Space Exploration & Innovation: Mission Moon to Smartphones

Space exploration and technology series begins with this article. Derived for an earlier published note here, this one is improvised with more data and edited to suit the palate of my audience. We begin with Apollo 11. The report shares an overview of a few critical inventions & innovation in technology over the last 150 years predominantly in the US with space exploration, specifically lunar explorations as the focal theme encompassing the article.

Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at 02:56 UT on July 21 (10:56 p.m. EDT on 20 July) with the words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” NASA

Dawn of Space Age: Rise of Technology and Communication over the last 150 years

# Apollo 11: Dawn of Space Age: One step for man, one giant leap of mankind   

The iconic Neil Armstrong step on the moon set up the foundation for the space age among millions of people globally. The Soviets erstwhile USSR were the first one in space sending Yuri Gagarin but United States until now remains the only country which has landed crew on the moon and brought them back safety to Earth. Apollo 11 exemplified one of the greatest scientific feats of all time, televised and watched by an estimated 650M people. This event left an indelible mark on people, motivating, and inspiring millions of people to pursue careers in science. Apollo 11’s social impact is immeasurable; it refreshed space exploration among other nations and achieved the unthinkable — ability to land humans in outer space and successfully bring them back home. The series of space exploration kick starts with the video below.


# Hello Alexander Bell:  Mr. Watson, come here; I want you

1915 is a landmark year, eternally remembered as the year when humans made the first Trans-continental telephone call from New York to San Francisco (Alexander Bell to Thomas Watson). The photo here chronicles some of the most landmark events in global history. Source: University of Michigan, bicentennial celebration

Alexander Bell, a straightforward man, considered himself a teacher of the deaf. The Scottish born American invented the telephone, i.e., transmit sound through electricity way back in 1876 but went through one of the history’s most extended legal battles for patents. He immigrated with his parents to Canada in 1870 and after a couple of years established the school for the deaf in Boston, Massachusetts. As a Professor of speech and vocal physiology at Boston University, Alexander Bell dreamed of transmitting sound over the wire. The sound waves caused an electric current to vary in intensity which produced a thin metal plate called diaphragm to vibrate. This vibration was magnetically transferred over the wire to another membrane at listeners end for faithful replication of sound. The iconic words “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you”—was transmitted in his laboratory on March 10, 1876. Mr. Watson, not to be confused with Sherlock Home’s sidekick, the iconic detective created by Sir Arthur Canon Doyle, also made history. Alexander Bell, with many inventions and patents, is one of the most prolific and greatest inventors of all time.

“Only the US, USSR (Russia), Europe, Japan, China, India and SpaceIL (private) have carried out successful lunar missions”

US, Russia and China have successfully soft landed on the moon.

Nikola pic source: SMITHSONIAN.COM


# Iconic Nikola Tesla:  Father of inventors, Electric King and humanitarian par excellence

Use of radio signals for communication began with Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian physicist, credited with sending the first transatlantic first radio signal between Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada, an area over 2000 miles. The message was a simple Morse code s. The story of technological innovation, communication, and personal magnificence is redundant without one man. Nikola Tesla: The father of inventions/inventors and humanitarian par excellence. His greatest deed is not in his stellar designs which include the first alternate current motor, grand design of AC system or electromagnetic waves but as a humanitarian. Born with a photographic memory, with godly looks and puritan streak, Tesla with 300 patents was, by all means, head by a mile of his peers. He is the greatest philanthropist of the modern era, and we will look into it in a separate article. Nikola Tesla is one of the major figures behind the scientific zest and will be perpetually covered here.

Inventions kept coming by. Dictaphone was invented in 1907, Reader’s Digest started in 1922 while Time, America’s oldest weekly magazine came in 1923. The first color TV broadcast was the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954. In 1959, Xerox introduced mass scale photocopying.

# Killer apps: Internet, E-mail, SMS, Walkman, Smartphone  

One of the most significant paradigms shifts in the modern era of communication was in 1971 when Ray Tomlinson sent an email to himself. The message QWERTYUIOP sent through ARPANET, a communication protocol preceded the ubiquitous internet. Ray Tomlinson is the father of the character @ so every-time you send an email, and press character @, it’s Ray. 

Hotmail was the first free email service provider founded by Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia. Hotmail later sold for $400M to Microsoft. At one point in time, the world’s most fabulous killer app, email transformed the way we communicate for personal and professional purposes. This invention would drastically change the productivity curve of the labour market around the world. Real-time communications exponentially increased global decision making, leading to better utilization of resources, increasing output, and wages. Source Apollo pic NASA

“However, the US turned out to be an anomaly. In a book review by Mark Kramer published in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Marks highlights US productivity grew 72 percent between 1973 to 2014, but workers wage growth increased by 9 percent. For 117M Americans, the incomes have increased from $16,000 to $16,2000 while the wealthiest have tripled their wealth.” 

Freebies changed the pattern of communication and consumer behaviour. For the first time in recorded human history, consumers had an unmatched buying power. But then there is no free lunch. To support a sustainable revenue model, companies had to reinvent their revenue model, and they relied on internet advertising. Internet advertising, over the years, has become of the significant drivers of REVENUE for tech companies. This led to what we call community-driven companies which piggyback on privacy.

             “In 1957, Russians sent Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite to orbit the Earth and Sputnik 2 sent first living being, Laika, a dog to outer-space. Have you seen the movie The Cat from The Outer Space? It’s very entertaining & funny.”

