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Dabbawallas: Innovation Contained and Coded

Works That Work is a new international design magazine that looks beyond mere portfolios – a magazine dedicated to inspiration and observation, to conditions and contexts, a kind of National Geographic of design. Here’s the original edit of my article which appeared in their inaugural issue – which I researched in Mumbai across numerous train trips, cycle chases and hub hunt-downs.

Mumbai’s committed contingent of 5000 dabbawallas deliver over 350 000 lunches per day to office workers across the megacity. Typically the lunches are collected and returned to clients’ homes in stacked metal lunchboxes which lend this collection of culinary couriers their name: dabba = tiffin, container, walla = worker. Each tiffin enters a journey to and from the office, during which it will pass through the hands of at least 12 dabbawallas across an elaborate zoning system. Somewhere in the middle – away from the fast paced delivery antics – a home-cooked lunch is enjoyed.

Most discussions on dabbawallas start with their innovative system – but in designerly fashion, let’s start with the end user. Those who engage the services of dabbawallas tend to be middle class office workers who embrace the Indian preference and pride in ghar ka khana (home cooked food). Most of them reach work by train, which means they leave home early and may be boarding chaotically packed carriages – making carrying their own tiffin a challenge. Add to this the status of arriving at work unencumbered. The dabbawalla system provides a welcome solution by collecting meals, lovingly prepared at home, then getting them to and from the office. Lunching clients have diverse dietary preferences – Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and more join diabetics and dieters – enhancing the need for precision delivery of the correct meal to its rightful recipient.

One such discerning diner was a Parsi banker working in Mumbai in the 1880s, who employed a young errand boy to deliver his lunch. Others, envious of his promptly delivered, freshly made, home-cooked lunches soon requested the services of the delivery boy. The boy was Mahadeo Havaji Bacche from Pune who is credited with founding the Mumbai dabbawallas. Unable to keep up with demand, he enlisted others from his village in Pune and close-by. This location-based connectedness continues to enrich the signature camaraderie of dabbawallas to this day. Bacche’s understanding of client needs, fellow workers’ capabilities and Mumbai’s specific transport context allowed him to leverage local factors to build a service which was able to grow from his initial team of 100 to the 5000+ dabbawallas that keep Mumbai office workers fuelled and fed today.
 

Tiffins are often carried overhead onto trains – efficient yet challenging given the bustling nature of Mumbai stations

So it might sound fairly straightforward – delivering lunch boxes from people’s homes to their places of work and back again. However the challenge for dabbawallas is to do so at scale within a lean business model, negotiating time-bound trains and dense urban environments while grouping deliveries to similar locations for efficient delivery. For this they employ a hub and spoke distribution approach. Lunches are usually collected from individual homes by foot or by bicycle around 9-10am. Once you cotton on to this, you’ll be surprised how often you spot dabbawallas on bicycles laden with tiffins around Mumbai during their morning or afternoon deliveries. From the morning collection, the tiffins are taken to a local sorting hub where they are grouped according to those heading into the city on the same train line. They’re often carried overhead on large metal trays – a tricky task when having to board urban trains, which only stop briefly. At the other end they enter another hub where they are sorted again according to neighbourhood destinations. From here the tiffins continue their journey by bicycle or trolley with the final delivery usually being done on foot. Keep in mind that individual dabbawallas only serve on a specific part of the tiffin’s passage. It’s the smooth running of all the hub and spoke locations which ensure its delivery across an average 60-70km travelled by each tiffin. A senior dabbawalla quips “It’s like a cricket team. Team work is essential” – an analogy which resonates amongst the cricket-loving nation that is India. Worth noting is that some downtown office buildings, where the service is popular, keep one of their multiple elevators free over lunchtime – specifically for the respected dabbawallas and their appetite-appeasing deliveries.
 

The dabbawalla’s coding system employs letters, numbers, colours and symbols which signal each tiffin’s delivery path.

The localised efficiency of the dabbawalla system has been hailed by business and design schools worldwide. Forbes Magazine awarded it a Sigma Six rating in 2002, deeming that less than one mistake is made in every 6 million deliveries – that’s 12 million dispatches if you count both directions. So how does is this accuracy ensured by a workforce which has traditionally possessed low literacy? Historically the dabbawallas developed their own code utilising numbers, letters, colours and symbols applied to the tiffins so that they can be sorted systematically at key points of the journey. (It’s not dissimilar to the notion of packet-switching by which digital data is transmitted via shared networks like the internet.) At larger hub points, a dabbawalla is stationed with the dedicated task of spotting potential mix-ups and redirecting misplaced lunchboxes back on their correct trajectory.

