Indian Designer Sees The Dreamer In Everyone

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.


Sonia holding “dreamcatching” conversation cards
(photo via

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.


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.


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.”

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

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Idea File: Give your ideas away for free

The idea

Some items people commonly collect include antiques, comic books, bobbleheads, shotglasses, and more. Kevin Boyle and Rick Horan collect ideas.

They stand in places like NYC’s High Line or Times Square with a large sign and ask people to share their ideas, some of which they post on their website or talk about in a podcast. They’ve heard it all: from tax returns that allow you to choose where your tax dollars are spent to a health rating for nail salons to making South America the largest rollerblading rink in the world. Some people even sing to them.

The idea came to Kevin after reading about blogger Andrew Dubber’s project to give 30 ideas in 30 days away for free.


Kevin Boyle and Rick Horan. (Photo via Ideas Improv.)

“His rationale was, If I’m not going to do anything with these ideas, maybe someone else will,” Kevin says. “I started thinking about tweaking and expanding his idea and taking it to a much broader level. Instead of one guy doing it why not ask everyone?”

From solar energy to healthcare to education, most ideas they hear are for the common good.

“Our Ideas Wanted project is all about engagement. And there seems to be a yearning for good old conversation. Sharing ideas seems to us as the ideal way to open up organizations to new people and new ideas,” Kevin says.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Ideas for the sake of ideas. Ideas are inherently valuable and (most times) worth pursuing. Just giving someone the opportunity to say their idea aloud might help get them, or someone else, motivated to act on it.
  • Encourages unlikely connections. So far the duo has met people from 26 countries and counting. “The ideas we get are often great but without a doubt it’s the people we’ve met. I mean the smart, funny, curious, and generous folks we’ve come across has made the whole project worthwhile,” Kevin says.
  • Makes a case for not reinventing the wheel. Kevin and Rick have found that a lot of ideas aren’t new, and most are similar to one another. It’s a good reason to see what’s out there being done already, and connect with someone else first before starting from scratch.

How you can replicate it

Since the project launched last September, Kevin and Rick have taken their signs across the country from Miami to Seattle. They’d love nothing more than to go to all 50 states and then some in hopes of making a documentary.

Also in the works is “an ‘ideas’ program to promote idea sharing, brainstorming, collaboration, and creativity in schools.” Eventually they hope to engage civic groups, and given the damage Hurricane Sandy did to their hometown in the Rockaways, they also want to collect suggestions on how to make the area more resilient.

If you’re inspired to solicit strangers where you live, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Under the lights on Broadway. (Photo via Ideas Improv.)

  1. Go to the crowds. Locations that have a steady stream of people not in a rush are ideal.
  2. Make obvious signs with big letters. “Ideas Wanted” will spark people’s curiosity.
  3. Keep it general. Welcome ideas about anything and everything and allow yourself to be surprised.
  4. Bring a camera. “Some people are shy and that’s okay. Most people? They see a camera and they become much more intrigued,” Kevin says. “You can tell them the idea is being given out for all the world to see.”
  5. Limit idea pitches to 60 seconds or less. While some people will go on and on no matter what, having a time restraint will help most people focus.
  6. Persist with idea hoarders. “If people don’t want to share their idea because they’re afraid you’ll steal it, ask for their second, third, or fourth best idea,” Kevin says. You can also tell them you’re too busy doing the project to steal theirs.
  7. Ask for their contact information. You’ll want to keep them informed about how the project progresses.
  8. Have fun. Joke with and cajole people as they pass to make them feel invited.

“A lot of people will be stumped. They have ideas all the time but they’re suddenly brain dead when asked for an idea,” Kevin finally says. “Talk to them about the project. Tell them you’ll be there for a while so if they want to come back you’ll be ready. If you have fun with it, people will have fun, too.”


Interested in promoting idea sharing at your school, nonprofit, or workplace? Feel free to get in touch with Kevin:

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Snooki, cupcakes, and me: Idealist meets reality TV

Love it or hate it, reality TV can inspire some good ideas.

Recently I had an appendectomy. Part of my recovery plan was staying home all week – which meant I watched a lot of reality TV.

Now I’m healed and thinking full-time about Idealist again. But I can’t get those shows out of my mind! If you get sucked in to petty drama like I do but also care deeply about the world beyond the camera, here are some ideas inspired by my week as a voyeur…

The Jersey Shore
Admittedly, the so-bad-it’s-good value greatly diminished by Season 3, but I’m from Long Island and the boys hollering “Gym, Tan, Laundry” still hold a soft spot in my heart. It’s fun to imagine my favorite self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes getting all DTD (down to do good). Here’s how they might:featured

  • Sustainable gyms and danceclubs. A while back, my colleague Joanna wrote about clubs and gyms that absorb energy from the dance floor or exercise equipment, generating electricity. JWOWW, if you come to Portland, I’d love nothing more than to share my membership at the Green Microgym with you.
  • Informed tanning. File under surprising: a tanning salon in Nashville raising awareness for local nonprofits; skin cancer education for Maryland teens; a solar-powered salon in Nevada.
  • Laundry with a purpose. Volunteers at the Laundry Love Project wash clothes for the homeless, while the Laundromat Project brings art programs to local laundromats in low-income communities.

Cupcake Wars
The goal of the show is to make pretty, delicious cupcakes. In the episode I saw the bakers were dueling it out for their cupcakes to appear at the LA Auto Show. But what if were for a good cause? Fundraising strategies involving baked goods are an age-old trick; here are a couple that take the cake:

  • Cancer awareness. Created by a 13-year-old in 2007, Cupcakes for Cancer encourages children to “make a difference, one crumb at a time” by raising money for research.
  • Charitable bakery. Sprinkles, owned by one of the judges on Cupcake Wars, donates leftovers to local food banks in Los Angeles and gives 100% of proceeds from special cupcakes to worthy causes.

Confessions: Animal Hoarding
I’m not a pet person, so this show made me a little uncomfortable. One woman had 97 dogs and 15 cats! Luckily, animal rescue services came at the end of the show to place them in shelters and find new homes.

Shelters can be a bit depressing, but here are a couple that renounce the fluorescent lights and Sarah McLachlan soundtrack that flood my mind when I think of animal rescue:

  • Eco-friendly, animal friendly. Green shelters are becoming all the rage. The Humane Society’s Animal Community Center in Silicon Valley, for example, has solar panels, a water reuse system, and innovative heating and cooling ventilation to reduce the spread of illness.
  • No more sad violins. The Pixie Project in Portland, OR cites Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” to describe their unique approach. Billing themselves as a “personalized dating service” for pets, they are committed to changing the image of animal rescue.

Extreme Couponing
This show blew my mind. It features people who spend most of their waking hours cutting coupons from circulars and scouring the Internet for deals. The grocery store total reaches into the thousands of dollars…but they end up paying virtually nothing.

My husband Craig and I sat there, mouths open, wondering how it was possible and what use they had for all the stockpiled items. But one guy donates his winnings to his church, which got us thinking about couponing for good. Here are some hypothetical scenarios:

  • As a courtesy for saving so much money, the grocery store makes it a policy that couponers must donate a certain percentage of their items.
  • Couponers go to places such as homeless shelters, where goods are always needed, and voluntarily teach staff how to find the best deals.
  • A site where organizations post what they need, and coupons that match pop up.

I would love to feel that my week of cupcakes and Snooki served some purpose. Does this spark any ideas for you? Has reality TV ever inspired you to take action?

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