The social impact of the ‘aha’ moment

Innovators are often said to experience a moment of epiphany, an ‘aha’ moment, which leads them towards a brilliant new idea or design solution. This is the story of such an instance in the life of digital entrepreneur Prukalpa Sankar


Prukalpa Sankar (left) and Varun Banka co-founded SocialCops in 2013, a Delhi-based data intelligence start-up that has worked with more than 150 organizations in seven countries.  Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Prukalpa Sankar (left) and Varun Banka co-founded SocialCops in 2013, a Delhi-based data intelligence start-up that has worked with more than 150 organizations in seven countries. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Innovators are often said to experience a moment of epiphany, an ‘aha’ moment, which leads them towards a brilliant new idea or design solution. In some cases, this is actually how it works.

Digital entrepreneur Prukalpa Sankar experienced a moment of epiphany while taking the train home one evening after work, as a summer intern at an investment bank in Singapore. Sankar recalls asking herself a basic existentialist question: “Why am I here?”

This quest for purpose led her to believe that she should leverage her numerical and analytical skills to serve the public good. So instead of working with a financial services firm after graduation, she co-founded SocialCops in 2013, with Varun Banka. The Delhi-based data intelligence company helps decision-makers in the areas of public infrastructure, healthcare and education. In three years, the start-up has worked with more than 150 organizations in seven countries. Consumer goods multinational Unilever and the Indian government, both at central and state levels, are repeat clients.

Last month, Sankar spoke in Jaipur at the 11th edition of the Kyoorius Designyatra, billed as India’s largest annual design and communications conference. The theme ‘Why am I here?” prompted other designers to share their personal ‘aha’ moments.

Michael Johnson’s story was as compelling as Sankar’s. The founder of Johnson Banks, an award-winning, London-based design consulting firm, Johnson’s ‘aha’ moment came in 2011, when the Japanese tsunami prompted him to re-examine how “design could make a genuine difference, and raise serious money for social causes”, he said. Graphic designers often resorted to making posters to raise charity money, but that resulted in minimal social impact, he observed.

While Johnson Banks was already working with non-profits for some time, Johnson’s search for greater meaning plunged the agency into an even deeper engagement with the non-profit world, he said. Johnson Banks designed a brand manifesto for Acumen, one of the world’s best known venture philanthropy funds, and re-vitalized a global brand identity for the Disaster Emergencies Committee (DEC), a global network of agencies delivering humanitarian assistance. The British Council, a culture and arts organization, found itself with some edgy communication to publicise its work around the world. The Science Museum, a long-standing London tourist landmark, spruced up its stodgy brand image.

Johnson Banks even managed to demystify the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, a relatively small charity working to raise funding for a poorly understood, but life-threatening disease. The Trust’s new brand identity is cohesive, optimistic, sunny and most of all, human-centred in its tone, personality and positioning.

The financial consequences of this existentialist search were not encouraging. “I was losing money hand over fist working with charities. But ‘design can make a difference’ became a rallying cry for me. So we started to look for ways to help them, yet stay in business,” explains Johnson. The agency is well on its way to helping non-profits raise the targeted amount of £2 billion that they’d set for themselves, he says.

Both presenters illustrated one of the basic tenets of good design: making it human-centred. Johnson breathed life into non-profit branding efforts, by drawing on the human aspects of their work. Livelier brand identities engaged an evolved audience. Sankar, on the other hand, had to employ human-centred design to adapt to the challenges of “designing for the next billion”, she says.

SocialCops often relies on poorly educated, frontline field-workers to collect data. Each field-worker is given an inexpensive tablet or phone, and an app is deployed for data collection. Since many users are likely to be using a smartphone for the first time, SocialCops had to reinvent the design rule-book for effective deployment.

Ethnography was the starting point, as always. “How do you make it really simple? We realised nobody has created a design paradigm for these users and there is nothing that we can read up online. So we follow the users – our designers and engineers live in villages, interact with users and that helps us understand how they interact with a device. What do they do the first time? How do we make it fun for them? The better you understand the user, the faster the engineer will build the product,” she states.

Intuitive design works, says Sankar. “You’d be surprised how universal red, green and orange colour-coding is. Take care of language, stick to one type of swipe, and keep interactions simple,” she advises, adding, “We do very, very small fixes, but things that are really important, and that we continue to iterate on, to date.” Design for social impact is not a new idea. But in India, where design is still being absorbed by mainstream industry, let alone by non-profits, SocialCops is a pioneer.

Aparna Piramal Raje is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.

Fine Print runs viewpoints on luxury and design from different experts.

More From Livemint