On January 25th, Chennai appointed the country’s first Innovation Officer. 31-year-old engineer M P Azhagu Pandia Raja is all set to assume the role.
Azhagu Pandia Raja spent five years with a software firm in the UK, before his urge to contribute to the nation brought him back to the country. He has since had a successful stint as an Indian Smart City Fellow, during which time he pioneered solutions around waste management and COVID response, working closely with the Chennai Corporation.
He credits the efforts of G Prakash, Commissioner, Greater Chennai Corporation and Meghanath Reddy, Deputy Commissioner, Revenue in making his involvement possible.
Citizen Matters spoke to Azhagu Pandian to understand what his role entails and the potential of the Innovation Officer to engage with the public.
How did your appointment as city Innovation Officer come about?
The Chennai Corporation wanted to create a space for citizens’ ideas to be heard. They were in the process of finalising a suitable channel to carry out this work.
During my association with the corporation, we were able to create and implement ideas without much cost to the civic body as we found sponsors for them. Similarly many others may have ideas and suggestions to solve various problems in the city. We will be creating what could serve as a collaborative platform to incubate these ideas.
When the call for applications for the post of Innovation Officer came about, I applied for the position. Based on my prior experience with the CoC, I was able to make a strong case for myself.
What kind of association did you have with the Greater Chennai Corporation prior to this?
Before this appointment, I was part of a cohort of fellows working with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. Around 40 fellows were selected from across the country and I was one of two people chosen from Tamil Nadu. We were given a challenge to work on a specific urban issue and come up with solutions for it.
I chose waste management and created the Waste Exchange, a digital solution for easy recycling of waste. As we could pilot it in any one of the smart cities, I chose Chennai; I am from Tamil Nadu. After testing the idea here, it is now set to be rolled out across the country as India Waste Exchange.
While I was working on this, the pandemic broke out and my station in Chennai got extended. During this time I was able to work on activities and issues related to COVID management. I designed the concept called GCC corona monitoring, and the app to go with it, to monitor the spread of COVID in the city. The app reached more than 1.5 lakh downloads on Playstore and Chennai was the first city to launch an app for this. We also developed another app for home quarantine and isolation management.
Finally, due to COVID, tax collection by the municipality had been really low, so we tried to innovate on the process and designed games (using game theory) to improve the property tax revenue.
Tell us a bit about your earlier experience. How did you become interested in solving urban issues?
I was a software engineer, working with HCL. I served in the role for five years before I left the job. But I wanted to enter the civil services so I was preparing for the UPSC exam. I enrolled in a Masters in International Relations and also cleared NET exams during this time.
During my civil services attempt I came across the MoHUA fellowship and applied. I was selected and spent two years working on urban issues. It gave me a grounding on how the government works and issues faced by cities. I was able to bring in my IT background to these roles.
There are a lot of areas where the technological know-how of the youth can serve a useful purpose. I wanted to give something back to society and this has been an opportunity to do so by getting into the system.
What are the items on your agenda as Chennai’s Innovation Officer?
We are working out all the details right now. As of now, we wanted to have a hackathon where we throw open all the city’s challenges to the public, seeking solutions.
We also want this office to be a place where anyone who has an idea or a solution for any challenge faced by the city can walk in and pitch it. If it is a start-up that could help the government, we will try to help them with minimal funding. In other instances, we can connect with other funding opportunities for the ideas. We want to institutionalise a space where idea exchange takes place and innovations take root.
The long term vision is for this office to emerge as a think-tank for the entire state. We will have experts from various fields as a part of this process. We will work with academic institutions, private entities, research scholars, think-tanks, NGOs.
We will also have a student engagement cell that can offer internships with the government.
Could you elaborate on these internships and how students may be involved?
If you are a doctoral student, this could be a great opportunity to work with public data. It is difficult to get data from the government. Even interdepartmental coordination on this is tough.
Through this platform, we hope to be able to place students in various departments depending on the subject they want to work in. This will be beneficial because the government will have a good knowledge resource and the students will also get the information required for their research.
We see this as a way to get youth involved in issues of urban governance.
How does the Innovation Office plan to work with citizen activists?
Maybe we can take the problems they face and work out a solution. We can tap into our network and see if we can arrive at a consensus on how to fix the issues. However, the mandate of this office does not in any way overlap with the work of the bureaucrats and the civic body staff.
We are yet to set any boundaries for what we could do, so the possibilities are endless. We will accept and analyse all ideas and suggestions and see what is feasible for the government to work on. No such roles existed in India before Chennai carved out this position. Usually R & D is outsourced to private firms and think-tanks, but here we are trying to build capacity within the government itself to test new ideas.
Will your office be involved in making more data open and available to the public, as we see in the case of cities like Bengaluru?
We have recruited a city data officer. Their role would be to define data and see how various data is classified and organised. But making the data open is completely a decision that has to be made by the corporation or the government. The office can help clean and analyse the data, but beyond that, it is not for us to decide. MoHUA is constantly pushing for open data policy and there will definitely be some progress on this soon by the Chennai Corporation.
How do you plan to reach out to citizens across a wide spectrum, who may not necessarily have technology solutions to problems, but have ideas nevertheless?
The office has been up and running only for a week. We are in the process of framing policies on engagement and only then shall we be able to push for outreach. We can’t reach out to people before we have the platform in place to engage with them and a definitive set of guidelines. We will use traditional media and social media to get the word out on our work. Hopefully our hackathon will attract attention as well.
You are in the process of setting things up. How big do you envision your office to be?
As of now the only thing that is certain is that we will be working out of the second floor of the Ripon Building. We are working out staffing details. We will be looking to recruit many interns in the coming weeks and months. We are conscious that we should not be wasteful of taxpayers’ money but have something concrete to show for the effort we put in.
We are trying to use the resources available, tap into the enthusiasm of the public and look at a blend of private and public funding to power the ideas that emerge from here.
What would be your message to youngsters who want to get involved in solving problems in the city?
More than 50% of this country is young. There is a strong notion among the youth that the government is not working properly, and nothing can be done inside the government and that the government is corrupt. This is also strengthened by the fact that the stories we see in the media are mostly critical in nature.
Everyone thinks that there is no avenue for creativity or development in the government. But the fact that I’m the country’s first Innovation Officer proves this wrong. The solutions proposed by me were embraced, even though I was someone outside the government.
To make progress happen on a larger scale, we need more people to believe in possibilities and think positively about how the problems before us can be solved.