Zenia Tata’s commitment to the cause of social development matches her belief in the role innovation can play in multiplying its efficacy. The executive director (global expansion) of XPRIZE — a nonprofit that seeks out technological breakthroughs to meet social development needs around the world — speaks with lucidity about a field of work that has taken her across Asia, Africa and Latin America in the past two decades.

Ms Tata heads XPRIZE’s initiatives, spread across the world, in women’s safety, innovation, food, energy and more. What stands apart here is a rather special, and seemingly fantastical, effort: the Water Abundance XPRIZE, a $1.75-million competition supported by the Tata group that challenges teams to help solve the global water crisis by creating technologies that can harvest freshwater from the atmosphere. That means producing water from thin air, so to speak, and there’s nothing fanciful about it.

A Mumbai girl who moved to the United States as a young woman — and who now lives “up at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies in the midst of pristine beauty” — Ms Tata has been involved with issues such as water, food, livelihoods, climate change, land rights, healthcare and education.

She talks here to Christabelle Noronha about her work and the difference the XPRIZE contest can make to water-distressed people and communities. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your background and how you came to be involved with the social sector.

I’m a Mumbai girl and a Xavierite [an alumna of St Xavier’s College] and I grew up in Gowalia Tank in central Mumbai. I left India when I was 22. The most profound influence on me in my early years was my maternal grandmother, Gool Wadia. A woman of great wisdom, she was inclined towards philosophy, literature and nature. Gool spent a good part of her time in social service and that certainly had a deep impact on me.

As a young girl, I was always attracted to new and different technologies. I was fascinated by space and the technology that gets you there, but it seemed so completely out of reach. That passion translated into my love for flying. I had a licence when I was barely 18 years old, partly due to the legacy of the family. My father’s sister, Ruby Kapadia, was one of the first woman pilots in India and had flown with JRD Tata.

I came to understand how technology could be used as an enabler to take those big and bold steps that can bring about a positive change in the world. But technology is merely a catalyst. Several factors, among them social norms and market acceptance, go into the adoption of technologies at scale in the social development sector.

As I’ve learned over the last 20 years, the work itself is mostly trial and error. Sometimes I have had successes and sometimes I’ve employed the same methods and met with failure; there’s no single formula. You simply keep trying, remain agile and, importantly, listen to the people you are trying to help.

What critical challenges do you face in your work and what keeps you motivated?

The rules and regulations stipulated by governments in emerging economies often make little or no sense; in fact, they slow down everything. You may, consequently, want to have no dealings at all with governments. Before the opening up of Myanmar, where we were working on economic development, we had to fly under the radar to avoid forces of the military regime.

The other challenge is when your donors and board members come from a world that has a limited understanding of the ground reality in developing countries. You actually find yourself devoting more time explaining stuff to these governments and donors when you would rather be working in the field. A positive here is that there is no turning back once your team intervention has positively affected the lives of people. I often ask, “If not now, then when; if not you, then who.”

You’ve been credited with bringing an ‘entrepreneurial and marketbased approach’ to development issues. What does this mean?

In many situations, we have learned that charity doesn’t work, especially in today’s world. There’s a time and place for immense charitable acts; I’m not taking that away. However, if you want to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, in terms of economic development, you have to have a market-based approach. You have to treat the people you are working with as equal stakeholders rather than as recipients of charity.

If you had the chance to address the most critical development challenges facing the world, what would your list of priorities look like? Or is it all tied up?

A difficult question but I would go straight to addressing the issues around our planet and environment. And when you begin thinking about how to salvage the environment, you have to deal with the issue of waste. There is a critical nexus between waste, energy, water and food. We should be changing what is happening within that framework: how we get our energy and from where.

XPRIZE challenges participating teams to alleviate the global water crisis with energy-efficient technologies that harvest freshwater from the atmosphere.

In dealing with issues of food you have to address waste, because 30% of all food issues are related to waste. It’s called the ‘food gap’, where you have production and consumption along with a 30% loss in between that’s not even post-consumer waste. The issues here are intrinsically linked and need to be addressed first.

