Tag Archives: social enterprise

Change theory: working with emergence

5 Mar
Herakleitos philosopher quote

Image courtesy of David Schiller's Zen Page-A-Day 2010 Calendar

I love this quote. It’s an ancient Greek version of ‘what goes up, must come down’.

Herakleitos, the weeping philosopher, argued our only permanent reality is that of change. (How’s that for irony?)

He viewed the world order as ‘ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures’.

Over 2000 years later, I’m thinking he was onto something. Yep, just looked around me – change seems to be going on quite a bit. Tick.

But I keep wondering how? How does change, especially big change, happen?

In mid-2010 I was introduced to the Berkana Institute and emergence thinking by two insightful facilitators – Chris Corrigan and Geoff Brown.

The concept of emergence provides an elegant framework for contemplating change. As Wheatley and Frieze put it in their 2006 article, Lifecycle of Emergence:

In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level. (Global here means a larger scale, not necessarily the entire planet.)

These powerful emergent phenomena appear suddenly and surprisingly. Think about how the Berlin Wall suddenly came down, how the Soviet Union ended, how corporate power quickly came to dominate globally. In each case, there were many local actions and decisions, most of which were invisible and unknown to each other, and none of which was powerful enough by itself to create change. But when these local changes coalesced, new power emerged…

To me, the guts of the theory is that we can learn how to work with emergence by understanding living systems – how they ‘begin as networks, shift to intentional communities of practice, and evolve into powerful new systems capable of global influence.’

Based on this understanding, Wheatley and Frieze argue we can encourage positive influential systems to emerge through a four stage approach: naming, connecting, nourishing and illuminating.

lifecycle of emergence diagram

Lifecycle of Emergence diagram courtesy http://www.berkana.org

I thoroughly recommend reading the full article to understand these approaches better. It’s quite short and, if you’re anything like me, it will chime inside your head for some time to come.

But how does this thinking relate to our project? Well, it helped clarify how we thought change might come about because of what we were proposing to do.

Basically, by creating an upcycling partnership between Conserve India and like-minded supporters within the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games organising system we hoped to:

  • connect these pioneers and positively change how major sporting events are delivered by proving new, valuable products can be made with event waste materials
  • nourish Conserve India with new contacts and knowledge about how to work with major events. We wanted to discover useful product materials; to make and sell new products and generate new income streams, leading to more benefits for Conserve’s staff  and the communities this social enterprise supports
  • illuminate the pioneering work of Conserve India, and other upcyclers, by capturing some of the vast media platform dominated by these major events. We wanted to tell the project story in as many ways possible, and through as many channels as we could, to see if we could find new supporters who would buy the products we created.

We wanted to cast a few small droplets into the river of change we can feel is fast emerging…

Einstein and zen quote

Image courtesy of David Schiller's Zen Page-A-Day 2010 Calendar

To see our original full project plan, otherwise known as ‘Our Best Guess At The Time’, click on our program logic diagram below.

CD2010 Program Logic May 2010

CD2010 Program Logic May 2010

So how did we go?

Tune in tomorrow, dear readers, and I’ll show you…

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Social enterprise: business with benefits

22 Feb Jenna and the new mobile medical clinic van

So I was procrastinating for some time today, on one of the most amusing blogs I’ve stumbled onto in a while: Why make this? Why indeed.

The moral of the story? Laughing until there’s tears is actually a good way to bring on motivation.  And with that, it’s back to Serious Land…

Following on from our Interview with Anita Ahuja last week, here’s a few images showcasing the social services currently provided by Conserve India.

Many of the Conserve’s production teams (known as fabricators) are based in small workshops around Delhi.

Conserve recently began providing free health services for these workers and I joined them to document an eye clinic held at one of the East Delhi workshops.

The first step was to capture relevant health details such as age, weight and current medical issues…

Conserve India health clinic doctor

Conserve's doctors collect and record patient details

Conserve India health clinic

…Then staff were guided through an eye test.

The doctors get around language and reading challenges by simply asking staff to tell them which way the symbol is facing (on the far right chart)…

Conserve India health clinic eye check chart

Then the eyes are thoroughly examined and…

…prescriptions and treatment advices are given if needed.

Conserve India health clinic eye check  prescription

Conserve is also working with ragpicker communities living in Delhi’s slums, providing mobile health services and…

Jenna and the new mobile medical clinic van

Jenna and the new mobile medical clinic van

…a school for around 200 children.

Conserve India's school project

Conserve India's school project. Image courtesy of Jenna and Christina.

Jenna and Christina at the Conserve India school

Image courtesy of Jenna and Christina

More soon,

Liz

Plastic Bags: a material with inherent beauty

17 Feb

Today, in our last interview for the ideas hub, we hear from Conserve India’s co-founder, Anita Ahuja.

With an academic background in political science, Anita’s career has encompassed various roles: writer, artist, designer, environmentalist and social activist. Today, she combines all these skills and interests in her work as Conserve’s Creative Director.

1. How did Conserve India begin?

I started Conserve India over 11 years ago, with my friends and family, as a small neighbourhood composting project. But we were also tackling poverty and unemployment by trying to provide an income stream for Delhi’s ragpickers – many of whom live in the city’s slums.

Early on we realized there wasn’t a great local market for selling compost. We also noticed plastic bags were a big waste problem as they weren’t being collected well or recycled. If left as litter on the streets, the bags can clog up drains and get eaten by animals such as cows.

It sounds a little strange, but when I saw plastic bags floating down the street it was almost as if they were calling out to me to do something with them.

Where other people saw waste, I saw a material with inherent beauty.

