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.
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.
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.
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?