Indian designer sees the dreamer in everyone

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

Sonia Manchanda and the DREAM:IN project started with a simple idea: instead of asking people about their needs, find out their dreams.

As a co-founder of Idiom Design and Consulting in Bangalore, Sonia thought the design thinking approach, where solutions arise from human needs, was too simplistic and too top-down to create new value and meaning, especially in emerging nations.

People are more complicated than a list of needs, after all. And for the complex nation that is India, with its great divides between rich and poor, marginalized voices often go unheard. Empowering people to dream reveals what is truly meaningful in their lives.

“If you can hold a mirror up to people and ask them about their tomorrow and understand the future they’re imagining, then you’re actually doing a good job already,” Sonia says.

In 2011, in collaboration with Carlos Teixeira of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, the team trained 101 youth from all over India to go to its smallest towns and ask people what they want for themselves, for their communities, for the world.

They traveled 15,000 miles by road and rail and filmed thousands of conversations with people from all walks of life. The DREAM:IN “imagination network” was thus born.

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Sonia holding “dreamcatching” conversation cards
(photo via yourstory.com)

The “dreamcatching” methodology seamlessly combines ethnography, design research, and filmmaking. It goes like this: a facilitator holds up a series of conversation cards that feature images from advertisements: a date with a Bollywood starlet, driving a fancy car, etc.

Once people can laugh about the things society wants them to dream about, they’re encouraged to let their imaginations loose and get to the heart of what they really want. The ultimate goal is to move past the fears that so often freeze us.

“A lot of people may think, ‘I may hate this job that I am doing, but if I don’t go outside and carry bricks on my head and help build this house and get my daily amount, then I’m not going to survive. I don’t have the time or the right to dream. I shouldn’t be dreaming,’ ” Sonia says. “So there are all these fears and anxieties, and there’s nothing worse than the death of dreams.”

DREAM:IN shows that dreams are alive and already inside of people—you just have to want to discover them. What the group has found is a beautiful array of humanity at its most hopeful, with dreams ranging from opening a museum to creating a newspaper for rural communities to seeing a tobacco-free India—and much more.

And the team doesn’t hit the snooze button there. Once dreams are collected, they share the data with design scholars, business leaders, change agents, thought leaders, bureaucrats, venture capitalists, and others to inform future development in the country.

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Dreamcatching boards. To date, 1901 dreams have been captured.
(photo via DREAM:IN on Flickr)

Since its founding, DREAM:IN has morphed from a project on the fringes of Idiom into an independent venture centered around open innovation. The ultimate goal? A dynamic database of dreams and a global network to help bring those dreams to life.

One of the ways DREAM:IN is getting there is by putting select dreamers and seasoned entrepreneurs in the same room for a series of Dream Camps—where things like start-up advice, ideas for funding, encouragement, and connections are shared—to help transform dreams into reality.

“Start early, prototype fast” is the guiding principle. Young entrepreneurs are trained in Dreamscaping, a scenario methodology, and the Dreamplan, a business plan tool.

“It’s good to have your head in the clouds and be imaginative, but also have your feet planted firmly and moving steadily on the ground,” Sonia says.

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Dream Camp 3 held last April to help people “dream, believe, and realise.”
(photo via DREAM:IN Facebook page)

Despite societal challenges—older generations conditioned to rigid ideas regarding jobs and social mobility, for example—many dreams have already taken flight thanks to DREAM:IN. Youth, especially, are inspired to see local problems as opportunities.

One young boy invented a machine to incinerate sanitary napkins that often get clogged in toilets, which is starting to be installed in colleges. A law student who had long dreamed of becoming a small business owner changed his professional course and opened a canteen. Another duo created a reusable water bottle for attendees of rock shows.

DREAM:IN has already been replicated in six universities in Brazil and three in China. And this year, they’re launching a product brand with farmers in Tumkur and creating a groundswell of entrepreneurship across South India with over 100 academic institutions. They also plan to create tools and educational materials based on their methodology for people to copy and encourage more dreamers in communities around the world.

This openness, Sonia believes, is ultimately at the heart of good, lasting, and scalable innovation.

“At the same time you have a dream, it’s already somewhere out there in the universe,” says Sonia. “It’s a shared thought. So it’s better you go do it, do it openly, and include all the others who may think similarly to what you’re thinking and make it a big shared dream.”

We hear you, Sonia! On March 11, Idealist will be launching a new network that will help dreamers worldwide take their next steps. To learn more and get in on our launch event, sign up here.

Share your own dream and help others by joining DREAM:IN. What are you waiting for?

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Want to make your classroom better? Try design thinking

 

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

Here’s your homework: identify a problem in your classroom, school, or district and come up with an innovative, collaborative solution in less than an hour. Sound like a tall order? Well, here’s a cheat sheet.

IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered approach to helping organizations improve, teamed up with educators at Riverdale Country School in New York City to create a free toolkit to help teachers apply design thinking to school-related questions—from how best to incorporate technology into curricula to where to place chairs in the library.