The rise of technology gave boost to technology-based Startups around the world and momentum to an ancillary industry, angel investing, and venture capital. Angel investing proved to be one of the best alternative investment class, especially in silicon valley funding startups which became mammoths challenging and redefining the business paradigm globally. The brick & motor structure suddenly started wobbling inundated with new-age companies, astronomical valuations, and new pathways to customers.

      “Many pioneers are credited with the evolution of the internet although chief among them are Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn.”

Computers gave rise to a supercomputer which can make astronomical calculations in a millionth of a second. Supercomputers first introduced during the early 1960s became prominent as a significant force during the 1990s. And came another power. Artificial Intelligence; Matrix. Neo. 

                                “With Supercomputers, comes great power and with great power comes judicious responsibility.” 

# Space Exploration Revisited the 1950s until now and ISRO 

Numerous expeditions took to our only natural satellite i.e. moon and its impotant to understand a terms based on lunar exploration. Flyby is used when a spacecraft flies by the natural satellite (moon) or a planet (Mars) to take pictures. Luna 1 is the first partial success of flyby mission followed by Pioneer 4. Impact probe’s mission is to hard land intending to record images of the surface while landing. Soviets (USSR) succeeded here too but its Ranger 7 which is the turning point for space travel. The impact took 4,316 stunning pictures of the moon and its data formed the structural work for Apollo missions. Although Soviets again won the Orbiter mission by a few months, Americans finally nailed it with the first and only successful manned mission to the moon and back. Apollo 11 succeeded in setting the first crewed humans to the moon and back to Earth safely,  fulfilling President John F Kennedy’s vision of setting foot on the moon. Space exploration especially the US owes President John F Kennedy’s for kick-starting NASA’s mission to moon. A crisp vision which motivated Americans and laid out the path for space missions going forward. 

                                        First works spoken from the surface of another world.

                                       “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

A lander unlike an impact probe soft lands on the surface to function and share valuable data about the surface. Deep space exploration also includes space probes (orbiter and lander) missions to Mars and other planets. Over the years many more countries, including the European Space Agency, Japan, China, India, and Israel (private) have conducted lunar missions. From the 1950s until 1979 only the US and USSR conducted space explorations and after the brief science of the 80s decade, Japan stuck gold with Hiten, its maiden lunar mission. 

Although space exploration increased over the years, the 80s was a dry decade with no space explorations. Recently Chinese soft-landed Chang’ e 4 on the far side of the moon and its rover survived eight frigid nights to share data on the unknown part of the moon. Until now this was the southernmost attempt to soft land  on the moon but Vikram lander attempted target was 1200 miles further south from Chang’ e4.

With Chandrayaan 2 and Vikram Lander, the Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO attempted to land to the south pole of the moon, between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N., to understand lunar south poles composition. Chandrayaan-1 successfully put its maiden orbiter around the moon and hard landed an impact probe.

      “India is proud of our scientists! They’ve given their best and have always made India proud,” Indian prime minister Mr. Narendra Modi

Discovery of water by Chandrayaan 1 orbiter in soil at the lunar poles, turned out to be a game changer. ISRO humble beginnings come from a church in Thumba on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram city. Selected for its proximity to earth’s magnetic equator, St Magdalene church served as India’s first space exploration headquarters. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai”, the father of Indian Space Program,” established ISRO and played a pioneering role in establishing Indian Institute of Ahmedabad. From its first launch on November 21, 1963 of a sounding rocket made at NASA, the Indian space program has grown into a pioneering global leader in space exploration. Side pic source: ISRO

# Mobiles to Smartphones: Rise and downfall of Nokia, Coming of iPhone 

After email, SMS turned to be the next major killer app defining real-time messaging. Mobile phones soon followed leading to the dawn of SMARTPHONES. Rise and downfall of Nokia, a Finnish multinational, which started as a paper mill company before dominating the mobile market in the 90s is an excellent example of a company achieving superlative feats in innovation before losing out its global position as a leader in mobile phones. Nokia gave to the world the iconic 2100 ringtone, the snake game, stunning cameras on mobile, but could not replicate its success in the smartphone category. Nokia employed effectively multi branding strategy to distinguish its brands of mobiles catering to different sections of the society. From exclusive, luxury and now-defunct brand Vertu to budgeted and inexpensive mobile phones for less privileged people in developing markets, Nokia had it all. Vertu sold through selected outlets as a standalone brand worked well for Nokia, which was not perceived as a luxury brand. Multi-brand strategy works well for fast-moving consumer goods companies like P&G, Unilever which sell brands with little association from their companies. Example Tide and Dove. Nokia led by a considerable margin any of its competitors Apple, Erickson, and Sony during the 90s.  But Nokia failed to understand consumer insights, especially the futuristic role of smartphones which proved to be a fatal mistake. Nokia is back again with its new smartphones and maybe this comeback can be akin to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Disclaimer: I personally use Nokia smartphone. 

Vikram Lander, is one of the most ambitious landings at the farthest side of the moon near its south pole with a budget of $140M”

Apple innovated Smartphone market launching iPhone, arguably one of the most exceptional electronic device assembled at its time. Smartphones iPhone sales still account a significant portion of Apple’s revenues, generated 48.29 percent of its revenue in the third quarter of 2019. In the smartphone market, android turned to be a game-changer, an open-source mobile operating system developed by Alphabet (Google). The platform became industry-standard, promoting a crowding in many multiple mobile players. Rise of android as a platform for mobile phones served as a considerable blow to Nokia with its Symbian platform failing to live up to its expectations. Mobile was not the only space where world-class innovation was defining a new era in communication and customer delight. Something else was cooking in an ancillary industry, and it was in music. 

