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August 09, 2019

Quality Controllers: Dipika Prasad

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by B. Nipun

Stepping into a demanding realm of work, they have harnessed technology to develop and re-invent urban topographies. In the second of a three-part series Dipika Prasad tells Verve about her innovative planning methods for optimising the potential of Indian cities…

Originally from Nizamabad, a small town in Telangana, the daughter of an infantry officer in the Indian Army has lived in seven different cities, attended 11 schools and travelled to almost all the Indian states. By her own admission, she spent more time outside the classroom as she was a bit of a “misfit and loner as a child”. She discovered science fiction when she was about seven — and since then the stories of Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov became her whole world. Dipika Prasad states, “I reckon almost all of my best professional work so far has been inspired by Star Trek in some way.”

For a long time, the Hyderabad-based professional wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the Indian Army. But her goals changed when, at 15, she almost died from cerebral malaria. Prasad recalls, “It made me realise how short life is and what it means to die with regret — feeling like I had not done enough with my life and not made a difference to this world at all.”

Trained as a biotech engineer and armed with an executive specialisation in data science, Prasad discovered that her life’s mission was to unlock the potential of Indian cities to transform the country into a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable one. To achieve that vision she set up Lakeer (2017), a technology-focused non-profit that works in collaboration with urban programmes driven by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. She has previously worked on inclusive development issues across South Asia and East Africa. A prominent feather in her cap is the setting up of and leading the Intellecap Innovation Lab (2016-2017) that aims at using exponential technologies to drive social change. Prasad has also built and scaled up India’s first and largest virtual incubation platform, StartupWave (2012), that was recognised by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard Kennedy School as one of the 12 breakthrough ideas shaping the future of inclusive development on a global level.

Biotech engineering, data science and their applications
In my line of work, I use technology to solve the social challenges that stem from poverty and the inequitable access to the opportunities that could bring one out of it. For instance, 75 per cent of an Indian’s average income is determined by whom they are born to, for privilege — ascribed by birth — not hard work largely tends to determine income. My academic training has taught me how to untangle and break down problems into smaller chunks and identify the right aspects to address, so that what I create has a far-reaching ripple effect. It has also taught me how to become comfortable with staying with a problem for some time, rather than immediately jumping to solve it. Everyone should have the basic knowledge about the principles of data science. This would make you understand what it will take to find workable solutions…

Technology as a tool at the macro level
I started doing my best work when I began combining my love for science fiction with solving real-world challenges.

Around 2016, I was tasked with setting up the Intellecap Innovation Lab, with the objective of using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) to solve social challenges. It was a dream job! I kept thinking about where to start — my team and I had done a tonne of thinking around this, but I always felt like an ‘“element X’” was missing.

One night while I was randomly flipping through channels, I ended up watching Elysium (2013), a science fiction film where the ‘happy ending’ saw robotic spaceships dispatched to a poverty-stricken Earth to provide medical care. That was my first aha moment. We implemented AI and IoT to bring doctor-less preventive care for patients with diabetes, hypertension and cardiac issues living in a Bengaluru slum at a very low cost — less than two dollars annually per person.

Another example is our launch of India’s first and largest virtual incubation platform, StartupWave in 2012. It was built to give support to entrepreneurs outside of major towns and cities. This support was channelled through a blend of online learning and mentoring via a web-based platform as well as in-person workshops and demo days for shortlisted start-ups.

The importance of technology in enhancing urbanisation as envisioned by Lakeer
Today, our cities only work for a minority of our citizens — we’d like to see them shift towards working for everyone by being more inclusive and also become more prosperous and sustainable. This means better access to jobs, better public transport, cleaner air, more affordable homes and greater attention to those aspects that determine our quality of life.

Our specific mission is to build the case for more data-driven governance of cities. Indian cities are significantly under-resourced. Data-driven planning and thoughtful use of our limited urban resources can make our cities work for their most important stakeholders — the citizens.

We largely work with remote sensing, GIS analytics and government data in Lakeer. We’ve built a free, open-source product called CitySight (launched in 2018), which is a user-friendly and map-based data visualisation tool that evaluates the quality of life in cities based on granular data. City leaders can drill down to streets and roof-top levels to make better decisions about where to prioritise their resources.

The benefits of smart design in urban planning
Smart design is at the heart of urban planning. Not just in terms of thinking about infrastructure but, more importantly, also about governance systems, economies and ecologies of cities.

So much of traditional urban planning is anchored in rigid master plans that largely focus on defining the use of land — residential, commercial, and industrial. This doesn’t really help cities grow and prosper in the real world. So, the biggest shifts have to be putting people at the centre of urban planning and taking a multidisciplinary design approach. One way would be to make cities function for their most vulnerable citizens, like children for instance, which in turn would make them work for everyone else. If we were to redo our entire public transport network with children in mind — we would ensure much better end-to-end connectivity, safety, ease of climbing into and out of vehicles, the placement of clear signs on how to move around and easy payment mechanisms.

Her inspirations
I’ve had many inspirations, but this past year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about two of them and wondering what they would do if they were in my shoes. The first is Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, who founded Aravind Eye Care — an institution that is now directly or indirectly responsible for more than 40 per cent of the eye care services delivered across all countries in the developing world. His biography is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read on how to take a complex problem like preventable blindness and build an entire institution to solve every facet of it.

The second is urbanist, author and journalist Jane Jacobs. She transformed how we think about planning cities and what makes them thrive, and she moved the entire practice of urban planning towards a more human-centric approach that is grounded in how the world actually works. She rose in an incredibly male-dominated field and took on and won against a system that was biased against the common people.

Read Part 1 with Trupti Amritwar Vaitla here

Read Part 3 with Trupti Doshi here

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