With an annual turnover surpassing Rs 400 million, the dabbawallas have a surprisingly flat hierarchy. They are united by a workers’ association which is headed by former dabbawallas who are often found sitting cross-legged amongst workers as they take their lunch breaks at various hubs. With monthly tiffin deliveries being priced on weight, size and distance (around Rs 300 – 500 per month), each of the 800 teams splits their share evenly between members, regardless of their seniority. After maintenance costs have been paid for bicycles and other tools of the trade plus a fee to the workers’ association, each dabbawalla takes home around Rs 6000 per month. The association is in good health – supporting the families of deceased workers and donating to various food distribution charities. It also supplements its income through the provision of cooked meal services.
 

Dabbawallas wear a signature Gandhi cap – a uniting visual feature in chaotic rail and road contexts.

The dabbawallas present a united workforce. High levels of trust are cultivated, with new hires being introduced by referral. Most workers sport a white kurta pajama set – though the iconic Gandhi cap is a more prescriptive requirement and make them easy to spot in a crowd. They take lunch together at their respective hubs, from their own tiffins, where spirits run high. The edict by their founder that “Work is Worship” seems prevalent in the pride shown by dabbawallas in the diligent service they provide. Acknowledgement that teamwork is the essence of their enterprise is implicit in their humble approach, which celebrates teamwork over individuals.

This united dedication to a collective pursuit of excellence has served the dabbawallas well in the face of potential disruptions of service such as riots, monsoon floods and the multitude of state and religious holidays which pepper the Indian calendar. However the 1974 railway strikes halted their service temporarily due to the interruption of a core part of their delivery model. “Commitment to excellence is what drives our growth. That and the fact that the stomach is never in recession,” beams the head of the workers’ association. In fact the service continues to achieve 5-6% annual growth and adapts to evolving lifestyles by offering SMS bookings and delivering lunches from diet centers.

As I ride with a group a dabbawallas by train on their return journey, I’m amazed that after a long day of fast paced, heavy labour, that they still have the inclination to discuss ways they could improve the performance and efficiency of their sector. With thousands of satisfied customers, strong solidarity amongst workers and a delivery system ingeniously built on local conditions – you might well ask if the best innovations are home cooked and home grown?

Related posts:
Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design
Celebrating Street Level Ingenuity
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets

Works That Work is a new international design magazine that looks beyond mere portfolios – a magazine dedicated to inspiration and observation, to conditions and contexts, a kind of National Geographic of design. Here's the original edit of my article which appeared in their inaugural issue – which I researched in Mumbai across numerous train [...]

Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets

Buleshwar Broom Walla 
I’ve been feeling guilty of late, for neglecting posts to Random Specific – so it was heartening to be approached by CNN this month, who’ve created a gallery of images from my recent Quick-pic Tuesday posts. Here’s my original intro and a link through to the post on CNNGo:
 

Inventively Old School

Ingenuity runs rife across Mumbai – often flourishing at street level where stretched resources fuel efficient work-arounds. These lean business models frequently yield sustainable solutions based on conserving materials and energy. While the sky-line rises, engines rev and technology advances – lo-fi traders are seldom short on adaptive flair which pervades the city.
Check out some old school features of Mumbai’s street scene with fresh eyes.

Related links:
Post-consumption Creativity
Creative Plot to Blow Up Bombay

  I've been feeling guilty of late, for neglecting posts to Random Specific – so it was heartening to be approached by CNN this month, who've created a gallery of images from my recent Quick-pic Tuesday posts. Here's my original intro and a link through to the post on CNNGo:   Inventively Old School Ingenuity [...]

Prototype-hype

Last month I travelled to Californian summer, welcoming a brief respite from the depths of a harsh winter, to join my colleagues at IDEO. This was a momentous meeting – after many months of working intensely together on OpenIDEO from our respective locations in London, California and New Zealand, it was the first time our team of five got to be together face-to-face. A few of us even managed a board meeting of sorts – surfing the fine waves of Santa Cruz where we shacked up for a few days to brainstorm ideas on future directions for OpenIDEO.
 

