Posted by: brinda21 | March 30, 2010

Brinda Dalal, President, Dhoopa Ventures LLC

Two questions drive my work. How do we systematically understand change as it occurs in human society? How might we build innovations that radically shape the future? My focus at present is to explore how people can become more interconnected and knowledgeable about each other–regardless of differences in politics, language, location or background–in order to increase well-being.

What I can do for you

I help my clients understand and co-design for change. When you grok the details of what people are actually doing right now–how they are experimenting, and why they aren’t using your technology/service/policy the way that you think they should–it gives you a window into the future. Rather than guessing at customers’ intentions or designing for ourselves, I systematically conduct broad or deep studies on people’s emerging practices, and target the findings to help you transform products, create scenarios for new services and design pragmatic strategies. I also help to motivate teams to have a wider impact in their organizations.

I use a blend of research methods personalized to what my clients need, among them interviewing and observing lead users, participatory research, human-centered design combined with activity logs, ethnographic research, online surveys, design workshops, user experience design, and contextual inquiry.

What I’ve done

I am an independent researcher and intrapreneur, based in Silicon Valley. Before founding Dhoopa Ventures, I worked at PARC, Xerox, and with many of Xerox’s major clients through collaborations with Xerox Global Services. Our teams were always multidisciplinary, and ranged in size from a few to several dozen people. I am enormously privileged to work with a gamut of individuals with wide-ranging interests and diverse backgrounds including design, the social sciences, law, business analysis, security, medicine, computer science, engineering and global marketing and sales.

My methods have been refined over eighteen years of experience across three continents, ranging from a census of pavement dwellers, building housing and micro-credit programs with women in India and nomadic identities in the Himalayas, to knowledge work and high tech innovation in the US and Japan.

One of my most inspiring and challenging projects was to co-found PARC’s clean technology initiative: this was back in 2003, before the release of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. We built interest in sustainability and renewable energy by organizing public forums and inviting experts to speak on “Science and Technology for a Sustainable World”. You can hear some of those talks here. The efforts led to new projects and spin-off companies.

Our very first project involved a study of recycling in office environments. Our finding that 25% of office printouts are discarded within a day prompted the development of tonerless printing and erasable paper, the latter a self-erasing media that you can print on and reuse many times. Initially, erasable paper seemed paradoxical for an organization that helped to envision a future without paper. But the potential business opportunity for the corporation, substantial environmental impact and cost savings for customers rapidly became clear. In 2007, erasable paper won top innovation awards in the environmental category from Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

Some other things I’ve been involved with or managed are: interdisciplinary studies on social networks for health and wellness, usable security, persuasive technology in retail environments, home networking, the future of work, the use of mobile phones, intellectual property, and the biopsychosocial approach.

One of my specialties is applying social science perspectives to industry. In one paper, we describe how we use Representations–sketches, video, graphical and condensed textual description to highlight people’s work–as a gift to customers, by examining their work practices and reflecting those practices back to customers. Why is this important? One reason is because customer engagements often need trust and a spirit of durability to succeed. Yet, companies know that the very nature of their relationships with customers is transient. Those who let you manage their entire fleet this year might switch to a different supplier next year.  Clients, on the other hand, might end up waiting for many months for you to tailor and build a new solution before gauging whether the risks in the partnership actually paid off. During this time, Representations can act as intermediary objects, like gifts–the thirteenth loaf in a baker’s dozen–to strengthen our mutual engagement.  Through the gifts we amplify the richness of our customers’ work and can show that we understand the problems that they face or have overcome. And by sharing them with customers, we deepen our communication and build trust in situations that are inherently transitory. (Feel free to read the whole paper: EPIC05_BakersDozen and leave a response or comment below about your own experiences around deepening your engagements with customers.)

In the 1990s, well before exploring work practices of self-styled urban nomads across Silicon Valley cafes, I conducted research with pastoralists in the Himalayas, gathering data for a PhD in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. My research focused on how nomadic, buffalo-herding families viewed their identities, economy and environment through a nuanced lens of social proximity.

Now and again I give talks, and have served on committees, including the program committee for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference–a unique watering hole for practicing social scientists, designers and creative professionals in industry–and the alumni council for Woodstock, an international school that offers students a global worldview.


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