A Design Consultancy That Runs on People’s Dreams

Idiom wants to turn India’s dreams into an engine for design and development.

Amar is a visually challenged undergraduate student at a prestigious liberal arts institution in Mumbai, who feels doubly disadvantaged when compared to his classmates. “In St. Xavier’s College, most of the students come from very rich families, and I come from a lower-class family,” he says, with knitted brows. “The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. I want to cut through that.” There is more to his observation than sophomoric angst. Even in their best years, India and Brazil merely dented the vast inequalities among their people. Now, the developing superpowers face an economic slowdown, but ambitions still run high and are often frustrated. Sonia Manchanda, a principal and cofounder of Idiom, a large design consultancy based in Bangalore, India, believes that strategists and policy makers need a radical new approach to development. “We need to shift away from thinking about people’s needs,” she says, “to helping them realize their dreams.”

Manchanda resolved to bring about that shift with an audacious initiative called Dream:In. Backed by a dedicated team at Idiom, and in collaboration with Jose Carlos Teixeira, a professor at New York City’s Parsons The New School for Design, she sent a group of 101 youths throughout India—who traveled 15,000 miles by road and rail—to initiate thousands of conversations with people like Amar. Through empathy, patience, and the power of small talk, they nudged their interviewees toward a simple but powerful question: “What is your biggest dream?” The responses they gleaned have led to a new model for seeking out and funding entrepreneurial ideas. And they are finding advocates in many other parts of the world.

“The idea first came to me during a conference on ethnography in Japan,” the 41-year-old Manchanda says. “I realized that user research tends to focus on what is, not on what can be.” She wanted to go directly to Indians on the street to find out how they envisioned their future, and how design could help them achieve it. It sounds sensible enough, but India is a country of more than a billion people, with enormous diversity. Such a thing had never been attempted before.

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“Sonia sent me an e-mail in late November 2010, describing the general picture for Dream:In,” Teixeira says. “When I read the e-mail, I had a moment of disbelief.” But when he had been to Bangalore a few months earlier, collaborating with Idiom on a design leadership workshop for corporates, he had seen how quickly the firm could set ideas in motion. “My earlier experience said, ‘No, this is India, this is the model, and we need to do it at this scale.’”

For two days in January 2011, teams of dreamcatchers (students from design and management schools all over India) gathered in Bangalore, where they were given intensive training in the research methods that Manchanda and Teixeira devised. An anthropologist and a user-research specialist prepared them to deal with the country’s many social and economic divides. Then each team was dispatched on a week-long journey of one part of the country, armed with cameras, taking in both big cities and small villages on their route. They spoke to people from all walks of life: the rich and the poor, young and old, men and women.

“The one right that all of us have is the right to dream,” Manchanda muses, “but there were some people who had never been asked [about their dreams]”—especially by young strangers. The process was equally emotional for the largely privileged, urbanite researchers. In a documentary video, one dreamcatcher says, “My problems seem so small in comparison,” before retreating into an uneasy silence. Slowly, stories began pouring into Idiom’s office—the small-time flower vendor who wants to sell in Paris someday, the sportswoman who dreams of training female wrestlers, the farmer who wants to visit the Great Wall of China and meet Chinese farmers.

Turning these dreams into actionable plans was the task at a four-day event in February 2011, called the Conclave. Experts from the fields of design thinking, consulting, and psychology synthesized the copious material from the field. Then it was presented to a large group of entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and investment experts from not just India, but also Brazil, Italy, the United States, and Sri Lanka. In breakout sessions planned by Teixeira, participants teamed up to generate business ideas and policy solutions. Two resolutions came out of the Conclave: One, that a Dream Capital Fund should be instituted to help bring people’s dreams to market, and two, that the international participants in the Conclave wanted to adapt the Dream:In model for their own countries.

“As an exercise, I suppose we had proven that we could do it,” Manchanda says, “But I wasn’t really satisfied. Ultimately, Dream:In is about social change.” She decided to push further. “In January, we met with the chairman of the National Innovation Council, and he wanted to see if it could work at a very local level.” Thus was born Dream:In Tumkur, an application of the model to a rural district 44 miles outside Bangalore. The Manipal Foundation, a nonprofit engaged in education and health-care programs, and a local engineering and business college supported the effort, which culminated in a Conclave in June 2012. “Everybody says that all that people from rural India want is to migrate to the big cities,” Manchanda says, “but we found that in Tumkur people were still tied to the land. They still had faith in agriculture.” A plan has now been set in motion to use the entrepreneurship program at the college to revive the farming industry in Tumkur.

In the meantime, Teixeira was corresponding with participants from his native Brazil who had expressed interest in the initiative. “In Brazil, different from India, we have already had some development, so people have only been thinking of incremental innovation. They’re not used to thinking about taking a whole new leap forward,” he says. “The challenge was to bring to people’s attention [to the fact that] entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for social transformation.” In collaboration with the Vivarta Institute and six universities, Dream:In Brazil held a Conclave in Sao Paulo in August 2012. Now the foundations are being laid for a complex, grand exercise like the one undertaken in India. “We don’t know enough about the people in places outside urban centers like Sao Paulo,” Teixeria says, “There is a new Brazil out there.”

In the last five months, Kush Medhora, a former executive at the retail giant Future Group, has been taking Dream:In to the next level as its new CEO. “We are no longer a project,” he says. “We are an independent venture.” Medhora reached out to investors and venture capitalists. “There’s a lot of money out there for ideas that are linked to development in India,” he says. “I kept hearing that they were just looking for something interesting to invest it in. That’s how we started Dream:In Next Gen.” At the time of writing, 270 volunteers from educational institutions across south India are touring the region, with a mandate to collect 10,000 dreams, three times the number from the 2011 exercise. Then, through iterative selection processes, 3,000 of those will be selected to make video pitches, 500 dreamers will move on to shaping business plans, and ultimately, in March 2013, 100 of these plans will receive funding.

“My dream with all this has been empowerment,” Teixeira says. “Dream:In Next Gen is now fulfilling the dream we had at the start—of an open innovation platform for empowering emerging countries through design.” Already, video pitches for new ventures are appearing on the project’s Web site. An undergraduate student is proposing to set up a company that sells computers, “and beat Dell” (which leads the Indian market today). A government worker from a village in Tumkur is waiting to set into motion his plan to strengthen local agriculture. A Bangalore-based teenager wants to build an online music community. Here’s hoping their dreams come true.

Game Changers 2013

Game Changers | Architecture: Women’s Opportunity Center

Game Changers | Advocacy: Edward Mazria

Game Changers | Planning: The Great Lakes Century

Game Changers | Patronage: Jamie Gray

Game Changers | Research: Dream:In

Game Changers | History: Vincent Scully

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