Then it was back to IDEO HQ in Palo Alto. There’s so much that could be said about this hotbed of creative intelligence – not in the least highlighting the inspiring places to take a break while at work. A glaring feature of life at IDEO is a zeal for trying things out – within a culture which views failure as an opportunity to learn. Alongside many client focused pursuits, folks also post to IDEO Labs where “we can show bits of what we’re working on, talk about prototyping, and share our excitement over the tools that help us create.”

This iterative, explorative and hands-on approach enables future imaginings such as the much hailed Future of the Book alongside more playful one-off prototypes like the amusingly brilliant Alex Cam. Essentially it’s an active, demonstrative approach which entails much more than just coming up with ideas – rather, it’s about rolling up one’s sleeves and actually trying things out. But if you’re already a keen follower of all-things-IDEO, you know that, right? So as I poked around corners and peered over work benches, I was searching for evidence of prototyping which would keep everyone more entertained. I found it while toying round on the upper floors.
 

Many methods can be used to approximate human form and action in the course of designing – modelling, stand-ins and so forth. While on my wanderings I stumbled upon another popular avenue for approximation at IDEO – the Barbie. Childhood memories flooded back of how easy she was to contort and costume – which pose advantages when scoping out scenarios and personas for quick protoyping.

As with any workshop setting, laying your hands on the necessary parts and pieces assists assemblage – so I was pleased to see that orderly filing is a priority at IDEO.
 


 “Experimentation is not a method – it’s a way of life, of trying things out in order to seek improvement that will be relevant. You’ll never know if it could have been better if you don’t try things out – and you broaden your perspective along the way, leading to a result that’s richer for the journey,” noted my new found IDEO-buddy who was tinkering away, mildly amused at my Barbie preoccupation. It’s obviously a significant part of his life – prior to joining IDEO he had worked in a circus for 6 years.

Back to the reason for my trip – OpenIDEO – and a more serious yet uplifting note. As I set off on my travels we received an *awesome* video from a group of Colombian students who took it upon themselves to prototype a concept which they had submitted to our Maternal Health and Mobile Technology challenge. Be sure to check out the low-down of their prototype journey and heart-warming achievements with a low-income community, further south in Argentina. There are some things a Barbie just can’t approximate.
 
Related posts:
OpenIDEO: Better Together
Global Challenge: Local Flavour
And if Barbie eccentricities are your thing, check out these one-off creations.

Last month I travelled to Californian summer, welcoming a brief respite from the depths of a harsh winter, to join my colleagues at IDEO. This was a momentous meeting – after many months of working intensely together on OpenIDEO from our respective locations in London, California and New Zealand, it was the first time our [...]

Global Challenge: Local Flavour

I recently hopped across the ditch to Queensland, Australia’s Sunshine State, for the Ideas Featival in Brisbane. We’ve been running a Local Food Challenge on OpenIDEO in conjunction with the festival and state government – featuring inspirations and innovative concepts from our spirited global community over the last couple of months. In Brisbane the OpenIDEO team were joined by policy-makers, food producers, farmers, retailers, researchers, educators, students, innovators and community connectors. Together, over two days of workshops, we explored behaviour change, customer journeys, environmental performance, health impact, community engagement, scalability and business models – alongside feasibility and implementation of the awesome shortlisted Local Food Challenge concepts.
 

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO

It was a particularly momentous occasion for me as I met a couple of my OpenIDEO colleagues for the first time after 6 months of working together from across our globally dispersed locations. Our co-founder, Tom Hulme, presented to a full house, asking How Do You Engage Those of the Edge? – celebrating the power of participation. IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer, Paul Bennett, provoked the crowd with Global Problem Solving: Can Small x Many = Big – confronting traditional interpretations of design to reveal how design thinking could be employed to address future social, ecological and political challenges.
 

Attendees were enthusiastic about the cross-disciplinary nature of the workshop teams. While we’re used to working in this way – it was refreshing for others who found it perspective building and got excited at the dynamic networks which formed around specific concepts. Read more on the workshops from our festival buddy, Ben Morgan, over at indesignlive.com And here’s an assortment of festival chit-chat:
 

Festival rock-star & entrepreneur, Robert Pekin, Food Connect: “Gee Whizz! Amazing to watch how local folk have applied their specialist knowledge to adapting these exciting concepts to the Australian context.”
 

