People + Building for Billions

shankar maruwada
Published in
6 min readSep 11


Seeds of possibilities, forests of transformation

As I sat down to capture the essence of our collective journey, I couldn’t have foreseen the waves of emotions that would wash over me. Delight, satisfaction, awe and pride swelled within me as I transcribed the conversations that unfolded during the People + Building for Billions event. It was a momentous coming together of aspirations and realizations — a warm embrace to the ‘aha’ moments that had been our guiding stars.

Sarkaar, Samaaj and Bazaar coming together to transform a Billion+

Our vision at EkStep Foundation was to create ‘People + Building for Billions’ as an event where our collaborative projects, their impact, and the technologies driving them would come into the limelight. Yet, as the day unfolded, it transcended these boundaries, metamorphosing into something larger than life — an idea given birth by the community and waiting for its destined transformative impact.

Audience had much to ponder over — possibilities, inspiration and ideas

That transformative day began with more than three hundred participants from all three pillars of society — Sarkaar, Samaaj and Bazaar- with a question I posed to the gathering: “How can we enable equitable societal transformation, leveraging technology within existing ecosystems?” This question echoed through the halls as we grappled with the scale, diversity, and complexity of India’s billion-plus population. How could we usher in sustainable change while keeping people at the heart of the transformation?

EkStep has been dedicated to answering this question for eight years, but our aspirations transcend our existence. We aim to become a humble seed destined to flourish into a diverse forest, just as Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot becomes insignificant in the grand cosmos. For nearly a decade, EkStep has ventured to address this existential question. Yet our dream transcends our organization’s confines. We envision ourselves as a modest sprout, yearning to mature into an abundant forest of opportunity and change, much like Carl Sagan’s ‘pale blue dot’ fades into the grand tapestry of the cosmos.

Animated and passionate conversations that left the audience energised and brimming with ideas to explore

A constellation of thought leaders — Adil Zainulbhai, Anjali Bansal, Debjani Ghosh, Rohit Saran, T Koshy, Keyzom Ngodup Massally, and Ashish Dhawan — illuminated the room, igniting conversations that traversed sectors and paradigms. The day was a kaleidoscope of big ideas, with topics ranging from the electrification of the gig economy in a digital landscape to the visionary reconception of systems as interconnected global ecosystems. Together, we navigated the complexities of dismantling information barriers, catalyzing India’s natural inclination for disruptive innovation, and fostering entrepreneurial networks poised to revolutionize economic growth and social well-being . Central to these dialogues was the resonant theme of ‘voice,’ viewed as a tool and a potent connector in bridging the digital chasm.

Eight minute vision talks that inspired the audience

A thought-provoking panel discussion, fittingly named “India’s Techade — The Road Ahead” and skillfully moderated by NSN Murty, compelled us to think deeply about India’s educational landscape. Joined by Sanjay Kumar, Amit Nirmal, Abhishek Singh, Basant Garg, and Pramod Varma, the conversation went beyond mere intellectual debate; it became a soul-searching expedition. The discussion tackled the critical questions — what, why, and how — of providing education to every child across the nation’s diverse geography. A focus on technological solutions and a strong emphasis on inclusivity emerged, ensuring that program designs are not just far-reaching but deeply meaningful for the various communities they serve.

A visual scribe who took ‘visual notes’ was novel experience for the audience

The event also hosted three breakout sessions — PeoplePlus Lifelong Learning, PeoplePlus AI for Societal Change, and PeoplePlus Open Networks. The Lifelong Learning track harnessed the power of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPIs) to enrich learning experiences in various sectors, while the AI for Societal Change track explored how AI could catalyse societal transformation. The role of open networks in enhancing discoverability, accessibility, and inclusivity in education and skilling was emphasized in the Open Networks track.

Its People+, not tech+: The persona at the centre of the Experience Zone

One of the day’s most magnetic attractions was the Experience Zone — a continuously active epicentre of creative solutions that was anything but static. Picture entering a dynamic panorama populated by the animated expressions of healthcare workers, students, and farmers. This interactive space spotlighted the intersection of these diverse lives with cutting-edge digital public goods. Here, technology was revealed as a concrete, active enabler, already making strides in resolving real-world issues that touch the everyday lives of countless individuals.

Nandan Nilekani’s address on ‘India’s digital transformation: The People + advantage’ resonated deeply. He spoke of India’s monumental shift from offline to online and how digitalization could accelerate development. Trust, he emphasized, had become fluid, and data was the new digital capital, owned by individuals themselves. He encapsulated this with a powerful equation: Human capital + Digital capital is the People + Advantage

The People+ Advantage= Human Capital + Digital Capital

Undoubtedly, the day’s highlight was when Rohini Nilekani stepped up to speak. Her talk wasn’t just captivating — it struck a chord with everyone in the room. She painted a vivid picture of how society, government, and markets could harmonize for the greater good. Her plea to make room for individual voices in our big plans for change was deeply touching. She rallied us with a clear message: Go for unified, not just uniform systems, and focus on being people-led while tech-enabled. “True economic unlocking can only occur when we design with, by, and for the people.” The air was charged, our collective consciousness elevated, and her words left an impression and a transformative blueprint.

People+ is when we design with, for and by the people

Rohini’s insights magnified the ‘People Plus’ core of the gathering, casting it as a theme and a call to action. It underscored that innovation doesn’t emerge from voids but from the collective dreams, sweat, and ingenuity of real people. It’s people who have created technological wonders, bridged the gaps in India’s diverse landscape, and will guide our forthcoming, transformative journey through Digital Public Infrastructure. With her signature blend of humour and wisdom, Rohini also nudged us with a keen reminder: “While we may have had a panel today called India’s Techade, remember TECH is only an AID.” Her words were a catalyst, urging us not to overlook the human element in our quest for transformation. That is why it is called People+ and not Tech+

As we have cast the seeds of possibility into fertile soil, we now find ourselves on the threshold of a transformative future, eagerly awaiting the nourishing rains that will bring forth a lush landscape of change.

As I end this reflection, I am struck by the growing belief amongst the networks of those working tirelessly to transform India: It can be done, now is the time to do it, and together we can do it.

Shankar Maruwada Co-Founder and CEO, EkStep Foundation



shankar maruwada

Co-Founder and CEO, EkStep Foundation