Abhinav Dey- On Creating New Possibilities Through Design Thinking

Abhinav Dey - Knowyourstar
Abhinav (center) being honoured at the India Inclusion Summit (IIS) by Ferose (left) and Anshu Gupta (right)

Design and innovation are at the heart of establishing any venture, and such endeavours require qualities like creativity, logic, intuition, problem-solving, empathy and strategy building. People who have these qualities in abundance are hard to find. Luckily for us, Abhinav Dey is one of them! An IIS fellow and social entrepreneur, Abhinav is the founder at FreeDesign, a design thinking company which helps establish new and impactful social enterprises by offering services that include technology design and development.

Experience To Implementation

Abhinav Dey’s experiences have only contributed to his vision for FreeDesign. His varied experiences in different fields have proved helpful in this regard. He started dabbling in design while he was still at school and pursued a two-year course in graphic design. After landing a spot at the prestigious Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), he found himself expanding his horizons. He says, “When I came to college, I was expected to do more problem solving rather than conceptualising with graphic design. I wanted to combine both my skills.”

However, it was his work with an NGO called Blind-Lead that lead him into the social impact arena. He recounts,

“This NGO wanted to teach non-earning blind persons to make things with metal. As a mechanical engineer, I was working with them to facilitate the program. I observed the lifestyle of people with disabilities. I met and spoke to a lot of them. When we were short of funds, I had to raise funds personally. I also worked on management, procuring materials, marketing for that NGO. That gave me a 360-degree view of the workings of a social initiative in the disability sector.”

His work with Blind-Lead solidified his ambitions to make a real difference. Exploring the social impact space, he found himself increasingly intrigued by the education field, “I then shifted my focus to education. I came to Bangalore and was the design facilitator for an NGO called Project DEFY. The main motive was to enable rural communities to build their own resources, schools, knowledge-base and become teachers to teach what they want. It is very democratic and in alignment with the Gandhian view of how education should be.”

His participation in the education field has made him a big proponent for vocational training, “I personally believe in creative capacity building. It means creating a problem-solving capacity in the context of the skills of an individual rather than teaching a particular skill. A lot of vocational training non-profits come to us with a view to improving livelihoods using different skills. We tell them that there is no need to teach them the skills and the key is to give them the capacity to use the skills creatively for their needs.”

The Birth Of FreeDesign

Abhinav Dey - Knowyourstar
Abhinav (left) with colleague Ajay Gopi (centre) and Project DEFY graduate Somashekhar (right)

FreeDesign came into being in 2013. Since then, FreeDesign has been involved in a fascinating variety of initiatives. Abhinav says, “I help people to design their own social enterprises keeping in mind my experience.”

He gives us an example, “An NGO may approach us with an idea to build a school, which combines kindergarten and an old age home. There might be non-profits that have such ideas but don’t have the funding and are facing many other issues. Such new initiatives, which come under the non-profit domain, require more streamlining and thinking. Along the lines of why they want to do that specific project or program.”

However, the operations of FreeDesign are not restricted merely to planning and designing. Abhinav explains that the company is much more than that,

“We do a lot of engineering too. We do not believe in merely building a strategy on paper, which has to be executed by the NGO. We actually work towards enabling the project for the NGO.”

Jacks Of All Trades, Masters Of All

FreeDesign has taken up a number of challenging projects since its inception with a view to giving a boost to social impact initiatives. Abhinav explains one such interesting project, “An NGO called The ANT (Action Northeast Trust), a handicraft business non-profit, approached me with an idea to give a livelihood source for the disabled with block printing. People would be interested in the block printing but not with giving them a job. We picked up the design challenge for a year. We have put together designs for devices to revive this art form.”

Abhinav continues, “Block printing is almost extinct all over the world except in India. Only those communities whose livelihoods depend on it are still keeping it alive. We are aiming at changing the ergonomics, working on the engineering aspect and establishing it as a social initiative project.”

Among their current projects, FreeDesign’s association with Akshayakalpa, an organisation dealing with dairy agriculture, is definitely noteworthy. Abhinav explains the issues that they are trying to solve, “India has 50% of the world’s cows and buffaloes. We also lack 40% of the fodder required. Many cows are unhealthy leading to difficulties. There are many ecosystem issues too. This is a huge policy-based problem, which the government is trying to solve. Our perspective is to discover what small responsible businesses can do to come together and solve the problem.”

The team is doing what they do best and visualising a solution that utilises technology to not just solve this issue, but which will have an impact on others battling corresponding issues. Abhinav says, “We want to come up with technology to enable the farmers to grow fodder without depending on seasons and other natural factors. We are trying to bring this state-of-the-art technology to 4 villages. It is a 6-month project. We have received some funds from MIT as well as a local NGO to execute this project.”

Getting An Education

Abhinav Dey - Knowyourstar - Project DEFY
Participants of the ProjectDEFY makerspace come together to co-create the aquaponics farming system, to overcome the local water scarcity problem.

In addition to these projects, the team is still closely involved with Project DEFY. Abhinav Dey says, “Project DEFY is a revolutionary project in the field of education. It aims at initiating a learning process where students design their own education. The project has now set up a school with its own learning environment devoid of teachers and examinations.”

This school is set up with computers, electronics and scrap materials brought in by the local rural communities. Learning is furthered with the hands-on experience of making things with available resources. This practical educational system has now been implemented in places like Bangalore, Mangalore, and Uganda.

He says, “Project DEFY is about bringing maker spaces to villages so that maker spaces become resource centres, which can be used for learning.”

A Vision For The Future

Abhinav Dey - Knowyourstar - Project DEFY
Somashekhar working on making electrical connections for automating irrigation pumps using open source microcontrollers. Behind him, Deepak (age 13) is programming the Arduino pump controller, he has been a pro-active participant at the ProjectDEFY makerspace and volunteers to help the Project Terra Neeru team.

Though Team FreeDesign has more than enough on their collective plate, this dynamic group has no intention of slowing down. Abhinav Dey is bursting with socially impactful ideas. One of them is bringing together experts in a multitude of fields to contribute towards society. He says,

“We are coming up with a consortium of social impact based designers, including people from business, technology, and finance backgrounds. The view is to bring everyone to one place to help start-ups come up with better social initiatives. We are also looking at social impact investors who are willing to fund the start-ups, and also working as designing partners to structure their ventures better.”

As a growing country (and not just population-wise) we face many struggles en route to economic and social development. Social entrepreneurs are a valuable resource, who have the potential not only to help create a new market for Indians, but shape the future of the nation. However, not every social enterprise is fated for success, which is why we can’t help but applaud people like Abhinav Dey and Team FreeDesign for their wonderful work.

Too often wonderful ideas and concepts are bogged down by issues that seem insurmountable, Abhinav’s work is a small but an incredible step towards building a country that is collaborative and innovative – a country to be proud of. Thanks, Abhinav. We, at KnowYourStar, are looking forward to seeing what you do next!


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