Backyard transformer, Ben Grub, Permablitz: “There’s been a really good cross-section of players. I don’t usually interact with government, media and farmers and it was great to thrash out ideas from an online platform in an energised offline environment.”
 

Ray Palmer, Queensland Farmer with Symara Farms: “It was affirming to note that there’s a growing movement of folks who want to know the story behind what’s on their plate – across various sectors and communities.”
 

Jakob Trischler, Shortlisted OpenIDEATOR: “Awesome to get lively insights on a hot topic from such a diverse group from different disciplines.”
 

Ewan McEoin, Local Food Challenge Australian Lead: “Energy Central. Folks were amped to be building off such a diverse range of concepts supporting local goodness.”
 

Anna Bligh, Queensland Premier: “The Local Food Challenge has just gone gangbusters. You can actually go to the world with an idea and look for answers.”
 

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO: “Hundreds of great builds, amazing energy, long days with crazy jetlag but really, really worth it.Our first outreach OpenIDEO workshop was amazing and was powered by all your great input. Thank you all!”
 

Our local challenge collaborator will continue to pursue avenues to prototype a selection of concepts together with local government and those with relevant expertise, contacts and outreach capabilities on the ground. As always we’re keen to translate the stellar skills of our growing, global OpenIDEO community into real world action and change – to enhance resilience at a local level. We’ll be celebrating impact developments over on our newly launched Realisation Phases.
 

On the back of the intensity of the workshops we rounded off our energetic sessions with a spot of fun. We distributed stickers to participants and dispatched them across the gorgeously sprawling riverside area surrounding the State Library, to seek inspiration. The stickers prompted folks to Stick It & Show Us. They were encouraged to photograph their sighting and email it in to a website we’d quickly cobbled together – with a prize offered for the cleverest cookie on the day. Some have continued with submissions from further afield.
 

Check out more highlights over at www.thisinspires.us (With a hat-tip to Candy Chang, whom I’ve featured on Random Specific before, for her ever-inventive public engagement initiatives which inspired us on this.)
 
Related posts:
OpenIDEO: Better Together
Mathare’s Micro-farms and Market Gardens

I recently hopped across the ditch to Queensland, Australia's Sunshine State, for the Ideas Featival in Brisbane. We've been running a Local Food Challenge on OpenIDEO in conjunction with the festival and state government – featuring inspirations and innovative concepts from our spirited global community over the last couple of months. In Brisbane the OpenIDEO [...]

Three-Wheeled Travel Tales

A fellow rickshaw-enthusiast requested I dig up this piece I penned sometime back about Tuk Tuks in Sri Lanka. Given it was my first piece of paid writing – for a Hong Kong lifestyle mag back in 2004 – I thought I’d post here for legacy’s sake.

“And is madam married?” queried our charmer of a tuk-tuk driver. I did the usual swapping of my ring to the appropriate finger and waved it in his face with a triumphant smile. “But in Sri Lanka you have your Number-One-Husband” he announced and then with a wink in the rear view mirror “but you also have a Tuk-Tuk Husband!” He collapsed in laughter at his own joke leaving my friend and I hoping the vehicle would guide itself through Colombo’s chaotic innards in this momentary lapse of our driver’s attention.

Travellers to Asia have long patronised the humble tuk-tuk. From Bangkok to Mumbai and throughout our adventures in Sri Lanka, the three-wheeled taxis are indispensable for negotiating traffic-choked inner-city streets. Hopping between seaside villages, fort towns and up-country tea estates, we found them the ideal way to experience the true diversity of Sri Lanka. Colourful, cheap, semi-open and providing drivers ranging from rogues to most hospitable hosts – the tuk-tuk soon became our mode of choice leading to all manner of insights to this unique island.
 

The tuk-tuk’s older sibling: Cycle Rickshaw (Delhi)

The tuk-tuk traces it’s origins to nineteenth century Thailand where King Rama V was presented with a rickshaw by a wealthy Chinese resident. This evolved into the three-wheeled cycle rickshaw or samlor that is still seen in many Asian countries today. In the 50s, amid growing traffic congestion, Thailand banned the samlor. Its desirable manoeuverability however, led to a motorised upgrade: the tuk-tuk. Many Asian cities quickly adopted the tuk-tuk in response to the need for faster short haul passenger transport in increasingly inhabited urban districts.

