Can you solve a wicked problem affecting thousands of people living in slums while sipping coffee in an air-conditioned room?
In our 45 years of experience in Bangladesh and across eleven countries in Asia and Africa, the answer is mostly no. The ideas that work come from a little closer to the problem. Solutions that look fancy on Microsoft Powerpoint are often completely irrelevant in real life.
Fancy solutions are exactly what we wanted to avoid when we launched the Urban Innovation Challenge in October 2016, calling for scalable solutions to three pressing problems in Bangladeshi cities: health, transport and employment.
Bangladesh is rapidly urbanising, with 2,000 people migrating into Dhaka every day in search of better lives. Urban spaces are increasingly facing new challenges and urgently need the attention of governments, the private sector and, most importantly, citizens.
While many of us would prefer to sip coffee and complain, there are plenty of passionate innovators amongst us who want to tackle the challenges. Through a rigorous six-month process, we have found that tribe – a group of innovators who we are now going to bet on to transform how we own, define and solve some of our most pressing urban challenges.
On 7 May, we announced the tribe:
Bhumijo: leveraging underutilised privately owned toilet facilities for public access
Bloodman: connecting blood donors with end users located in close urban proximity
Driver Mela: verifying, training and rating drivers for public and private recruiters
Servicing Campus: training, recruitment and employment of students that have dropped out
Amar Bike: ride-sharing network model for motorbikes
with Identity Inclusion: a service for psychosocial support seekers and providers winning the special mention award.
To find this tribe, the challenge had to be an innovation itself. We would never have found Servicing Campus in Rangpur or Driver Mela in Chittagong if we were just running another glamorous startup competition with fancy slide decks and international accents. We reached out to every corner of the country through 21 campus ambassadors, encouraging submissions in both English and Bangla, and kept in mind that not all applicants would own a computer or understand business planning. We were very vocal about our preference for real life experience over technical jargon.
Over 600 applications came in, including hundreds of applicants from outside Dhaka. We shortlisted them and sent them to the ground, asking them to undertake field research and immerse themselves in the challenges. Only after we saw their progress did we invite them to a bootcamp to interact with sector experts, entrepreneurs and investors.
What we bring to the startup ecosystem is our four decade long experience of tackling complicated social problems with scaleable solutions- and that’s what we are trying to create more of. From oral saline to last mile cashless branches, we have been innovating for a long time, and we have never left the ground. Even though we now work in 11 countries, our head office is still in Bangladesh, within metres of Bangladesh’s biggest slum. And it always will be. Through the Urban Innovation Challenge, we are now offering everything we have learnt over the last 45 years to a new generation of innovators, and throwing our support behind them to build the city they want to live in.
We will take our winners through extensive field exposure, prototyping and piloting over the next six months. We will provide co-working space, business development, financial and legal support, and we will keep you updated as we incubate their ideas into realistic solutions. Keep an eye on uic.brac.net!
Anjali Sarker is the team leader of BRAC Social Innovation Lab. Masrura Oishi is the knowledge management and communications officer of BRAC Social Innovation Lab.