# Deadman Walking: Walkman to Telstar 1 

In 1979, Sony introduced Walkman to the world. Sony Walkman TPS-L2, a 14 lbs blue and silver, portable cassette player turned out to be the forefront killer idea. It changed the landscape of music and the way we heard music which led to the innovation of MPEG 3. Digital music revolutionized or disrupted the music industry. Remember, Napster, a free peer-to-peer music service which almost crippled the music industry through free music downloads founded by Shawn Fanning. Shawn, portrayed by Justin Timberlake in  Social Network, is James Bond of Technology industry or should I say, Robin Hood. Coming to Robinhood, a great love song from the movie Robinhood: Prince Of The Thieves — Bryan Adams at his best.

The era of competition to outer-space, between US and Russia fueled communication supremacy for many purposes. Spying became the fundamental reason for Communication, and this drove further innovation. Never in the history of humanity, has technology progressed at a quantum speed within a few decades. Compared to the time taken for the evolution of humans, humans have within 1% of time learned to light the fire, domesticate animals, grow crops, invent the wheel and land on the moon — may be less than 0.5% in time-based on recent discoveries about our evolution.

In 1962, the world’s first active communications satellite, Telstar 1, was launched. The satellite set communication standards for the satellite industry. For the first time, live images of news and entertainment were telecast around the world. And the entertainment industry changed. Live sports coverage brought in more customers, increased consumption, increased jobs, and GDP. If we look at technological innovations, AT&T is the father of many inventions to take place in the last century. AT&T ultimately broke into seven smaller companies called baby bells due to antitrust laws.

The advent of technology changed the world economy leading an exponential increase in productivity, wages, and facilitated globalization. It was effortless to understand what was going on in different parts of the continent, and free knowledge became available. It brought about an era of collaboration between economies never seen before. As the small output of technological utility decreased with new inventions, it requires more resources and technical know-how to get an incremental delight or service from an innovation.

# Back to Space Exploration: Budget travel to space 

India’s recent Chandrayaan-2 mission is applauded globally and hailed by the mighty NASA. China’s reaction to the announcement of Chandrayaan-2 seemed positive, and there is a thought to establish Asian Space Agency on lines of European Space Agency. The recent Indian exploration is critical for a few reasons. First, NASA has a $21.5B annual budget which dwarfs the space budget of any other country. But it needs its money well spent. It’s planning its human-crewed mission to the south pole in 2024, the target of Vikram lander and exploring cheaper versions to do so. The success of Chandrayaan-2 mission is a shot in the arm for NASA as recent data shows that ISRO lost contact with Vikram Lander just 400 meters from the moon. ISRO learned lessons from the previous SpaceIL Beresheet mission another low-cost lunar mission $90 to $100M almost entirely funded by private investors. ISRO painstakingly close success in placing a lander and rover on arguably the most challenging part of the moon increases chances of NASA success in the upcoming low-cost mission.

Second, NASA can learn from mistakes from the Chandrayaan-2 mission. ISRO got invaluable insights from the Beresheet on navigating pitfalls in soft landing. Third, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter will complement NASA’s LRO, the only other orbiter orbiting the moon. India’s orbiter has improved camera’s with better resolution (0.32meters/pixel), dual band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) will map and quantify the amount of ice on the moon’s surface and share stunning images and data of the moon and much more, a massive boost for the world and NASA’s future planned missions. Finally, space exploration will bridge the gaps among countries for an era of peace.

Its time for ISRO to plan a manned mission to moon and back. NASA is going to the moon again in 2024 but this time for a longer and sustainable presence. Welcome The Artemis project estimated to cost between $20 to $30B.


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Social Finance Innovation and Externalities

This insightful report discusses the advent of social finance and innovation for meeting Sustainable Development Goals 2030. The article looks at the thought process of defining critical enablers at the Addis Ababa Action Agenda meeting in 2015, which set the ball rolling in driving both private sector investments and public-private partnerships in the development space. It includes a small note on externalities and their role in enabling social good.

The importance of Addis Ababa Action Agenda in sustainable development goals cannot be understated. 2015 marked a transition year for the world and the UN in moving towards a comprehensive set of sustainable goals: Millennium Development Goals to the new set of 17 targets under Sustainable Development Goals. The critical thought process was to encourage private capital through innovative social finance tools, a crucial decision for even coming close to the very ambitious set of goals by 2030. 


The Addis Ababa agenda set forth the following key enablers for financing the development sector.

# Mobilize all sources of finance and Leverage public finance for social good

# Crowd in the private sector and foster collaboration between different actors in the development sector

# Fortify Multilateral Development Banks (MDB’s) capacity to catalyze funding better

# Innovate using data analytics and harness technology and disruptive business models

Following the agenda meeting, the first step was be to strengthen the domestic economies through fiscal and taxation prudence. To implement a better socio-economic scenario, a framework of parameters was recognized as key performance indicators and enablers to drive transparency, accountability, and reduce inequality. E.g., a 15 percent tax to GDP ratio is required to fund state functions, yet 42 percent of the world’s poorest countries don’t touch the goal. Progressive taxation is a positive step in this direction for increasing tax revenues while the indirect tax has a retroactive effect often marginalizing the poor and middle-class section of the society. However, indirect taxes can be used to dissuade negative externalities like taxing pack of cigarettes. This is one of the few cases of positive assimilation of indirect taxes within the society. Encouraging income and gender equality reforms are a couple of examples of pressing  the button in the right direction. To succeed in this endeavor, implementing disruptive technology like blockchain in areas like taxation and real estate management works wonders esp. in low income and developing countries.