The current tuk-tuk format is a modification of a Japanese delivery vehicle popular in the 60s. Drivers straddle the engine bay using a motorcycle style steering mechanism to guide the three-wheelers. Originally 2 stroke engines, 4 stroke versions are now available with delivery and pick-up models on offer as well.
 

Mudflap customisation (Ahmedabad)

The name tuk-tuk quaintly mimics the sound of their idling engines – a familiar accompaniment to the soundtrack of Asian city life. With their often customised signage and kitsch interiors, tuk-tuks provide colourful character to an array of locales.

Warnings are rife in Asia, Sri Lanka included, of the hazards of tuk-tuk travel. Passenger safety, exposure to pollution, rigged meters, commission scams are issues that pepper guide books. However we found that fortified with a suitable dose of street-wise savvy that tuk-tuk experiences were indeed a many splendored thing. Miscommunications and potential scams were interwoven with avid haggling and hilarity. After a particularly engaging bargaining dual we boarded one tuk-tuk only to find that the driver had no idea where we were actually headed – a testament to the fact that the deal can be as entertaining as the destination.
 

Fuel and Font Pit Stop + Photo Opp (Sri Lanka)

Our most pleasant excursion was with the easy going Ranjit of the southern town, Matara. We hired him for a day at a fixed rate to take us to surrounding fishing villages, swimming spots and sights along the south western coast. Despite my glowing appraisal of tuk-tuk travel in Sri Lanka, the roads can be truly testing on ones nerves but Ranjit had us calmly and expertly venturing through it all. He didn’t try any of the tourist scams we’d heard about but happily stopped to our shouts over minor roadside attractions and obscure photo-opportunities. In fact, when we asked him to take us for lunch to the kind of place he would frequent, he squirmed at the suggestion. After a bit of earnest encouragement we landed up at a humble road- side eatery which easily rated amongst our top Sri Lankan dining experiences.

The breezy semi open air tuk-tuks allowed us to explore, pursue, meander and back-track much of Sri Lanka inaccessible to other forms of transport. They allowed us to take in the sights and scenery but also the markets, alleyways, colourful characters and slices of life not evident otherwise. Not in the least our delightful, self-proclaimed Tuk-Tuk Husband.

Related posts:
Three Idiots on Three Wheels
Cultural Confectionery Confectionery (featuring my talented travel pal on Sri Lanka trip)

A fellow rickshaw-enthusiast requested I dig up this piece I penned sometime back about Tuk Tuks in Sri Lanka. Given it was my first piece of paid writing – for a Hong Kong lifestyle mag back in 2004 – I thought I'd post here for legacy's sake. “And is madam married?” queried our charmer of [...]

DREAM:IN – Hunt to Harvest II

Earlier this month I wrote about getting involved in the DREAM:IN initiative which is collecting India’s aspirations as a canvas for creative thinking. It intends to form a dynamic database of dreams gathered in cities, towns and villages across the country. These will be categorised, analysed and shared with business leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and designers to devise transformative and inclusive future scenarios. 101 student dreamcatchers were dispatched across India after training at the Bangalore headquarters. They were divided into 11 teams: Sindhoori (red), Hariyali (green), Asmani (blue), Chandni (silver), Sunheri (gold), Gulal (pink), Firozi (turquoise), Anguri (purple), Santili (orange), Kesar (saffron) and Sweth (white) who set out on colourful journeys by road and rail – capturing on video the dreams of a nation in transition.
 

The teams were provided with various tools to help them consider the search ahead, created by the good folk at Idiom Design. Encouragement was given to seek a range of respondents from migrants to merchants, learners to leaders, athletes to advertisers, drivers to domestic helpers. Within the teams, students were allocated with tasks of spotting, framing and writing to locate, film and record Indians reflecting on their dreams. Mitul Bhat (a usability specialist on Nokia’s MeeGo platform) and I had the task of briefing the Spotters on basic ethnographic techniques and some of the challenges of working in the field.
 

The journey itineraries were carefully planned to cover an expanse of rural and urban locations, covering 25, 000kms in just over a week. Army protection was sought for dreamcatchers travelling in less stable areas of the country. Accommodation was frequently in local guesthouses but also included places like a Jain ashram and sleep was often snatched on overnight train trips.
 

