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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 [...]

Taped Crusader Pushes Perspectives

Inviting New Yorkers to view their city from a more playful perspective, Aakash Nihalani has been creating street art which encourages dimensional disruptions since 2007. Through his impermanent interventions he seeks to “highlight the unexpected contours and elegant geometry of the city itself.” He’s currently developing a new series of works, in less urban environments, as the Lisa de Kooning Artist in Residence.
 

Aakash’s signature fluorescent isometric idiosyncrasies emerged when he was taping up his thesis show at NYU. He noticed the shadow of a pedestal which he decided to outline with tape. This observation led to further adhesive explorations, including fusing tape and cardboard, which Aakash eventually took to the street.
 


Check this fab clip on Aakash’s Stop sign piece in progress: Stop, Pop & Roll
 

“I kinda like the inevitable destruction. Making sure things last is a cumbersome task.”
– Aakash Nihalani, on It’s Nice That


Aakash’s works in New Delhi from late 2011
 


Images for Aakash’s Lacoste LIVE camapaign, shot by Mark Hunter
 

The Lacoste LIVE 2012 Spring/Summer campaign features Aakash, on the streets of New York, in their Unconventional Talents series
 
More recently Aakash has been producing works as the Lisa de Kooning Artist in Residence. From here he continues to explore and accentuate frozen moments while playing with our perspective preconceptions:




 
Note-worthy: Aakash’s lively take on Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog was actually shot from above, against a New York pavement:

 
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Random Specific Musings from the Ramayana
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All images, with permission, from Aakash Nihalani
 

Inviting New Yorkers to view their city from a more playful perspective, Aakash Nihalani has been creating street art which encourages dimensional disruptions since 2007. Through his impermanent interventions he seeks to "highlight the unexpected contours and elegant geometry of the city itself." He's currently developing a new series of works, in less urban environments, [...]

At Home: Community Conversations on Health


Decorated domestic items speak volumes to exhibition audiences from within the low-income neighbourhoods at Dharavi as well those who have arrived from across Mumbai.

Last week in Mumbai, I visited an inspiring exhibition at my former ethnographic research stomping ground of Dharavi. It was a treat to be taken there by the artist who created the conceptual framework for the show, Nandita Kumar – and to meet many of the slum-based artists she had collaborated with. The installation grew out of a community-based initiative by SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) which cited an opportunity to connect resource constrained urban residents with health experts and artists – to share skills plus knowledge, discuss issues and create ways of spreading messages further in a locally engaging and meaningful way.
 

Children readily engaged with a hand-operated television set featuring ‘good news’

The installation space, set up within a school at the heart of Dharavi, housed artworks which spoke to local domestic settings – hence the exhibition’s name Ghare Pe – At Home. During my afternoon visit a number of neighbouring school groups excitedly swarmed through and were shown round by the participating artists – who confidently explained their artworks while encouraging onwards conversation on health issues. Young students were intrigued by the many household items which were both familiar yet creatively provocative. The interactive and tactile nature of the show reeled them in as Nandita had intended.
 

Both youthful and elderly visitors were taking in the show – here checking out a cupboard filled with stuffed emoticon balls. These intended to illustrate how women have diverse emotions but are unable to express all of them openly within acceptable social norms.
 

Stainless steel canisters are gifted to women at marriage. Here the artist, Sneha, reveals: “I store rice, dal, wheat, jaggery, peppercorns, tamarind and dried chillies – an array of ingredients. To me they are like the flavours of my marriage”
 

Embroidered figures were inspired by topics from diet to vision
 

Locals were confronted by images from their own neighbourhoods – here of a woman facing mental health issues who lives on the street outside a roller door.
 

An embroidered item from a workshop session exploring personal health histories. “Three caesareans. One appendicitis. One miscarriage. And like an ending to a poem, one last family planning scar” Image source.
 
The initiative behind the exhibition, Dekha Undekha (Seen, Unseen) brought together mentors in photography, textiles and ceramics with local residents of Dharavi and beyond through a series of workshops run over the past year. Participants were asked to draw household items and body parts that they were happiest with alongside other exercises which helped them grasp artistic abstraction and skills, connect as a group, discuss health issues plus focus on themes. Conversations went back and forth between composition, concepts and technique plus personal hygiene, mental health, maternal care, sanitation, waste disposal, domestic violence and superstitions.
 