Anita Ahuja interviewed for french documentary series, Shamengo

Anita Ahuja interviewed for french documentary series, Shamengo

So, with my engineer husband Shalabh and members of our family, I began thinking about how we could use this material.

Through trial and error, we developed a unique heat press technology to make our patented material – Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP).

The plastic bags are collected by the ragpickers, washed and sorted then pressed into sheets of HRP. As it’s mostly done by hand, producing HRP is an energy efficient process.

We also avoid adding any dyes or toxic chemicals – we simply layer the shopping bags until we achieve the colours we desire. I then began experimenting with making and selling HRP products.

About six years ago, Shalabh and I established Conserve HRP, the business arm of Conserve India, so we could lessen our dependence on grants and development funding by generating more income from product sales.

We have since diversified into other materials such as tyre tubes and seatbelt offcuts. Over the years we have attracted very supportive overseas buyers and our organisation has continued to grow.

2. Would you describe Conserve India as a social enterprise?

Yes. Conserve is a hybrid organisation – we are a registered non-governmental organisation (Conserve India) supported by the export business (Conserve HRP). Conserve HRP buys the sheets of handmade recycled plastic from the NGO side.

I don’t think working for profit is a bad thing – it’s good to diversify your income streams. It’s what you do with those profits that defines your organisation.

Although our business arm makes a profit, that’s only one third of the triple bottom line. You wouldn’t get the full picture of Conserve India if you only looked at turnover. We are strongly committed to the social and environmental outcomes in what we do.

Our success in exporting products made from waste, or upcycled products, allows us to pay fair wages and plough profits back into health and education services for our staff and their families.

The 'Robin' HRP messenger bag

The 'Robin' HRP messenger bag

In a traditional corporation you would probably view these services a additional perks or benefits of working there.

But many of our staff come from the poorest communities in Delhi and struggle to access enough income, let alone education and health care; so the social development aspect is a fundamental part of our mission.

3. What are some of the challenges you have overcome in establishing this organisation?

In Delhi it’s actually illegal for people to pick through waste. Once it reaches the local dhalaos (neighborhood collection and recycling centres) it becomes the property of the municipal authorities.

The ragpickers are only tolerated at these centres because of the obvious waste reduction and cost saving benefits they bring by sorting and extracting the recyclables from rubbish.

So working with the ragpickers, we are dealing with a caste of people with very few rights or social standing.

Because of these issues, and the perception of our work as dirty and unhealthy, at the beginning we found it hard to rent space for sorting and washing the plastic bags.

A Conserve India washing unit

A Conserve India washing unit

We also found it difficult to have HRP products officially recognized as handicraft by the Indian government because it’s an innovative material and not over 500 years old.

If we could have achieved this it would have made it easier for us to sell our products through government-sanctioned emporiums in India.

But we’ve managed to survive by focusing our efforts on the export market and the many supportive buyers we’ve found overseas.

With an unskilled workforce – many of our staff can’t read or write – we’ve had to be very inventive in setting up our production processes.

For example, we named all the different coloured bags after well-known Bollywood stars and used their pictures to identify piles of the same coloured plastic.

But finding creative ways to address such issues is what I enjoy about this work; if you believe in what you’re doing, you can always find a way to solve a problem.

4. What about the future?

We are constantly on the lookout for new business opportunities.

The Conserve Delhi 2010 Project opened up the possibility for us to continue developing products with major event waste.

The project also stirred up interest from several corporations leaving us with potential for working in the domestic market.

We’ve also had many inquiries from around the world about our process for manufacturing HRP and we’re considering franchising our patent on the technology.

At present we are shifting our operations to a new, purpose built factory on the west of Delhi. It’s an exciting transition, where we hope to employ more staff and transform even more waste materials into new and valuable products.

Anita and Shalabh Ahuja at the new Conserve India factory

Anita and Shalabh Ahuja at the new Conserve India factory

Hands-on upcycling II: staff profile

7 Dec

While we wait for our new Commonwealth Games sample products to be finalised, I thought I’d return to our ‘hands on upcycling’ series, showcasing Conserve India’s people and processes.

In the first of these production posts we saw snapshots of staff preparing base materials, creating designs and producing samples. Today we move to an important hub of the organisation – the stockroom.

One of the things I’ve come to understand and admire about Conserve India is their commitment to providing staff with professional development opportunities, including promotion.

One person who has risen up through the ranks is Mohan, Conserve India’s Production Manager. Because my hindi is not very good, interviewing Mohan for this blog was a little tricky.  So I was grateful to Anita, Conserve’s Creative Director, for kindly offering to translate for us.

Here’s Mohan sharing a few of his experiences working with Conserve India:

Mohan Conserve India's Production Manager

How long have you worked with Conserve India and what was your first job?

I’ve worked here for 9 years. My first job was in the Quality Control Unit.

What was the hardest thing you had to learn when you became Production Manager?

The hardest thing was taking on more responsibility. I now oversee Conserve’s production process. It still involves checking the quality of all materials delivered to Conserve’s stockroom. But it’s also my job to divide up the stock and make sure it’s sent out to our fabricator workshops to meet buyer orders for our products.

Did you know about Delhi’s Commonwealth Games?

Yes, I knew they were happening.

Did you go? Did the Games have any impact on your life?

No I didn’t go. But I noticed the city was cleaned up a lot for the Games – that was a good thing.

Which of Conserve’s special Commonwealth Games products do you like best so far?

I like the Shahrukh messenger bag.

Shahrukh messenger bags

Commonwealth Games 'Shahrukh' messenger bags

What has been the most important change to your life from being promoted within Conserve India?

Being rewarded for hard work, with things like a better salary, is important. But becoming a manager also means my workmates look to me more: I have earned greater respect.

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