How do you define innovation in the social sector context?

I would define it in the context of the work we are doing at XPRIZE: audacious and achievable. You can, through innovation, combine different kinds of knowledge and research to create unique solutions. Transformative innovations can come from anywhere, from ordinary folks who are grappling with the problem or multidisciplinary teams comprising engineers, social scientists, policymakers and others.

What’s the ‘Water Abundance XPRIZE’ competition about?

Water is the universal link between human survival, our climate system and sustainable global development. Some 780 million people in 43 countries have to live with water scarcity and access to clean drinking water is a global crisis that affects more than 40% of the world’s population.

The three overarching challenges that contribute to water scarcity are lack of availability, uneven distribution and access, and contamination. Solutions such as desalination and waste-water treatment are either environmentally harmful or prohibitively expensive. Yet, more than 14 quadrillion [or 14,000 trillion] litres of water exist as invisible water vapour in the atmosphere, and there is sufficient humidity to extract water from air.

Atmospheric extraction of water has been around for a long time, but the technology is too expensive, energy intensive and cumbersome to become commonplace. What we have done is imagine a preferred future state for water and then gone about designing the audacious Water Abundance XPRIZE, a $1.75 million incentive for anyone who can push the limits and create water out of thin air. It’s esoteric but achievable.

The prize challenges participating teams to alleviate the global water crisis with energyefficient technologies that harvest freshwater from the atmosphere. We are looking to find a way to revolutionise access to freshwater by creating a device that extracts a minimum of 2,000 litres of water per day from air using only renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents (roughly 1.3) per litre.

How did the Tata group come to be involved with this competition?

Ratan Tata has been on the XPRIZE board for quite a few years. At the time he joined, we were doing a lot of work in space, in the deep ocean and in the automotive sector. He said that all of this is great but what about the other 6 billion people on the planet? He wanted funds from the Tatas to go towards solving big development issues.

Mr Tata’s condition was that we use the funds given by the group — this came through in 2012 — to start something in India. He said, “You can’t sit in Los Angeles [where XPRIZE is headquartered] and design prizes for the developing world.” He wanted us to be in India, to deploy local experts and start something here. That led to me designing the Water Abundance XPRIZE.

How long is the process from prize design to the actual winning and implementation?

Typically, it takes about six months to design a prize and it involves traditional and nontraditional experts, including activists. For the water abundance prize, it will be an 18-month technology development period. In the development sector, technologies have to be such that they can be scaled up immediately; else, they are cool prototypes, at best.

How has the contribution and influence of nonprofits working in the social development sphere changed down the years?

The formal social sector is a high-impact zone in which governments and others are pumping in trillions of dollars. The issue of water is also tied to health. If you are working in the social sector and dealing with health, you are probably working in the water sector as well. In India, there are vibrant enterprises doing cutting-edge work in the water sector. Governments and industry cannot and will not do this, which means the task is left to common people and the informal social sector.

How can a market-based approach to alleviating social distress work when the so-called market has repeatedly failed the poor and needy across the world?

I don’t think the market has always failed the poor. If the disenfranchised are empowered with learning, knowhow and opportunity to be part of the market system, not just as consumers but also as suppliers and distributors, the situation can be different.

Are you still connected with Mumbai? How different is it now from the city that you once knew?

I love Mumbai and I dream of it all the time. The city is in the fabric of my being. Maybe everybody says this about their hometown, but Mumbai is more than a city. It gave me my identity, made me resilient enough to land in a foreign country in the middle of the night and figure out what I was going to do.

You’ve been described as an avid hiker and scuba diver and you are a licensed pilot. What do these pursuits mean to you?

I’m an exploratory soul who does not have a social life but an outdoor life. I enjoy diving, hiking and all that has to do with nature. The flying bug is tied to something I cannot explain; this was something I always wanted to do. It’s the closest to going into space, though I’m toying with the idea of getting enrolled in [NASA’s] citizen astronaut programme.