# Crowding in private capital, leveraging public finance and fostering a collaborative model

GIIN estimates $502B with impact investors compared to $269T in private capital markets. It became imperative to develop innovative social finance tools for attracting private capital. World Bank, European Investment Bank and IMF chiefly among the major MDBs promoted innovative social finance tools including blended finance, social bonds, sustainable development bonds, catastrophe bonds, green and blue bonds, concessional finance, micro-funding, etc. to leverage funding or increase private actors within development space. This policy had a ripple effect both within the private and public sector.

First, the agenda endorsed close cooperation between various MDBs, including the South-South cooperation. More corporation among developing countries resulted in more MDBs focused on low and developing countries with a renewed purpose among specialized MDBs like IBRD, MIGA, etc. In 2014, about a year before the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, leaders of BRICS announced the formation of the New Development Bank (NDB) to focus on high or middle level emerging economies. The set up of the new development bank also refreshed the rising importance of high end developing nations within the global trade and world economics. Second, it got buy-in from private capital through structuring innovative blended finance deals using equity and debt. Concessional finance helped in promoting private capital into ventures and projects which otherwise would have been nonviable for private funding. Ease of funding helped such enterprises become sustainable mushrooming social entrepreneurs within the development ecosystem.

Example, IFC provided a $8M loan, including a $4M in concessional financing to the SPCG (Solar Power Company Group) in Thailand. IFC, along with Clean Technology Fund funding enabled SPCG not only to develop 300MW of installed capacity but eased financing through local banks. All social projects are bestowed with a positive externality for the society. SPCG solar farms have avoided over 200,00 tons of CO2 emissions annually, a substantial positive externality challenging to measure. The loan not only successfully funded SPCG in the renewable energy sector but kick-started a revolution in exponentially increasing financing in this sector. It brought in more banks to fund projects by other companies, thus expanding the pie of this space, which was non-existent before.

The social finance innovation not only crowded in asset managers, endowment and foundation but disruptive technology elevated micro-finance by leveraging peer-2-peer technology. MDBs became market makers in creating a viable market for development work and social good. They helped in due diligence of viable projects in the development sector, to render less economical projects sustainable over a while through tailor-made financial tools. Further, MDBs became intermediaries between the private sector and the development sector through catalytic first loss guarantees, etc enhancing liquidity and actors (investors and social entrepreneurs) for an optimal outcome.

#  What are Externalities ? 

Externalities can be considered as market failures and are not included in the cost of goods or services produced. An example of a negative externality is the burning of fossil fuels e.g., gasoline in automobiles. It provides many toxic wastes, especially CO2 emissions, which increases the cost of social good. Negative externalities arise when social costs exceed private costs. Positive externalities result when social benefits (benefits to society) exceeds private benefits. In this universe here there are three actors: consumers, producers, and factors of production. In the above case, a way to measure social costs would be to measure incremental health costs of diseases between two periods related to pollution, but it’s next to impossible to measure the mental anguish, etc. Encouraging the use of renewable energy negates CO2 emissions, an excellent example of positive externality.


Another example of positive externalities would be running early morning. Apart from keeping one healthy, which is the stated aim, it motivates others to run, stay fit. Running fosters upbeat mood through the day, in turn helps spread happiness through positive thoughts, remarks, tweets, etc.

Rise of awareness among civic societies towards sustainable issues along with positive externalities creates a halo effect in driving in private investments. International political climate reinforced a move towards SDGs. Crowding in of private sector brought in more transparency with the formation of social exchanges for providing a platform for impact investors and social entrepreneurs to interact, e.g., Social Venture Connexion in Canada and Impact Exchange in Singapore. Recently, the Indian government took a colossal move in announcing the formation of a social stock exchange. Going forward — these exchanges are positive disruptive platforms in enabling social change.

# The Invisible Hand 

These initiatives laid the foundation and structure for the most crucial enabler among the SDGs, i.e., the public-private partnership SDG 17. Private sector through corporate social responsibility, impact investors and social entrepreneurs, governments and MDBs, non-profits, foundations & endowments are a growing list of actors within the ever-increasing development and social ecosystem coexisting with a common aim for social good. In the end, inevitably, a collaborative model of a public-private partnership developed globally as a critical stimulant in addressing market failures at the bottom of the pyramid. As the actors within the development ecosystem increased, collaboration became an embedded feature in decision making. Data analytics and disruptive technology play a circular role in connecting various actors as an invisible hand, completing the loop of enablers of the agenda. In the end, each facilitator formed a connecting chain with other enablers which when well-oiled work as a formidable weapon in progressing towards the 2030 SDGs plan.


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US, Denver and Charter Schools

The US spends more than any other country on K12 education i.e., preschool to 12th grade and has one of the best education systems in the world. Both K12 and higher education remains one of the most contentious issues in America. Today America has a trillion-dollar student debt problem and to make matters worse K12 teachers in the US are usually burdened with education loans and mediocre pay. This article is a build-up to my paper while pursuing an education in the US and attempts to highlight the Denver success story, primarily through charter schools. Further additions include the present status of the charter school program in Denver.



# Charter Schools Vs Public Schools 

To make education more impactful, the US diversifies schools, based on the type of funding, governing & regulatory structure, and pedagogy. Schools which receive funding from local, state or federal government are under the umbrella of the public-school system although federal funding never exceeds 9% of traditional funding for public schools.


