I’m not a great writer, but I had to put my thoughts in the way I felt. And I hope this is the beginning of a new conversation.
Mo Sook: [00:28:00] Design for Well-being is a series hosted by the Design Lab at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. You can learn more about the design lab, also known as a D-Lab at hsph.harvard.edu/d-lab.
Thanks for joining us today.