Images from the DREAM:IN blog

Alongside the footage of dreams pouring back into Bangalore, also came stories, photographs and sketches of life on the road. I was particularly excited to run into Team Gulal while they visited Ahmedabad during the Uttarayan Kite Festival. Just as they were enjoying a well deserved lunch break, I chanced upon them and dragged one team member off to the Old City to shoot photographs of her with festive kites. They spoke of capturing some great dreams during their trip – including those of a former silver smuggler who changed his ways and became a security guard. His dream: to protect and serve.
 

The editing team back in Bangalore now have the Herculean task of refining footage and categorising it ahead of the DREAM:IN Conclave next month. This will be supplemented by scenario building tools to assist professionals to translate the dream database into insights which can inform their future strategies. There’s much diversity which has been captured during the Dream Journey. Here’s a few of my favourites so far:
 

[vimeo]18911650[/vimeo]
[vimeo]19521700[/vimeo]
[vimeo]19287761[/vimeo]
[vimeo]19288064[/vimeo]

 

Related posts:
Where are We Dreaming? (Flickr)
DREAM:IN – Hunt to Harvest, I

Earlier this month I wrote about getting involved in the DREAM:IN initiative which is collecting India's aspirations as a canvas for creative thinking. It intends to form a dynamic database of dreams gathered in cities, towns and villages across the country. These will be categorised, analysed and shared with business leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs, policymakers [...]

DREAM:IN – Hunt to Harvest

This week I find myself in Bangalore lending a hand in the flurry of activity leading up to the DREAM:IN Journey. Challenging the notion that future thinking should be informed by people’s needs – the DREAM:IN initiative seeks to explore what Indians are dreaming about. It intends to create a dynamic database of dreams gathered in cities, towns and villages across the country. These will be categorised, analysed and shared with business leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and designers to devise transformative and inclusive future scenarios. DREAM:IN intends to collide the dreams of a diverse India with the thoughts and actions of leaders across a range of sectors.
 

101 student dreamcatchers have been selected from over 20 Indian institutes of management, design, communication and film. Next week they will be dispatched in groups across 11 itineraries which traverse rural and urban India. Along the way they will be questioning locals about their dreams and aspirations – for family, work, recreation, products and services – and capturing these on video. They are expecting to collect thousands of dreams from across the country. Before heading off they will receive training from a team with various backgrounds including ethnography (I’m pitching in there), education, advertising and cinematography from across India plus Brazil, Italy and the US. This group features professionals from Nokia, Ogilvy & Mather and Parsons the New School for Design. The findings will be returned to the DREAM:IN headquarters in Bangalore to be collated and categorised.
 

In February the DREAM:IN Conclave is a summit which will bring together a selection of students, educators, policymakers, social entrepreneurs and professionals from sectors such as finance, IT, retail, telecommunications and energy. Participants include powerhouse retail entrepreneur, Kishore Biyani and Fast Company’s Bruce Nussbaum. Findings from the Dream Journey will be shared through a series of workshops. These will be used to inform future scenarios via a rigorous design-thinking methodology – with the view to devising concrete projects to effect fresh thinking around delivering products and services at scale.
 

 
From February onwards an open portal will be launched which allows users to upload and categorise dreams by sector – adding to those collected on the Dream Journey. These will be supplemented by scenario building tools to assist professionals to translate the dream database into insights which can inform their future strategies. Drawing on the larger canvas of dreams over needs is expected to fuel enhanced creative thinking. 
 

So with dreamcatchers arriving tomorrow we’re hard at work finalising itineraries, naming teams, refining methodologies and editing presentations. Ironically – there’s little time for sleep – let alone to dream.
 
Related posts:
One Billion and Counting
DREAM:IN – Hunt to Harvest, II

This week I find myself in Bangalore lending a hand in the flurry of activity leading up to the DREAM:IN Journey. Challenging the notion that future thinking should be informed by people's needs – the DREAM:IN initiative seeks to explore what Indians are dreaming about. It intends to create a dynamic database of dreams gathered [...]

Excreta, Et Cetera II

Earlier this year I wrote about research exploring sanitation in low-income urban India that I had been involved in as an external consultant. Playfully dubbed The Potty Project, the study by Quicksand has pursued a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. Lately they’ve been posting their key takeaways from the investigation which have provided some of the comprehensive insights featured below.
 

