On Breaking silos and nudging the Homo Economicus Academicus community

Part II: The evolutionary trajectory of SITE4Society (A Social Innovation)

2017_2_shyamaBy Shyama V. Ramani, UNU-MERIT, ramani@merit.unu.edu

For Citation: SITE4society Essay No. 2-2018

Phase 1: Born in UNU-MERIT

In the United Nations University (UNU-MERIT), we study the evolutionary processes that are pushing the knowledge frontiers of science, their transformation into technology and innovation by entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, and their impact on society. I went around chatting with a few friends, whispering that as researchers, we usually draw inspiration from secondary sources of information on what is happening in the world and the existing scientific literature.  This could be because we do not often get an opportunity to interact with non-academics or be part of the process of societal change – with the exception of the academic context. To address this missed opportunity, why not initiate dialogue between students, researchers and other community stakeholders of the local innovation eco-system? Serdar Turkeli a young scholar in UNU-MERIT, whom I have seen bloom over the years, and Rene Kemp, a brilliant Professor and my good Slide2friend, liked the idea. Thus, SITE4Society was hatched as an action-research adventure to create a home-grown frugal social innovation in UNU-MERIT with Serdar and Rene and the support of other good friends such as Sueli Brodin, Eduardo Urias and Catalina Goanta. Like many of my initiatives, the idea was probably first planted in my head by Sueli anyway! Again, as Rene has written, we are not alone, but part of an emerging trend that seeks greater humanization of the economy.


SITE4Society was hatched in September 2017 as an event series in UNU-MERIT that would bring the non-academic world into the academic institute. The idea was to facilitate conversations between those changing the world and academics doing research about change, so that it is a live learning experience for students. It was based on the premise that the mobilization of Science (or knowledge), Innovation, Technology, and triple helix.jpgEntrepreneurship are instrumental variables to address societal challenges. Its purpose is to explore how social scientists can create a shared value in the local and global communities towards the Sustainable Development. This is not an entirely new idea. Scholars have identified the ‘Triple Helix Model’ and proposed that continuous and spontaneous interaction between actors from the university, industry and state can serve to build industrial capabilities in knowledge intensive sectors. But here university actors usually refer to those working in the hard sciences, innovations are strictly of the technological kind and entrepreneurship refers to business, and the state is interested because the Triple Helix Model can contribute to industrial and economic growth. In contrast to the standard Triple Helix Model, the focus of SITE4Society is to explore if and how social scientists can generate a social innovation, wherein the value created accrues primarily to society or is dispersed across a variety of actors, rather than being largely appropriated by a single entity.

Phase 2: SITE4India created

 Untitled13In October 2017, I went to the Globelics conference at Athens, Greece and had the good fortune to meet up with a number of young researchers from India or working on India. In fact, I requested the youngsters to gather our group and the conversation ranged over a variety of topics. I posed the question of who would be interested in participating in an initiative to bridge the knowledge gaps in our world. Here, thanks to the enthusiasm and sincerity of Anurag Kanaujia, an email group of seven researchers including myself was formed. But I was not very clear about what I wanted to do or how it should be done.

Then during the first two SITE4Society Conversation Workshops in November 2017, and Untitled10then especially after the February 2018 in UNU-MERIT, my vision for our SITE4India frugal social innovation became very clear. Here, I Untitled11must indicate that my sources of inspiration were Dr. Burak Can (on left) and Dr. Kaiser Chaudhary (on right). While we will surely feature interviews with them in the future, for now let me just explain that they are social scientists with an economics and law background respectively, who are launching social innovations using – you know what – ‘the mobile phone’. It has been very well documented that the mobile phone has changed the lives of the poor as well as the rich. More people in India have a mobile phone than a toilet still. So how was the mobile phone to be instrumental in creating a social innovation involving academics? My answer lies in Figure 1.  

 Figure 1 Slide4

My idea is this. There is a knowledge divide that is created by the quality of the academic institute that one has the luck to study or work in. The quality of the academic institute is given by the quality of the curriculum, institutional infrastructure, teaching, student learning, mode of examination, history, context of the region and its general culture of learning. By creating a publication brief, we can bring the essence of validated publications to all, to every student, and especially those in developing countries – for free, via their mobile phones! These can support both teachers and students. Thus, we achieve a two fold purpose. First, we contribute to addressing the challenge of accessing truthful evidence in a post-truth world, and at the same time, we bridge knowledge divides via a frugal IoT innovation (Internet of Things).   