Exploring everyday addictions
 


Dishracks displaying household utensils are exhibited with pride across homes at Dharavi. Blended with photography they speak here about local health issues – especially surrounding sanitation.
 

Embroidered work depicting bacteria. “If you think about it, looking at microbes through a microscope makes them appear like they all set for a wedding – stained in many colours of royal purple, hot pink and pistachio green. They look so dressed up!” – commencing a conversation about what can be done to prevent the spread of diseases.
Image by Neville Sukhia

 



Sneha’s stovetop exhibit portraying domestic harmony and violence.

Spirited local artist Sneha has been a victim of domestic abuse. One of her artworks encompasses a decorated stove top. “Some days are marriage, some days are war.” One side of the stove shows happy days full of colour while the other side is filled with fear and a darker side of home life. She told me assuredly that “learning about intention, sequence, themes and action helped guide the emotions we felt to connect with the health issues we discussed in a way that would appeal to people out here.”
 

Asmabee with a selection of photographs by various local artists, including her own.

Dharavi-based artist, Asmabee, hadn’t touched a camera till about a year ago. Last month she earned a photography prize at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in well-heeled South Bombay. She acknowledges that participation in Dekha Undekha has given her confidence and won her local respect. Having worked at Dharavi a few years back, I was in awe at the ease of the local artists I met in articulating both their personal feelings and aspirations for their communities. They had also zealously encouraged visitors from their diverse neighbourhoods to come see the show and to continue discussions beyond its walls. Ghar Pe has been an expertly conceived exhibition and goes a long way in triggering significant conversations and solution-seeking – applaudably with, not for those in low-income communities. It would seem that At Home is a great place to start.

Related posts:
Random Specific Images of Dharavi on Flickr
Women Together: Incentivising Savings

Decorated domestic items speak volumes to exhibition audiences from within the low-income neighbourhoods at Dharavi as well those who have arrived from across Mumbai. Last week in Mumbai, I visited an inspiring exhibition at my former ethnographic research stomping ground of Dharavi. It was a treat to be taken there by the artist who created [...]

Celebrating Street-level Ingenuity

I was excited to return from summer holidays down here in New Zealand, to receive my copy of the first issue of Makeshift magazine. Makeshift is the product of a global network of editors, researchers, journalists, photographers and videographers uncovering stories of street-level ingenuity. I was invited to contribute via my participation on the REculture blog which explores the post-consumption economy of repair, re-use, repurpose and recycling – predominantly by those in low-income communities.

Makeshift is a quarterly magazine and multimedia website about creativity in unlikely places – from the favelas of Rio to the alleys of Delhi. These are environments where resources may be scarce but where ingenuity is used incessantly for survival, enterprise and self-expression. In different cultures it goes by different names: DIY in the US, jugaad in India, jua kali in East Africa and gambiarra in Brazil. Makeshift seeks to unify these cultures of production into a global identity. Makeshift is about people – the things they make and the context they make them in.

Makeshift has been pulled together both artfully & articulately by Steve Daniels in New York. (I’ve featured Steve before on Random Specific for his insightful work Making Do: Innovation in Kenya’s Informal Economy as part of a post on Amplifying African Creativity) Paying dues to the blog from which Makeshift evolved, this first issue has been themed REculture. Steve is quick to point out that informal economies operating in environments of scarcity tend to form sustainable trade ecosystems as they regularly reintroduce waste back into their supply chains. He perceives a new era “in which corporations, policy makers and designers must adapt to informal systems – devising platforms that empower people and communities to create.”
 

Russian photographer, Sergey Maximishin’s stunning images from Kenya’s jua kali sector.

The REculture issue contains imagery, infographics and articles on Mexican horseback recyclers, Kenyan hackonomics, Indian textile refabricators and more. My former collaborator, Niti Bhan, weighs in on contrasting approaches to waste from Delhi to the Phillipines and beyond: “Maximising returns on their investment and minimising their use of scarce resources, local makers develop affordable and locally relevant solutions to everyday challenges posed by the scarcities of the environment… extending the life of the product though a variety of characteristic behaviours…” She highlights the lessons to be learned from pursuing the limits of use from every resource.
 