Pointing to the different norms around cleanliness inside and outside the home. Noting that provision of clear identity around who owns sanitation facilities is likely to drive more responsible use. Read more.
 

Highlighting the failure of toilet facilities to account for issues like menstrual waste and adolescent sensitivities. Read more.
 

Calling attention to the factions which may exist within a community that need to be considered in inclusive mobilising of residents around improvements. Read more.
 

Discussing how breaking up various tasks around sanitation allows for social interaction which diminishes the sense of delay. Read more.
 

Noting that users of shared facilities passively co-create behaviours which are established together over time. Read more.
 

Cross-pollination of The Potty Project insights on OpenIDEO

An aspect of the project which I particularly applaud has been the open sharing of research findings as they unfolded. Co-researcher and social media manager Kassia Karr, who joined Quicksand from Boston, notes that blog posts and tweets extended the reach of observations and created new connections for the team. Senior colleague, Ayush Chauhan, adds that “these channels have been a great way to communicate, in real time, with an extremely diverse community – client, peers and related practitioners – spread across the globe. It’s also been affirming that the findings have found their way into other forums not related directly with the project but in the larger domain of sanitation discussion and have provided inspiration in those contexts.”

A further aspect I commend on the project has been the approach of working visually.

“The interpretive nature of language is often a handicap when the real information lies in the texture of observations and the nuances of behavior – both hard to capture in the written word. Good research must have the power to inspire as much as it has the mandate to inform and that’s where capturing experiences of people through visual narratives – film, photography, illustrated scenarios – opens doors for people to interpret information and bring to bear their own experience and understanding of the context.

There are three areas where visual storytelling brings value to our projects:

+ With clients who are often removed from the context, understanding user issues through the immediacy of films & photography is both informative and unambiguous. Also allowing for wider participation in the process of translating research insights into action.
+ With users especially from an unlettered or a vernacular context, visuals help researchers focus the interactions on issues that may otherwise be hard to articulate
+ As design researchers, telling a story through illustrations and scenarios is more effective in communicating key ideas and abstract concepts that don’t have a precedent.

– Ayush Chauhan, Project Lead and Quicksand Co-founder

Quicksand are committed to extending the reach of design-based approaches and with their close partners Co-Design are presenting the UnBox Festival in New Delhi, February 2011. The main event is across three days of ideas, stories, spectacles and exchange to build momentum around design thinking and inter-disciplinary collaborations. The festival will bring together designers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, activists, educators, artists and others interested in social and cultural change. UnBox intends to work and play across contexts and mediums – workshops, debates, brainstorms, picnics, literary readings and travel. “Together, we’ll rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation.” I’m certainly looking forward to joining them there.

Related posts:
Excreta, Et Cetera I
Sanitation, Simplicity & Storytelling

Earlier this year I wrote about research exploring sanitation in low-income urban India that I had been involved in as an external consultant. Playfully dubbed The Potty Project, the study by Quicksand has pursued a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. [...]

OpenIDEO: Better Together

“That OpenIDEO thing is great isn’t it?” My mother, approaching 80, discovered Google Buzz a few months back and has been following me on Twitter from there. Via one of my tweets, she had a look around OpenIDEO and was fascinated by the scope of inspiration and global collaboration. As a doctor she has always been somewhat in the dark about what I do for a living but from following my Twitter links she’s started to get the idea. “It’s about design and people and making the world a better place, right?” she offered as a perspective on my professional pursuits.

[vimeo]13707896[/vimeo]

 
So it was helpful when I announced recently that I had a contract with IDEO as a Community Manager on OpenIDEO, that she already knew what it was. OpenIDEO is a place where people design better together for social good. It’s an online platform for creative thinkers: the seasoned designer and the new guy who just signed on, the art student and the MBA, the active participant and the curious lurker. This diversity makes up the creative guts of OpenIDEO. And the best part is it’s constantly in beta – so the platform continues to evolve over time.
 