According to the toolkit’s introduction, design thinking is a problem-solving process which is “human-centered, collaborative, optimistic, and experimental.”

It’s the same open-minded and creative problem solving that good teachers already push their students to practice—but here it’s framed for teachers’ conundrums instead.

Curious about using design thinking at your school? Download the complete Design Thinking for Educators toolkit to learn more.

Have you used design thinking in your classroom? Tell us about your experience.

 

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Start right now! Tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs

Being graduation season, we asked some of the most innovative thinkers in Colorado to share some advice with young and aspiring social entrepreneurs. Check out what they had to say, why Colorado a great place to let your imagination flourish, and how you can get started right now.

Innovationchalkboard

Photo via Hampton Roads Partnership on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

I’m an aspiring social entrepreneur. What should I be considering?

Tamra Ryan, Social Enterprise Alliance Colorado Chapter Chair and CEO, Women’s Bean Project: Look to what others have done, and when seeking advice, be specific about what you need. The community of those who have already done this work is invaluable; at Women’s Bean Project we have 24 years of mistakes to reflect upon and learn from – and help others avoid.

Nathaniel Koloc, CEO, ReWork: Make sure you love and are invested in the idea you’re working on. Building a company is really hard work and you’ll need the motivation to get through the rough points and the uncertainty. Also, it’s going to take a lot of your time, so you might as well spend that time on something that feels very worthwhile.

Banks Benitez, VP of Partnerships, Unreasonable Institute: Be proactively coachable – open to receive advice when offered; some of the best entrepreneurs we work with have this quality. They go out and ask for advice, recognize what they don’t know, are aware of their blind spots, and seek understanding about what’s coming. They seek out mentors who can help and have walked the same path. Proactively coachable entrepreneurs recognize the limitations of their knowledge and have the humility to ask for help.

Micah Williams, Marketing + Special Projects, TEDxMileHigh: Be useful to others. Be a connector. Go out on a limb for someone. Aspiring entrepreneurs do most for themselves when they strive to do the most for others. Selfish, power-hungry, and narcissistic are characteristics of 20th-century iron-fisted leadership. We’ve arrived to a new century, where seeking avenues to do good for others is what sets people, and organizations, apart.

What makes Colorado so fertile in innovation? It seems like many businesses and ideas are first taking root here.

Tamra: We’ve always been pioneers in Colorado, with lots of energy and creativity, and it carries over into social enterprise.

Nathaniel: I think the quality of life in Colorado (very high), the outlook (progressive), and the style (laid back and accessible) has combined to make it a place where the “activation energy required” for innovation is low. It’s easy to get people to try pilots and prototypes, it’s easy to connect with decision-makers and get advice, etc. So things that elsewhere would get killed by inertia (and judgment), are able to take off and learn to fly in Colorado.

Micah: The massive growth and excitement in Colorado is a realization of years of backend work on improving its infrastructure, managing its growth, keeping money local, and protecting what makes Colorado intrinsically awesome: the 300+ days of sunshine, the towering snow-capped mountains, the endless outdoor activities less than an hour from major cities, and innovative research institutions that churn out jobs and educated young minds.

What can I do to get started right now?

Tamra: Look into the Social Enterprise Alliance; they have many resources for social enterprises. The Colorado Chapter has local events throughout the year. Follow us on Facebook!

Nathaniel: If you are starting a company and haven’t taken the time to understand what lean methodology is all about, you should stop everything you are doing and do that. Also look at design thinking and agile.

Banks: Attend entrepreneurial events and get embedded in the entrepreneurial community.

Micah: Seek meaningful relationships. That’s the number one resource we have as entrepreneurs. Don’t rely on a ‘great network;’ rely on great friends. Surround yourself with curious people who dream big. Finally, always remember the words of Ben Franklin: “Well done…is better than well said.” Yes!

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Want to learn more? Micah also recommends reading Unreasonable Institute’s blog and PandoDaily, as well as attending the TEDxMileHigh event on June 15.

In Colorado? Banks thinks you should check out New Tech; Ignite Boulder; Silicon Flatirons Center; and the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at CU Boulder. 

Learn more about Colorado month at Idealist!

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Stuck? Try problem-solving like a designer

The idea

People first, ideas second. Might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of us forget this – even in the social good world.

This idea of empathy is the key driver behind design thinking, a creative approach to problem-solving that’s gained buzz in recent years thanks to the mammoth design and innovation consulting firm IDEO.

But it’s not just the territory of big companies. Brooklyn-based The Design Gym is taking design thinking and putting it in the hands of the community. Through facilitation and storytelling workshops, giant hackathons, and their Weekend Workout, (which attempts to solve a problem from a real organization or company)  their belief is that anyone can be innovative – if you just exercise that muscle.

“There are lots of organizations that don’t talk to customers. That part of what we’re doing isn’t groundbreaking, it’s just showing them a new approach. You get so stuck in management and growth and systems and all of a sudden you lose touch with those people who can provide you very simple solutions,” co-founder Jason Wisdom says.