The above concept was overwhelming for most in the initial group, and thus, they could IMG-20170627-WA0017not continue. Here I sincerely thank the two co-founders, Anurag Kanaujia, a doctoral student from CSIR-NISTADS lab in profilepicIndia, and Dr. Nanditha Mathew from Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Italy. We did not know each other at all in October 2017 when we first met at Globelics. But we have handled such crises together, one after the other, through internet chats and telephone conversations that a deep friendship has formed between us based on our common collective values. Thus, we contribute to addressing the challenge of accessing truthful evidence in a post-truth world, and at the same time, bridge knowledge divides via a very simple and frugal IoT innovation (Internet of Things).   

Phase 3: SITE4India is genetically modified and becomes part of SITE4Society – a global frugal social innovation!

From the start, Nanditha, Anurag and I have been sending emails such as the following to our friends in the academic community.

Dear XXX,

I along with some young scholars have started the  ‘Site4India initiative’ on social media to facilitate dialogue between students, researchers and other community stakeholders interested in attaining sustainable development through sharing the highlights of peer-reviewed research in the social sciences. I invite you to please take a look at : https://www.facebook.com/SITE4India/  and  https://site4india.wordpress.com/

Our focus areas are the SITE variables i.e. science, innovation, infrastructure, technology, entrepreneurship, environment and their governance in India that can serve its National Missions and attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We want to BRIDGE the KNOWLEDGE DIVIDE between those who have access to the latest articles especially in international journals and those who don’t. We want to BRIDGE the GAP between academics and society. That’s our motivation.

The briefs are summaries of prior published work (articles, books, chapters, conference presentations) so that the main results can be diffused throughout a larger community. These are submitted in a particular format that makes it easier to understand the what, why, how of research for the common men and women. https://site4society.wordpress.com/to-submit-a-brief/

We think the above facebook site with links to the wordpress brief will be of great use to students and scholars if a large and good community is built.

Since you and your colleagues are working on these areas – it would be great to receive briefs of your published work! We look forward to hearing from you!!

Thank you and best wishes,


******And after three weeks I sent out the following email Anurag and Nanditha.

Dear Anurag and Nanditha,

I have really spent a lot of time requesting for briefs from my colleagues working on/in India. It would be an understatement to state that I am going nuts looking for academics to give me a publication brief. It is simply not possible for me to continue in this way. Besides that I am personally editing the briefs and I am finding that this is real work. Scholars are not used to “communicating” their work to the outside world. Gosh – I never imagined that it was this BAD!

So I have transformed it to Site4Society – continuing with you two and we will be joined by others in UNU-MERIT. There are 52 weeks in a year. We must survive!!



Nanditha and Anurag agreed. They were also working hard to get publication briefs, but as Nanditha put it:“Since writing a publication brief/blog does not bring any immediate gain in academics, people postpone this for other work”. And so we come back to the present incentive system in academic establishments that makes most of us into homo economicus academicus! (see previous blog for explanation).

Phase 4: Present and Future of SITE4Society – a frugal social innovation is in your hands!


In sum, three types of benefits seem apparent from engagements with and contribution to SITE4Society.

First, getting out of the academics silo and talking with other stakeholders not as ‘objects of study’ for a publication, but as partners addressing societal problems, can give rise to interesting ideas.

Second, by communicating about ‘research findings’ in a way that is understandable, traceable and useful, article citations might increase (to be confirmed in a couple of years!).

Third, giving back to society generates a ‘warm glow’ effect. Any ‘warm glow’ effect makes a ‘homo economicus academicus’ more productive, and brings the being closer to the ‘Nirvana’ state of a confirmed Professorship in the associated eco-system.

So will the SITE4Society social innovation survive? We don’t know. It will depend on your response! Write to us if you want to volunteer or submit your brief site4society@gmail.com Send us your publication brief ! See https://site4society.wordpress.com/to-submit-a-brief/ for details.

Thanks in advance,

Shyama V. Ramani

PS _ Comms Team (Howard Hudson and Diego Salama) and UNU-MERIT friends – I especially count on you! Cheers!


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