By María Zapata and Sanjay Purohit

ASPIRe was launched in April 2020 as a joint initiative between Ashoka and Societal Platform (now referred to as Societal Thinking). The impetus for this collaboration came from two organisations with complementary goals, priorities and ambitions and a catalyst that jump started the co-creation. Reflecting on ASPIRe's first three years has been a valuable exercise in understanding not just our own journey but also the evolution of our partners, funders, and Ashoka Fellows.

Ashoka, with over 40 years of experience supporting social entrepreneurs, in scaling systemic social change, was seeking pathways for Fellows to leverage technology for impact. The question was who in the social sector had leveraged technology in a way that worked for all citizens.

Societal Thinking, an initiative of EkStep Foundation since 2016, aimed to help change leaders achieve impact at population scale leveraging network effects and co-creation ecosystems enabled by digital infrastructure. The Societal Thinking team recognised that such ambitious endeavours would only succeed if led by exceptional and audacious leaders. The question was where to find the right people for such a challenge.

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNPF), a foundation that is known to both parties, brought Societal Thinking and Ashoka together to help the two organisations realise their mutual complementarity. RNP had successfully collaborated with Ashoka in the past and had seen firsthand that Ashoka fellows around the world represented the leaders who have the potential to create massive scale impact. They were also advocates of the potential of Societal Thinking to bring about a reimagination in the development sector. Once the two organisations agreed to co-create, RNPF provided the seed funding to Ashoka to launch the ASPIRe.

ASPIRe: The Beginning

As the pathways of both the organisations converged, ASPIRe's mission was set to discover how to help Ashoka social entrepreneurs reimagine their approach, induce exponential change and aim for impact at scale leveraging Ashoka’s knowledge in scaling system change and the insights from Societal Thinking.. The goal of the partnership was to develop a body of knowledge combining these two practices based on the hands-on experiences of the Ashoka Fellows. 

After a global call for applications through the Ashoka fellowship, a panel of outstanding leaders from Ashoka's and Societal Thinking's networks selected 33 Ashoka Fellows to join the first ASPIRe cohort. Just as COVID had put the world on hold, ASPIRe fellows started their journeys. 

Over the last  three  years , we have gone through an intense Learn > Reimagine > Design > Prototype cycle with our first cohort. Through studying several Ashoka fellows around the world, we learned how platforms for the good of all look like; with the Fellows, we reimagined how their audacious dreams could be supported by the use of technology and this thinking; with some we traversed the journey of designing such a mission and finally with a few we went all the way to prototyping, initiating a pathway to exponential change.

ASPIRe's journey has been a testament to the power of co-creation, collaboration, vision, and audacity. We learned new things everyday and the program went through rapid evolution during the process. The invitation and the proposition of the program to create impact at scale were very compelling to the Ashoka Fellows. However, when it came to being able to convert the thinking into practice, we discovered that they faced many challenges and needed a structured process and expert support. A group of more than 40 professionals, designated as Mission Allies, provided thousands of hours in pro-bono time to support the cohort members. A scaffolding of the ASPIRe Accelerator started to emerge.

The ASPIRe Sprints, (structured action-oriented workshops and exercises that fellow teams went through along with their Mission Allies) nudged them to think differently about their networks, the impact of technology, the need for co-creation, the role of their communities, and more importantly their own role to orchestrate exponential change. It started leading to better programs, more effective collaborations, new innovation ecosystems and a stronger interest in how technology could help them in their quest to activate the agency of communities to solve their own problems. While we started with Societal Platforms as the desirable outcome, many other manifestations and opportunities for exponential change emerged in this process.

As the ASPIRe fellows were pursuing their exploration, it became increasingly clear that while Societal Platforms was an outcome that could induce impact at population scale, it required significant technology expertise and a significant pool of patient capital. Furthermore, they needed to build the capacity to prototype. Many Mission allies pulled the resources of their organisations to support fellows through the prototype stage, going far beyond their initial commitment to the program. The Societal Thinking team also set up a Value Lab to help several fellows. Some of these prototypes are in the pilot phase, some are already exploring opportunities for deployment with government and partner networks. 

Our Pillars of Learning

To ensure ASPIRe process was grounded in the experiences and learnings of social entrepreneurs the ASPIRe team researched the Ashoka network to discover 14 other Ashoka Fellows beyond ASPIRe who had successfully implemented platforms for the good of all, which resulted in the research report “Leveraging Platforms for Impact at Scale”.  Our findings were featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

We combined the patterns and design approaches developed by these Fellows with the values and principles of Societal Thinking to distil 9 design principles that we believe are very useful to social entrepreneurs on a quest to define their exponential change. These are now a very important pillar of the ASPIRe Accelerator. 

As our Fellows went on their journeys of leveraging technology, it became evident to us that open-source technology was an effective and viable pathway for social entrepreneurs. As a result, ASPIRe is now collaborating with a wide network of organisations to create OASIS, an alliance of organisations that are aligned around a similar vision of open-source technology, not only to support the future cohorts of ASPIRe fellows but also to bridge this gap for the entire sector. 

Continuing the Journey

Through the support of its partners and funders, ASPIRe was able to bring together exceptional leaders, develop a body of open knowledge for the social sector and started weaving a network of allies and partners who were generous to help enable Ashoka Fellows and beyond. After the initial two years of being a co-created initiative between Ashoka and Societal Thinking, ASPIRe eventually became fully integrated as an Ashoka global program. This is the new avatar of ASPIRe.

Societal Thinking remains a valuable partner with whom we exchange learnings, seek expertise, and extend our networks to support each other. ASPIRe has also established partnerships with a wide ecosystem such as Tech To The Rescue, Infosys Ltd., FOSS United and Tech4Good and beyond that, a group of 37 high level tech and strategy experts have recently joined in to shape the group of Mission Allies who are supporting the journey of our new cohort of Fellows 2023.. 

Our Fellows

The group of 15 Ashoka fellows that decided to continue the ASPIRe journey after the initial phase, have gradually implemented in their organisations the learnings gained during our Accelerator programme that ended at the end of 2022. 

Here are some stories about their journeys:

Jessica Mayberry, founder of Video Volunteers

Manu Gupta, founder of SEEDS

Pranshu Shingal, founder of Karo Sambhav

Sarah Otterstrom, founder of Paso Pacifico

A new cohort of 11 Ashoka Fellows joined a new edition of the ASPIRe Accelerator in 2023 with the ambition to strategize and identify what could work to catalyse impact at scale. The ASPIRe team and its network of partners are supporting them in their journey and sharing this experience, knowledge and outcomes with the whole ecosystem. As ASPIRe continues to grow and evolve with the interactions of this emergent ecosystem, it is steadily building the capacity to enable exponential change that can lead to impact at scale.