“Charter Schools help minority and low income students disproportionately even more”

Charter and Innovation schools are part of the public-school system except that they are much more autonomous compared to conventional public schools. Charter Schools are free for enrolled students but have an autonomous jurisdiction of private schools to customize curriculum, mandate their regulations for teacher recruitment and training, etc. Charter Schools have measured success in the US with states like New Orléans and Denver showing incredible results. This story is about Denver Public Schools.


# Denver Turnaround


Denver, an outlier, is a beacon for the US K12 education system considering its magnificent turnaround story. Part of the article is from one of my papers at public policy school. Denver is the capital of Colorado state, one of the most beautiful and majestic states in the US. Known for its breath-taking landscape consisting of wondrous mountains, pristine plateau, and fantastic people, Colorado is a must-visit place in the US. Denver Public Schools (DPS) also known as Denver County School District No. 1 in the public-school system in the city of Denver, Colorado, United States. ‘It’s committed to meeting the educational needs of every student with great schools in every neighborhood. DPS goal is to give every child in Denver with rigorous, enriching educational opportunities from preschool through high school graduation. DPS is composed of more than 200 schools, including traditional, magnet, charter and pathways schools, with a current total enrollment of more than 91,000 students. Of those, 56.1% of the school ‘district’s enrollment is Hispanic, 22.6% is Caucasian, and 13.8% is African American. Additionally, 69% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. DPS has about 92,000 students with a total of DPS graduates has grown from 2,655 in 2006 to 3,608 in 2014 under the leadership of Superintendent Tom Boasberg. The Denver Public Schools Board of Education had a budget of $911M for the year 2015-2016.


Today Denver is one of the best-performing systems of schools in the United States. Denver has received national recognition for its exceptional leadership development programs for teachers, school leaders, and principal supervisors; its school choice program (ranked number one nationally among major school districts by the Brookings Institution); its collaboration among district-run and charter schools; and its creation of promising new schools. The turnaround of Denver was due to the reasonable use of a portfolio of public schools like charter schools, innovation schools, and magnet schools to serve students with differential education needs and skill-sets.


The strategy to focus on the portfolio of educational institutes under the leadership of Michael Bennet and later under Tom Boasberg helped transform Denver from a below-average educational system of schools to one of the best-performing systems in the United States. The turnaround for Denver started in 2005 when 31000 out of 98000 seats were empty with many school buildings empty. Under the leadership of Bennet, pay for performance for teachers was implemented, more support from business and communities was encouraged. Bennet encouraged a portfolio strategy to revive the fledgling public school system through a collaborative model. The model, A+ Denver, works on a collaboration of civic leaders, chaired by two former mayors, to push for change and support the board when it promoted reform.

Further, FDPS implemented the School Performance Framework (SPF). The framework measures academic growth, test scores, enrolment rates as forms of evaluation parameters for schools and limited funding to a weighted student-based budgeting system to make schools accountable for ‘student’s performance through funding. A lot of emphases focus on closing non-performing schools with a renewed thrust on charter and innovation schools. Over the years Denver implemented a unified enrolment system based on a point grade system decided by a computer algorithm, and last year about 24,998 students participated in the school choice program. This remarkable feature is useful in the selection of students from across Denver to schools of their choice based on merits to remove favoritism. Denver also offers neighborhood schools opportunity; the school choice program has 11 enrollment zones giving an option to parents to schools although they might not be the vicinity. Few features include schools allocating 40% of seats to low-income students as well as offer free bus service. Left pic source:

“Eighty-three percent of students entering kindergarten got into their first choice school, as did 74 percent of                                                         students entering a sixth grade and 77 percent of students entering ninth grade.” Chalkbeat

The reforms had a startling effect on the public schools in Denver. In 2005-2006 11.1% dropped out of schools while this figure had reduced to 4.5% by 2014-2015 with 62% graduated on time including 72% who stayed at a high school who entered DPS high school and stayed for four years. Although only 48 percent of DPS graduates enrolled in college 1 in 7 low-income students registered in Denver compared to 1 in 20 nationally. DSST, one of the most successful charter networks reserves 40 percent of the seats for low-income students helping immensely in educating the unprivileged section of students.2

DPS focus on charter schools paid off with students showing measurable improvements in math, writing and comparatively less significant gain in reading. DPS also drafted a state-wise Innovation Schools Act to give innovation schools autonomy like charter schools apart from clear perspectives on performance, clear vision, and strategies. This helped Denver with a variety of schools serving all aspects of students. Increasing salaries and quality of teachers helped a lot in improving the holistic development of students while emphasizing needs of special students.

                                          “Denver is the highest scoring large district in 2015 & 2016 ECCI report.”

The proactive reforms transformed Denver as one of the best educational school systems in the United States with increased autonomy to schools to deliver superlative academic results. Denver featured at second place at 80 points next to New Orleans as the top-scoring county/city in the 2015 ECCI rankings. Denver topped in 2016 rankings for top district as well. Denver effectively transited to an advanced schooling system by increasing enrollment at alternative schools and easing enrollment application with flexibility to compare schools based on specific parameters.

City/County Letter Grade Score** Letter Grade Score
New Orleans, LA (Recovery District) A 81
Denver, CO A 80
New York, NY A- 73
Newark, NJ B+ 70
Washington, DC B+ 68
Houston ISD, TX B 66
Pinellas County, FL B 65
Boston, MA B 63
Baltimore, MD B 61
Tucson, AZ B 60

# Drawbacks and Policy Changes

One of the drawbacks of this system is to promote and focus on students who are excel academically for better ratings while debarring students who perform below average. The inflexible grade of measuring success has not gone well with parents, which prompted Denver school to revise its rigid criteria for measuring student success.