Design thinking in action

A typical Weekend Workout works like this: You come in on Friday night for a crash course on design thinking complete with beers and improv exercises. On Saturday, you go through the entire process on a problem that everyone can relate to, like park services or airline issues, using the 5 phases: learning from all the people who touch this problem in someway, making sense of what you learned, generating solutions from those learnings, experimenting or testing those solutions (many failing), and telling the story of what you learned. When Sunday comes around, you’re challenged to use that process again on a real client.

mIles

Kelly presenting the user journey her team created for miLES.

There’s been seven workouts so far, with past clients including the Acumen FundMakeshift Magazine, HolsteeThe Future Project, and Made in the Lower East Side (miLES).

With miLES, for example, students were asked to find a way for artists, teachers, and more to utilize the 220+ vacant storefronts in the Lower East Side, and also keep the landlords who wanted to rent them to higher paying customers (i.e. bar and restaurant owners) happy. They came up with pop up shops. And not only that, but a central hub of carts where people could find signage, seats, tables, and more so they could set up and take down their store with ease.

A few of the clients from the Weekend Workout, such as Makeshift and Holstee, took on students after it was over to help put their ideas in action. That’s one of the big goals of Design Gym: develop relationships with companies and organizations so the students can gain both experience and exposure.

“They’ve been our biggest evangelists in terms of helping us find new opportunities, “ Jason says. “And we support them getting jobs or consulting gigs, or give personal coaching around their careers. As long as people know you’re absolutely committed to their success, they’ll bend over backwards to help you as well.”

Tips for replicating the idea

Jason and his team would love to first get The Design Gym firmly planted in NYC, then expand to other places.

But if the idea of a Weekend Workout makes you want to immediately start to do the heavy (or light) lifting of bringing one where you live, here are his tips on how to make it successful:

1. Find a point of focus.

Sit with the organization or company beforehand and tease out the problem. “We want the problem to be big enough to satisfy the organization and do something significant, but small enough that it can be implemented,” he says. Things like, “What’s the future of our organization look like?” is way too wide for a short timeframe, narrow down those problems or opportunities.

2. Tap into different communities and locations.

Bounce around to different spaces. Or if you can’t do that, partner with a space that can bring in diverse clients. Design Gym frequently hosts their classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, an eclectic, community-driven education space where you can find classes on everything from how to run a marathon to making marbled papers to being a connector.

“One of our primary drivers is to continually enforce that diverse community. Because the solutions are so much more interesting due to the communities diverse backgrounds and it’s fun to connect with people who would never get  to be around each other otherwise,” Jason says.

3. Make everything in the space fair game.

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A team, client (Holstee) and community celebrating after a fun-filled and exhausting weekend.

During the prototyping phase, when students are experimenting with ideas to see if they’ll work, encourage them to use whatever is front of them. At the Brainery, students will often use stuff from the classrooms: frying pans, duct tape, 2×4’s, etc. “The more props you can show us, the better off it is. We’ve had students present back in haikus and built structures, also some teams presented through brilliant songs,” Jason says.

4. Embrace your students’ inner geek

Anyone can attend the Weekend Workout and everyone who does is there for one reason: to learn new things. While most students tend to be in their late 20’s to early 40’s, their backgrounds run the gamut from novelists to 5th grade science teachers to product leads at Google.

“With the problems we’re working on being so diverse, people start to feel this applies to them, whether they’re in healthcare or a tech startup or construction,” Jason says. “What they have in common is that they’re geeky people.”

5. Don’t be a helicopter instructor.

The less you do, the better off your students are. “We found if do a really good job at the explanation and creating structure, and leave them alone, the better off they are,” Jason says. “Allowing them to go through and fail a little bit and do things wrong and learn from that is an important part of the process. And it takes us standing back a little bit for that to be able to happen.”

Another tip: Don’t try to force groups based on personalities you think might work well together. Whether you group people together or randomize it, the results ware usually the same.

6. Show your appreciation.

“Everybody has busy lives in this city. So we want to thank people for deciding that out of all the places they could possibly be, they’re spending time with us,” says Jason. They’ve shown their gratitude by giving students a bag with a Moleskine notebook, bottle of wine, and handwritten thank you card.

7. Empower.

Design Gym just launched a train-the-trainer program, where they have students come back from previous weekends and learn the skills necessary to become a really strong facilitator. Finding them long-term engagements with organizations or companies is another priority, and they’re toying with creating a consulting firm run by students.

8. Create continual opportunities for community. 

They’ve hosted happy hours, rotating potlucks, and more. “Our big epiphany was our first happy hour. We had 23 students in the class, and 21 came out to happy hour and said they wanted to continue to be involved in whatever it is we’re doing,” Jason says. “That to me was such validation we’re doing something right. And in the end, they become close friends.”
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Are you an organization in the NYC area that could use some creative problem-solving at a Weekend Workout? Or want to implement a similar project where you live? Get in touch with Jason: jason@thedesigngym.com.

If you’re in the NYC area and want to participate, the next Weekend Workout will be May 31-June 2.

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