‘Saaf’, the Hindi word for ‘clean’, is Shammy Jacob’s audacious idea. His project aims to inspire Indians to respect and care for common spaces, and to introduce waste management systems and cultural change to reinstate the pristine and pure beauty of India’s railway corridor. With his goal already in sight, Shammy was among the first group of leaders to join us at THNK.
Was your vision of a cleaner landscape born on a train?
It was. The train corridors in India are a spectacle, with an unimaginable amount of trash. Every time I travelled there, I was appalled by the state of public spaces. I was already working to integrate integrity into business models and systems, and decided that I had to come back and do something. I didn’t put a lot of thought as to the ‘how’. I just had a feeling. It’s a straightforward goal, but I knew it would be difficult. The solutions are apparent, but not in India. Not culturally. When you have 200,000 daily riders, dustbins along the platforms won’t be enough. We need to tell a story to those 200,000 people. We need to get them on board with us.
The Indian public sector has a reputation for being difficult to navigate. What has it been like to enter that sphere with new ideas?
I thought to myself, How am I going to crack this? How will I get in? But you never know until you try. I picked up the phone and started calling the railways and it worked like magic. The organization was warm and open to hear me out. There’s a lot of buzz around cleanliness in India these days—environmental budgets are up 40% from the last year—the timing is right.
You’ve described India’s trash issues as not just a human, environmental, and economic problem, but as a design problem. Tell us about the starting point.
We’d like to certify one station at a time, with one clean, long-rail train that connects them all. Then we’ll create a toolkit that we can hand over to the railways to implement in other zones. The biggest roadblock so far is that seemingly irreconcilable need to demonstrate impact in order to get a formal partnership with the railway—but in order to have impact, we need the formal partnership.
We’re tapping into our network to organize fellowships and innovation weekends—called Saaf 48—to showcase the relevance of human-centric design in India. This has led to a project with Banka BioLoo, a social enterprise run by women that develops commercialized bio-toilets for Indian Railways. But it’s not just a matter of accessibility—we need cultural change as well.
How does THNK help you to bring design thinking to bear on tens of thousands of miles of railway routes?
As design thinkers, I’ve got access to a methodology for solving seemingly unsolvable problems. The creative tools at THNK make so much sense, even taking into consideration India’s ad-hoc problem-solving—which is the exact opposite of the sensing approach that we experienced at THNK. The THNK creative flow is my methodology, but more importantly, it is my network. This collective of people is stunning in its reach when it comes to making things happen. Within just a couple of conversations with THNK, this urgent feeling that I had about a cleaner India became a large-scale vision. The issue of waste in India’s public spaces was a natural cause for me, but it’s a huge one—the railways seemed the right place to start. (image source: India Today)
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After over 20 years of experience in product management, Shammy Jacob, Director for Sustainable Ventures at Nike, left the corporate world to start the New World Fight Club, an agency that works with brands to incorporate sustainability into their processes and values. Shammy Jacob founded Saaf India in 2013 during the Accelerator phase of his Creative Leadership program at THNK. The foundation’s first project is Saaf Train—leveraging the Indian Railways as a platform for innovation and inspiration around waste management.