Another critical initiative would be to make quantitative oriented subjects cool with students early on in life. The US still lags in churning out Science, Technology, and Mathematics graduates compared to peers around the world. To address this issue, introduce more active and experimental learning during the formative years in life.

To make teachers pay across America market-driven inline with academic qualifications. The performance pay must be bench-marked across a mix of qualitative and quantitative parameters. The payments for loans for teachers can be subsidized with a fixed below market rate repayment spread out over a long term. Further, the loan must have provisions of removing part of principal  for those who pursue a career in education after a predetermined period.

Further, school systems must encourage specialized teaching and customized pedagogy for students who either under-perform academically or have a disability. This initiative would mitigate funding problems for charter schools, wherein funds focus on students’ performance merits.




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Podcast Episode 2: Nishant speaks with Iconic Anu Aga; Ex Chairperson Thermax

Pic: Ms Anu Aga

Nishant Malhotra talks to Ms Anu Aga  for Podcast Episode 2 on The Middle Road. 

The following is an excerpt of my conversation with Anu Aga and not a substitute for the Podcast.. Listen to the Podcast here.

Ms. Anu Aga is an iconic businesswoman, social change enabler whose contributions to the society are a harbinger of goodness and uprightness. A philanthropist and successful businesswomen, Anu led Thermax into a global engineering company focused in energy and environment. She strongly supports initiatives in the social sector, especially in advancing equitable and quality education for less privileged people of the society in India.

Anu is an alum of the well known St. Xavier’s College and the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She is a person of prominence known for her business acumen, philanthropy and sense of humour. She has featured in leading publications including Forbes.


Nishant: Anu, you are an iconic leader not only in business but also in social change. You turned around Thermax when there were very few women entrepreneurs in India. You have also been awarded Padma Shri award, by Government of India for your social work.  Would you like to talk about your journey?

Anu is very modest about her achievements and graciously credits family, friends, and professionals for their support. Anu talks about her family, her education, and her marriage to her loving husband MrRohinton Aga. Rohinton, studied at Cambridge and was sent to Harvard on a four-month programme on a scholarship from IIM-Ahmedabad. He was instrumental in kick-starting Thermax into an innovative business. Thermax, under his leadership, was the first in India to foray into futurists or sustainable industries like information technology, wind turbine, and grain silos. Anu talks about her love for her husband, his excellent qualities and pure grit, his life after his stroke and his untimely death through a subsequent heart attack. Read an excellent, thought provoking article which conceptualizes a framework in sales management by Mr. Rohinton Aga titled “The Death of a Salesman” here.

She further discusses her apprehension of taking over an engineering company, her mentorship under Thermax’s nurturing Human Resources Head Mr. Prasad Kumar, fortuitously meeting a friend from the Boston Consulting Group, a leading global management consulting firm and her ascent as the head of Thermax. She gives a detailed overview of subsequent decision, hurdles, and strategies in turning around Thermax into a worldwide business powerhouse. Anu finally stepped down to hand over the reins to her talented daughter Meher, who has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Imperial College London.

Podcast: Nishant talks to Ms Anu Aga  

Anu’s critical insights for successExiting non-core businesses, promoting a performance culture with a crucial emphasis on the bottom line (profitability) rather than topline (order booking).

                                   Poignant and Impactful Anecdote

A letter from a shareholder addressed to her during the time of Thermax woes (Thermax share fell from INR 400 to INR 35) and Anu’s determination and focused attitude in addressing the concern.”

Side pic: Anu with daughter Meher and son in law Pheroz

Q2: Nishant: Thanks for sharing a comprehensive and poignant journey. Anu, you have been a stalwart in social space. You have supported initiatives in promoting equitable and quality education for less privileged people in the society and promoting gender equality.  Take us through your work with Akanksha Foundation, Teach for India wherein you are a co-founder and Thermax Foundation.

Podcast: Nishant talks to Anu. Listen to the Podcast here.

Anu talks about her son Kurush, who nudged her towards altruist endeavour, relationship dynamics within the family and her son’s unfortunate and untimely death in an accident. Kurush’s death propelled Anu to look at accountable and impactful nonprofits, especially The Akanksha Foundation. She teamed with The Akanksha Foundation’s founder Shaheen Mistri to spread quality education among low income members of the society.

Further, Anu helped structure along with Pune municipality a Public-Private Partnership model for Akanksha schools in Pune and Mumbai.

                       Anu Today the Akanksha Foundation has 21 schools in Pune and Mumbai.”

Going forward, Shaheen founded Teach for India, 10 years ago and Anu supported her from day one. TFI is a non-profit in education along the lines of Teach for America. Both educative initiatives are highly effective in churning out well-rounded citizens with qualitative and quantitative skills. Example, Saurabh an IIT alum, a product of Teach for India today heads The Akanksha Foundation.

Anu ” Way before CSR was made compulsory in India, Thermax gave 3% of profits to charity.”

Q3: Nishant: Here, I ask if the CSR rule in India would be a game-changer.

Nishant Malhotra chats with Ms. Anu Aga. Listen to the Podcast here.

Anu has a very holistic rule on social good. She is not in favour of compulsory CSR because she values emotive aspects of giving.  But now since CSR is mandatory, she would like to focus on how it can be most effective. We chatted about her daughter’s involvement in various social causes, especially Pune City Connect. My previous Podcast was with Ms. Ruchi Mathur, CEO of Pune City Connect.