After a challenge is posted on OpenIDEO, the three development phases – inspiration, concepting, and evaluation – are put into action. All resulting concepts generated are shareable, remix-able, and reusable in a similar way to Creative Commons. Participation is incentivised through the Design Quotient (DQ) which measures users contributions. Collaborative behaviour is encouraged through features like the Build Upon function. Challenge topics have ranged from ways in which affordable education can be delivered in the developing world to how kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food can be raised. Even the randomised OpenIDEO logo was designed through the challenge process.
 

Just now we’ve got two challenges open. The Sanitation Challenge is in conjunction with IDEO fieldwork in Ghana – and asks how human waste management and sanitation can be improved in low-income communities. The Innovation Challenge seeks to set an agenda for the upcoming i20 Summit of global innovation leaders. Come over and join us – because creativity loves company.

Selection of my OpenIDEO contributions:
Story Telling on Wheels (Winning Concept)
Innovating *With, Not For* Communities (Winning Agenda Concept)
Growing Knowledge (Concept)
Posters Made of Soap (Inspiration)
Making Policy Public (Inspiration)

Related posts:
Creative Waves Through Collaboration
Solution Seekers at Play

“That OpenIDEO thing is great isn’t it?” My mother, approaching 80, discovered Google Buzz a few months back and has been following me on Twitter from there. Via one of my tweets, she had a look around OpenIDEO and was fascinated by the scope of inspiration and global collaboration. As a doctor she has always [...]

Life’s Inevitable Transition II

I’ve been continuing my work on the riveting Death and Diversity project between the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the Wellington Museums Trust. Following up on earlier investigation with various ethnic and religious groups on attitudes and approaches to death, dying and the afterlife – I’ve more recently met with members of Jewish, Hindu, Mexican and Iraqi Christian communities. We have continued to focus on themes including the lead up to death, body preparation, funeral rituals, customs of remembrance, attitudes to afterlife and surrounding superstitions – to culminate in an exhibition and series of public programmes in Wellington later next year.

Assyrians constitute a distinct ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East who traditionally speak Aramaic and practice Christianity. Assyrian families started coming to Wellington initially as refugees from Iraq in the eighties and nineties. Yooneh Henoo, above, has the task of composing and performing chants of lament (jnanyatha) for local funerals. She shared with us a particularly moving story about a five year old boy in Iraq, with New Zealand-based relatives, who was kidnapped during the Iran-Iraq conflict then cut into pieces and incorrectly buried. Yooneh sung for him here in Wellington, affirming the belief that children rise directly to heaven:

“Tell all of the gentle men and beautiful women that I am going to the heavenly kingdom. Tell my mother not to cry. I have not sinned. I am like a bird and will fly from this world.”

 

Image by Zsoldos Szabolcs from Flickr

The liberal Jewish group I spoke to provided rich and comprehensive insights of both local, Israeli and diasporic customs. They mentioned the common practice of leaving visitation stones at the graves of loved ones. These assert the permanence of memory for the deceased. They also described the ceremonial washing of the dead body which is done under a continual flow of water. A rabbi visiting from Israel mentioned that this is a meditative experience in which the water forms a cyclic link to amniotic fluid – closing the chapter of the body and opening the chapter of the soul.
 

Chicano artist Willie Franco ran a sugar skull decorating workshop at the Museum of Wellington City & Sea in the lead up to the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos). Skull (calavera) imagery is a ubiquitous part of the annual celebration which honours the deceased. Children, adults and even skilled cake decorators joined the workshop and I noted there was much licking of fingers! Participants had the option of contributing their decorated skulls to the altar being prepared at the museum.
 

I was also invited to a Hindu Vedic ceremony, performed to ensure the well-being of departed souls, for the father of one of our research participants. I was particularly taken by the pavithram ring worn by the priests, made of holy kusha grass, to keep their hands ritually pure. The ring takes a particular form for ceremonies associated with death.

jaathasya hi dhruvo mr.thyur dhr.uvam janma mr.thasya cha
thasmaad aparihaarye’rthe’ na thvam sochithum-arhasi

For death is certain to one who is born – to one who is dead, birth is certain;
therefore, thou shalt not grieve for what is unavoidable. – Bhagavad Gita

Related posts:
Life’s Inevitable Transition I
Sweet Redemption

I've been continuing my work on the riveting Death and Diversity project between the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the Wellington Museums Trust. Following up on earlier investigation with various ethnic and religious groups on attitudes and approaches to death, dying and the afterlife – I've more recently met with members of Jewish, Hindu, Mexican [...]