Global-roaming anthropologist, Jan Chipchase, shines a light on the Afghani ‘dirty fuel’ street economy which keeps people on the road and generators running in a context of scarce reliable fill-up stations.
 

 
A savvy aspect of Makeshift is that it was crowd-funded on Kickstarter – the world’s largest peer-to-peer funding platform for creative projects. It raised over $40 000 USD in a matter of weeks from 600+ backers via it’s Kickstarter campaign – over double it’s initial goal. A fitting approach to funding for a magazine which celebrates bottom-up approaches and collaborative networks. Keep an eye out for Makeshift’s next issue on mobility – ingenuity on the move.

Related posts
Post-consumption Creativity
Indian Grassroots Innnovation
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets

I was excited to return from summer holidays down here in New Zealand, to receive my copy of the first issue of Makeshift magazine. Makeshift is the product of a global network of editors, researchers, journalists, photographers and videographers uncovering stories of street-level ingenuity. I was invited to contribute via my participation on the REculture [...]

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 [...]

Typocentric: Bazaar

Last month I had a blast hosting the Typocentric: Bazaar workshop at Delhi’s UnBox Festival. We had global players join local folk to construct typographic forms from objects commonly found in Indian markets – buttons, bindis, decorative mirrors, candles, textile embellishments, match-boxes and more. I had initially proposed the workshop to run over three days which somehow got condensed to three hours – but much fun emerged on this insane time frame. Having graphic designers joined by those with backgrounds in anthropology, education and finance led to a random-specific blend of capacities which kept everyone typo-ventilating throughout.
 

I got a particular kick out of working alongside my gifted former student and pixel-pro, Abishek Ghate, who experimented with constructing typographic forms out of various elements to devise the intense workshop format.
 

We started out by having small groups create Hindi words in Devanagari script out of bindis. For those of you who are in the dark, bindis are the red or coloured forehead markings worn by many South Asian women – often but not always signifying marriage.
 

Bram Pitoyo, Digital Strategist at Weiden + Kennedy, collaborated with others to form Usha (उषा) meaning the first ray of light from the rising sun.
 

Another group took a different path to create the same word. And that’s the arm of Kriti Monga from Tumeric Design – a typographic doyenne – who wears it on her sleeve. Some of you may recall her superb visual journal from Design Yatra which featured in Creative Review.
 

Workings + resolutions for Sakhi (सखी) – an endearing term for a girl, a friend, a confidante.
 

Babe (बेब) – phonetically from English and peppered through Hindi conversations when hotties are on the radar.
 

We then switched to a smorgasbord of elements from local bazaars. The pressure mounted and creativity escalated as teams raced against the clock to follow typographic guidelines while exploring the limits and opportunities that their designated objects presented.
 

Decorative mirrors, often used for textile ornamentation, were used to artfully form the word Chhavi (छवि) which means reflection or image.
 

A team working with matchboxes experimented with multiple approaches to celebrate the name of our hosts: The UnBox Festival.
 

Impressive collaboration from those who worked with coloured buttons to create the name of our host city: Dilli/Delhi (दिल्ली)
 

Decorative flourishes from a group working with gotas – pleated fabric embellishments used to adorn sarees and other traditional clothing.
 

And pyromania ensued to give justice to the word Lau (लौ) or flame, built with candles.

Ghate and I were joined in energising participants by Codesign founder and UnBox spearhead, Rajesh Dahiya – who was a former colleague of mine at India’s National Institute of Design, where he continues to teach typography as adjunct faculty. My Design Observer co-contributor and by now close conference-buddy, John Thackara, had to put up with our fervored racket from his more earnest workshop which took place a just few paces away – luckily I made up for it the next day by swinging us a table at the ever popular dining spot Gunpowder. With it’s scenic view, this was a great vantage point to reflect on the UnBox Festival – where I had also presented as Community Manager on OpenIDEO. It had indeed lived up to it’s promise to encompass work and play across contexts and mediums plus “rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation for those interested in social and cultural change.” While many of the conference sessions were focused on more worthy pursuits, we’d like to think that Typocentric: Bazaar ignited a hankering for the handmade, a love of the local, a craving for collaboration – all within the alluring hype of type.
 