Podcast: Nishant talks to Anu. Listen to the Podcast here.

Q4: Nishant: My next question is on Thermax’s inclusive Sakhi initiative, women rights and empowerment in India and enablers.

Anu’s insight is remarkable on women rights and needs utmost respect and pro-activeness for bringing a measurable change. She specifically mentions Vishakha guidelines, a framework of guidelines for pursuing sexual harassment in India.

Anu” The critical enabler for women empowerment is education.”

Anu enunciates about India Philanthropic Initiative a key enabler for driving philanthropy among high net worth individuals kick-started in India by Azim Premji along with prominent names including Rohini Nilekani. The idea is inspired by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet tireless work in promoting philanthropy globally among the rich and famous. Further Anu discusses essential qualities for her success, her experience with Vipassana meditation and mindfulness, her family values, and love for her daughter Meher. Anu genuinely believes that quality of education can make a huge impact in helping the poor come out of poverty.

Anu is a speaker par excellence; she articulately details key qualities, experiences, and alterations in her life with equanimity. Eloquent, modest with an elegant charm, she guides the conversation cementing her stature as a wholesome role model for scores of people out there. It is an honor and privilege to chat with Anu and will cherish it for a long time.


Suggested Readings

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Sujjest: Social Innovation for Everyday Group Decisions

Guest feature kickstarts here with this post. I had met Jeff Cole, CEO Sujjest at a networking event in Seattle and came to know about his venture with his friends. Finally, I bring you the first guest article here, and this is the beginning of numerous reports by guest writers here.

# Sujjest: Turn friends’ ideas into a clear plan 

Technology in recent years is working as a double-edged sword, enabling increased connection in some social circles and communities while at the same time leading to divisions and antisocial tendencies between and within others. Although social media enables a broad association across demographics and geographies, it can also remove the much needed personal human touch, especially among teenagers and youth. Remembering human touch, let’s listen to the breakout touching classic song by the fabulous Bruce Springsteen.

Further, social media can also lead to confusion and misinformation, with anonymous accounts or bots who could be bad actors playing a role in creating conflict. Social divisions exacerbated through unhealthy online behavioral practices can negatively impact well-being, an essential component of Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nations defines social division as a driving factor leading to disparities of outcome, decreasing equitable opportunities among disadvantaged people based on age, sex, disability, ethnicity, etc. in developing and low-income countries. Although the context and market to be addressed here may appear tangential to these UN objectives, nevertheless, in its larger implications, it’s a tool that may ultimately have the potential to ripple out and make a positive social impact both locally and globally.


# Midwest to West Coast: Introducing Social Innovation and Sujjest 

Three friends, Jeff Cole (Seattle), Kjell Hansen and Sol DeLeon (Minnesota) from the US are creating an innovation in how groups make decisions together through positive disruptive use of technology. Enter Sujjest,  an app for planning collaborative activities together. While the primary goal is to bring friends and connections together in real life, the creators also hope that Sujjest provides an outlet to new experiences. “We see Sujjest as a tool of social innovation says CEO Jeff Cole. “So much of online social interaction has become toxic. The purpose of Sujjest is not to be an exhibitionist or a voyeur, but to use technology to connect individuals and make decisions for online activities.”

The idea of the tool arose, looking at vast limitations among the existing application in promoting curated and informed social get-togethers. The existing tools don’t support collaborative decision-making,” says Sol DeLeon. “Either tool are entirely unstructured, like email and text messages, which results in a lot of back and forth discussion. On the ip side, tools like calendar invite or Doodle force one person to do all the planning.”

“Sujjest is leveraging technology to drive social innovation”

In addition to wanting a tool that allows groups to make better decisions, the team also wants to create a technology that brings people together in real life. The aim is to enhance the quality of socializing, making it more interactive in personal life. By applying innovative development techniques with web sockets and service workers, the team created an elegant interface that allows users to brainstorm and vote in a game-like fashion. Sujjest, as the name implies, intends to be both fun to use (hence the “jest”) and to allow participants to provide suggestions for fun activities or decisions.


# The Flavors and Methods of Sujjest 

Sujjest and Social Innovation go hand in hand. There are currently two flavors of Sujjest, one for general purpose use and one focused on lunch decisions. The mechanism for the two flavors is the same. First, an initiator starts a group-decision with a prompt and invites others to respond by suggesting options and approving options added by other participants. Rather than discuss various possibilities back and forth, users enter their ideas as options onto a racetrack. The goal is to get an opportunity past the finish line at the end of the racetrack, at which point it becomes the group’s decision.

Unlike a run-off election, users can vote for as many options as they like known approval voting. It allows users to indicate all the options that they’d be happy to implement. Users tap on an option to approve it, and the option moves forward. Ideally, the group will reach a consensus decision, but if that is not possible, all participants can tap the finish line closer to lower the number of votes it takes an option to win by a majority, thus speeding up the decision process.

In the general-purpose form of Sujjest, users can add multiple related prompts to make multifaceted decisions, such as to determine what movie to see, on what date and at which theater. The tool works as a web app, and natively on Android and iOS, and only the initiator needs an account—others invited can participate by clicking a confirmation link in their email. However, the creators of Sujjest want to create an even more straightforward invitation process. Sujjest Lunch is a lightweight version of the tool that focuses on one particular common question: Where for lunch? Anyone can start a session just by going to, grabbing a unique link, and sharing it with anyone they want to participate, through any messaging service.

