The Great Divergence: Academic research and Ground Realities
In a rather disarming article titled ‘On Research and Action’ published in 2002 in the Economic and Political Weekly, the economist Jean Dreze expands on some of the limits of research and embarks on one of the foundational expositions of ‘barefoot research’. Reflecting on a campaign to address the plight of drought-stricken regions organized by a collective of grassroots organizations, a revealing passage reads; “After 15 years of research on hunger and famines, one is perhaps entitled to feel like an ‘expert’ of sorts on these matters. Yet I did not always find myself better equipped than others to understand the practical issues that arose in this situation. At times, I even felt embarrassingly ignorant compared with local people who had little formal education but a sharp understanding of the real world.” Such notions on the pitfalls of research and its tenuous relations to ground realities are certainly not new, as Dreze himself draws our attention to the fact that ‘academic’ had often become shorthand for ‘irrelevant’ in common parlance by the time of the writing of the article. In a more recent interview with Dr. Veena Srinivasan, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), she makes a compelling argument for what she terms ‘living labs’, “The only way for us to know what is happening is to embed research in implementation programmes of a larger scale from their inception. But doing so needs research to leave the ivory tower of academia and confront the messiness of real life—uncertainty about when projects start and end, political rather than statistical reasoning dictating where programmes get implemented, and so on.”
New ways of being barefoot
Scientific, evidence-based research forms the bedrock of Good Business Labs’ work. However, the desire to transcend the strict and often long-drawn affair of research has seen the organization tussling with problem statement laid out by Dr.Srinivasan.For Arvind Patil, Senior Design Manager at GBL, confronting, and indeed integrating, the aforementioned ‘messiness’ into research has long been a part of his design ethic. “In simple terms, the Design vertical at GBL represents those who are not present at board meetings.” Developed with the tenets of inclusive and participatory design and systems thinking approach, GBL’s design vertical attempts to “identify the right problems” and design solutions in active collaboration with the many subjects of GBL’s research and their lived experiences. A notable example lies in the development of Inache, a low-tech tool that endeavored to find a new way to report, record, and manage worker grievances, with the development of the name Inache informed by the many languages spoken on the shop floor such as Tamil, Bengali, and Odia—being mutually intelligible in these diverse tongues. For Arvind, such interventions represent a marked shift from his earlier work in a French company that attempted to make products to serve the bottom of the pyramid population, “The products simply did not resonate with the people, there were many gaps in our approach. GBL gave me this opportunity to address some of these gaps; as the son of a factory worker, I wanted to give back to the people from where I came. Now I have come full circle, my parents understand exactly what I do because it speaks directly to them.” Inache proved to be the ideal testing ground for this approach; a tool that was directly addressing the issue of workers negotiating with the management, but also working in concert with the outcomes of hard-nosed research. Indeed it was this experience that instituted the Design vertical within GBL in 2019. “I consider the vertical to be an ideas shop within GBL” Arvind continued, “Though we did go through an existential threat through the pandemic. Our work largely derived from reaching out to people and listening to their stories and narratives, but this time around we had to navigate through many uncertainties. Aside from many internal exercises, we also realised that we had to collaborate with other verticals in order to see through these times and I think that has now become a standard process.”
Can the development sector even code?
The urgency of developing GBL Ventures, with its focus on cutting-edge, user-focused workplace technologies and products, also emerged from the foundational ethos of the organization negotiating its place in the realm of labor innovation, “The founders always had a vision of coming up with interventions that they could prove and then scale.”
says Mamta Pimoli, the Senior Ventures Manager at GBL. Identifying businesses as partners early on in the journey also necessitated bringing business expertise in-house with the advent of GBL Ventures in 2021. Globally. According to the ILO’s estimates, a whopping 22% percent of the world is employed in industry yet bad working conditions are terminally cited as a reason for labor shortages across the world. Navigating labor-intensive industries on their own terms is critical to meeting GBL’s most fundamental ideals of imagining more dignified lives for workers everywhere. With products like Salary Advance, a fintech platform that enables workers to avail their earnings at any time of the month, we endeavor to engender financial freedom and autonomy for workers – a fundamental but overlooked step towards worker dignity. For a peer environment that is often skeptical of revenue streams for non-profits, how does one exactly square off with royalties that the products GBL Ventures create can command in the market. “Given the funding landscape, I think it’s sustainable for an organization to be self-sufficient. Moreover, this allows us to truly expand the scope and scale of our work.” Pimoli opined.
Evidence and action
While there are no firm answers to bridging the divide between research and action, a young organization like GBL has the unique opportunity to attempt to take action more contemporaneous with our times. With the precariat only increasing in modern conditions, the need to transform the state of labor only becomes more urgent every passing day. Evidence and proven outcomes play a key role in this transformation, and a growing organization must seize the opportunity to act on evidence.