Related posts:
Typocentric Bazaar on Flickr
Overlap: Intersection of Desi & Diasporic
Viva Vernacular

Last month I had a blast hosting the Typocentric: Bazaar workshop at Delhi's UnBox Festival. We had global players join local folk to construct typographic forms from objects commonly found in Indian markets – buttons, bindis, decorative mirrors, candles, textile embellishments, match-boxes and more. I had initially proposed the workshop to run over three days [...]

Novel Tales and African Teens

Youth in the slums of Nairobi. Future readers of literature delivered by mobile phone?

Yoza publishes short, hip novels and classic literature on mobile phones for African youth. Designed to encourage reading, writing and responding, Yoza engages African youth with stories and social issues. The project, which was spearheaded by Steve Vosloo – a technology researcher in Cape Town – and financed by South Africa’s Shuttleworth Foundation, is dedicated to a participatory culture hungry for micro-doses of literature that are accessible as pixels not paper.

Officially launched last September, Yoza is based on Vosloo’s observations that African youth are book-poor yet mobile-rich. An estimated 90 percent of urban South African youth have access to cell phones and 70 percent of those phones are web-enabled. In stark contrast, more than half of South African households own no leisure books and only 7 percent of public schools have functional libraries.

Illustrations from Yoza’s premiere edition: Kontax

Yoza’s first story, Kontax, followed the adventures of a local graffiti crew around Cape Town. Its 20 pages were initially published over a month of daily dispatches via a mobisite and later on the popular MXit social network. Each episode, released in both English and isiXhosha, was around 400 words long. Prizes were offered for the best comments and sequel ideas from Kontax readers.

Via Yoza, 17,000 users accessed the full premiere Kontax series for free — well eclipsing the South African “best-seller” standard of 5,000 book sales. Each chapter costs the reader around 1 US cent to download. Explains Vosloo, “Mobile data is cheap relative to voice and SMS — and of course, books. It’s also about access.” According to Vosloo, readership exploded when Yoza was made available to MXit’s 15 million local subscribers — a share currently far greater than Facebook’s.

Yoza content on MXit social network and on a mobisite (Image courtesy of Yoza)

The comments feature allows Vosloo to stay in touch with what readers want. “It’s become clear that youth are keen to be both educated and entertained,” he notes. “We get many requests for stories which are relevant to their lives. We’ve had requests for story lines which cover drugs and teen pregnancy, careers, money and more.” Feedback has helped to shape onwards content which includes Streetskillz, set during the football World Cup, Sisterz which explores dark family secrets and teenage life plus Confessions of a Virgin Loser which follows a boy steering his way through a complicated world of peer pressure, teenage sex and HIV/AIDS. Social issues provide a further avenue for interaction. A story which touched on domestic violence elicited a slew of comments in support of the affected character and posts of personal accounts which empathised with her situation.
 

South African students read and respond to Yoza content. (Image courtesy of Yoza)

Alongside popular culture content, Yoza has also been adding episodic versions of classics from Shakespeare to Wordsworth and other curriculum related texts. Feedback from teachers in low-income schools tells of class assignments given in conjunction with Yoza content and applauds the access to classic literature which the platform has provided. While some may criticise the informal use of language by readers – comments across the site also highlight an engaged audience ready to amend mistakes which have eluded Yoza’s editors. Although youthful readers may comment in text-speak, they eagerly respond with corrections on errors which creep into stories.

Looking to the future, Vosloo has been speaking with various potential sponsors who understand the bridge he has created between reading, response and social issues. One such discussion has been with a bank around the notion of a series featuring elements of financial literacy within its storyline. An aspect which is attractive to sponsors is the appetite created through releasing stories in installments but also that the entire series is then available on the Yoza site and continues to attract commentary. “It’s a bit like the transition from a box-office to DVD release,” adds Vosloo. “There’s the initial rush to devour a fresh feature yet the legacy contributes to a growing library of accessible content.”

An edited version of this article appears in my Change Observer Report on Design Observer.

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Youth in the slums of Nairobi. Future readers of literature delivered by mobile phone? Yoza publishes short, hip novels and classic literature on mobile phones for African youth. Designed to encourage reading, writing and responding, Yoza engages African youth with stories and social issues. The project, which was spearheaded by Steve Vosloo – a technology [...]

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:
 

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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.
 
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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 [...]