Once someone clicks on the link, they enter a session where they enter their name and suggest new options, vote on existing options, move the finish line and comment. Sujjest Lunch was released just three weeks ago and is already showing a lot of promise with hundreds of individuals coming to create links or interact with them. So far, users have primarily used Sujjest Lunch to decide on casual restaurant locations.


# Next Steps 

In the future, the creators of Sujjest see the power of providing curated recommendations and promotions for nearby restaurants based on a user’s past behavior. Not only would this further facilitate group decision- making, but inform the user about opportunities outside of their usual routines. The team is hopeful that Sujjest becomes a widely used and influential app. Currently, the team is looking for feedback on the ease of using and sharing Sujjest or Sujjest Lunch and if it solves the common issues around decision-making.

You can reach the Sujjest team directly at or follow them on Twitter @sujjestion


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SEDA, Well-being and Social Equality

Boston Consulting Group’s Sustainable Economic Development Assessment (SEDA) inspired by leading economists such as Amartya Sen, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz lays a foundation of measuring economic and socio-economic developments of countries. Further, it aids in peer comparison to benchmark global best business practices. SEDA is a step forward in understanding how wealth creation is translating into well-being and social equality. Pic source: BCG


# SEDA Framework 

SEDA measures the progression of countries in generating social equity and well being. It has ten dimensions selected over three categories: Economics, Investments, and Sustainability, which translates into 40 indicators for measuring well being. Economics category has only three variables income, economic stability, and employment while Investments includes health, education, and infrastructure. The third element of Sustainability measures social impact and includes income equality, civil society, governance, and environment. The ten dimensions are normalized on a scale of 0 to 100 and aggregated for respective countries to arrive at holistic scores. These scores help in peer comparison of countries on the well-being index apart from understanding the effect of well-being and quality of living.

To understand relative effectiveness of conversion of wealth to well-being, a measure wealth to well-being coefficient is tabulated. The score gives a comparison compared to the actual scores computed using GNI (gross nation income) indicator. GNI includes economic wealth created by citizens both within and outside the country in comparison to GDP which focuses on income creation within the country. Usually countries which have high foreign direct investment or aid have GNI higher than GDP. Remarkably the US has GNI and GDP comparable since its out bound investment equals inbound investment. According to BCG model, a coefficient of 1 indicates well being in line with expected outcome based on income levels, a figure greater than 1 out performs and a figure less than 1 under performs.

# Key Insights

The analysis relies on both objective well-being (SEDA and wealth to well-being coefficient) and subjective well-being through UN-sponsored World Happiness Report. The review is a mixed bag, some predictable and at the same time, some baffling. Income equality generally considered the most important yardstick for well-being, does not necessarily translate into high SEDA scores. Example, Pakistan and Germany have comparable income equality scores, but Germany is in the top SEDA quartile and Pakistan in the lowest SEDA quartile. This is where critical parameters in sustainability and investment play a pivotal role in defining well-being esp. social equality. Social equality is more significant in explaining well-being in SEDA matrix as compared to income equality keeping other variables constant. E.g., top-ranked global powerhouses and SEDA leaders, Finland and the Netherlands have both high social and income equality. Pic BCG
Although usually both well-being and happiness move in tandem, countries which score high on well-being don’t necessarily score high on the happiness index. This suggests that there are other variable factors affecting happiness. This further suggests that happiness is highly intangible and in many ways demographically aligned could also be based on cultural influences apart from reasons cited in the report. Further, wealth-to-well-being coefficient and happiness has no significant evidence of correlation and is a bit of an enigma. We will discuss it in a subsequent article.
The report hugely focuses on four dimensions: education, employment, health, and infrastructure as critical enablers for improving well-being and also promoting social inclusion. China, India, Indonesia, Colombia, and Rwanda have made above-average improvements in three of the four dimensions mentioned above, improved their conversion of wealth into well-being at above-average levels which translates in their excellent improvement in overall SEDA scores.

# Well-being, Innovation and Financial Inclusion  

Innovation, although not calculated as a separate dimension in the SEDA framework for well-being, performs well in explaining an increase in well-being. Innovation is the critical enabler in promoting productivity, income and employment growth, and social inclusion. Take, e.g., Global Innovation Index 2019, which ranked Switzerland, Sweden, and the US as the most innovative countries, all top quartile powerhouses on SEDA. India has shot up to 52 and on track to figuring among the top 30 soon under the excellent leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi. Today India leads in ICT services and creative good exports, quality technology professionals backed by a few world-class institutes. Further, few African countries performed good on well-being also lead in innovation relative to their level of development esp. Rwanda.

Pic right:

One of the key driving factors behind a rapid rise in selected Asian and some African countries on well-being attribute has been their ability to leverage technology in promoting financial inclusion among the less privileged people in the society. Digital payments is one of the enablers in this space.

Sweden is a global leader in adopting innovation and emerging technologies. It plans to be a cashless economy by 2023 and its world defining project Swish; a mobile payment platform is a global role model in electronic payments. Today cash accounts for less than 1% of total transactions in Sweden. Left side pic: BCG


Today, Sweden is one of the most accomplished economies around the world in integrating financial inclusion within society. It has helped in effectively fighting money laundering, crime, etc. An excellent read on Sweden’s inventiveness here.

SEDA framework highlights the importance of social equality as a critical variable in measuring well-being. Further, innovation and its comprehensive application acts as a considerable leveler in making society more inclusive and therefore improving social equality and well-being among all.

To be continued.

Coming up articles on other vital insights and limitations of SEDA model.

How to embrace technology.


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