Prototyping My Life

OpenIDEO Community Prototyper Naman Mandhan explores the intersection of community building and personal growth

In partnership with
The Challenge
The Outcome

The ability to create is truly powerful. Do it with people, and you now have a formula that will one day change the world.

Twenty-four years ago, I was born in Bur Dubai, a part of Dubai that can be best described as a melting pot of cultural diversity. Nestled between a creek on one side and the Arabian Gulf on the other, walking out of my family’s little home meant that you could say your morning prayers in a mosque, enjoy lunch in an authentic South Indian restaurant, go shopping for clothes from Pakistan, and enjoy a cool evening sitting in a traditional Arabian boat on the water, all within a mile from each other. 

‍Being a year and a half old meant spending a lot of time on the family couch, contemplating some of the biggest questions in life.

My vocabulary included words from at least five different languages, celebrating festivals meant embracing religious beliefs and cultural norms from countries that I had never even visited, and each day in the classroom was like traveling to a different part of the world. I woke up everyday knowing that I would learn something new about a different culture, and that’s what made me fall in love with people from a very young age.

At the same time, I was fascinated by the power that science and math gave me to understand the world. It made me curious. It made me wondrous. It made me want to annoy my teachers with questions until I was late to my next class. How did airplanes fly? Why did some objects float in water while the others didn’t? Why did a guitar sound the way it did? These questions all had answers, and my academic education was helping me make sense of the seemingly confusing world around me.

‍Underneath a skyline that stretches half a mile into the troposphere, Dubai is deeply rooted in cultural diversity and rapid innovation.

Fast forward many years, and I found myself 7000 miles away from home, standing in front of the Gateway to the Future. Here I was, brimming with excitement about the years of learning ahead of me, but nervous that the seventeen-year-old kid from Dubai would get lost in a culture so different from his own. Over the next four years, I got the chance to continue my discovery of the world through my degree in mechanical engineering. 

Moreover, through some volunteer and leadership opportunities, I connected with people during tornado cleanups, realized the power of community by standing on my feet for 18 hours with 2000 individuals to raise money for the fight against childhood illness, and became vulnerable with student leaders across campus. My understanding of the world through engineering was enhanced as I fell in love with people all over again.

‍Ending my journey at Purdue University the way I began - standing in front of the Gateway to Future. The sign greets students as they walk to class every day, as both a literal and figurative expression of taking charge of their future and stepping into new beginnings.

It wasn’t until the start of my master’s degree, however, that I found a natural mix of the two themes that had been such an important part of my life. Over the next two years, I designed a decision-making tool that allowed designers and manufacturers to connect with each other over the common theme of bringing ideas to reality. 

During my research, I stumbled upon Creative Confidence, a piece of literary magic that enlightened me about human-centered design and the incredible work that IDEO and OpenIDEO were conducting to solve truly global issues. This was it! It felt like the last twenty-two years of my life had led to this moment. I was standing at the crossroads of my love for creation and my love for people, equipped with an empowering feeling that if thousands of people around the world were making a difference through design thinking. I wanted to be a part of this movement too.

‍Kicking off the Circular Design Challenge by bringing together designers, innovators, environmental sustainability enthusiasts, and community members to start conversations around how Circular Design is relevant to the city of Detroit.

A year later, I found myself in Detroit, working for an organization where I could continue developing my skills as an engineer while getting a taste of corporate culture. At the same time, I discovered the OpenIDEO Detroit Chapter, which gave me the opportunity to continue learning from incredible individuals who shared my passions, while immersing myself within the Detroit community. As a Chapter, we put up events to design solutions for local and global challenges, we created a network of changemakers within the city, we reached out to hundreds of people to understand their “why,” and we identified potential for amplifying efforts for social impact within the city. 

Our goal was to bring people together through human-centered design, and once again, I saw the marriage of those themes in my life – creation with people. It kept me coming back. 

The feeling of knowing that I mattered. That I could make a difference using my unique set of skills. That for the kid from 7000 miles away who had tried to fit in over the past six years, standing out and being different was a powerful asset. When I was approached for the role of a Community Prototyper for the Circular Design Challenge, it seemed like a natural next step in the journey towards learning and growing within this incredible community of design thinkers. 

As part of a global cohort of prototypers, I would be paired with someone who had submitted an idea to the Challenge, help them create rapid prototypes of their design, test assumptions, and share learnings to help create solutions that would address the current projection that plastic will take up more weight in the ocean than fish by 2050. How could I turn down the opportunity to learn from the incredible OpenIDEO team and group of individuals from cities all around the world?

‍Members of the OpenIDEO Detroit Chapter in a remote feedback session with a design team from the OpenIDEO LA Chapter hosting the same event in California.

I went into my first call as a Community Prototyper thinking to myself, “Why me? What do I bring to the table?” However, I had my answer by the end of that call. Each Prototyper brought to the cohort a unique set of skills and abilities that would serve as complementary elements for collaboration with their prototyping team. I was there for a purpose—to offer my knowledge of human-centered design and an understanding of engineering concepts to an incredible industrial designer with an idea that we both believed could one day change the world. His concept: a one-piece coffee cup that would completely eradicate the need for plastic lids that currently end up as ocean waste.

As I went through this journey, it seemed like my prototyping partner and I had been on this path for a long time. We each took time to learn our stories. I learned how his idea for a “Lidless Cup” stemmed from a project in school, he learned about how I stumbled upon human-centered design.

‍One of the early prototypes of the Lidless Cup - a design inspired by origami creations that would eradicate the need for plastic lids that end up as waste in the ocean.

We understood our “why” and played off each other’s strengths to develop our first prototype together. He created visual models of our design iterations, I researched manufacturing processes and created user personas. We crossed hurdles and built on our ideas. Working our way through a business model canvas was a challenge, but seeing the cup start to come to life through our storyboards offered comfort.

We celebrated milestones along the journey and set goals for the ones to come. Words of affirmation were exchanged after a wonderful user feedback session in a coffee shop, immediately followed by what tweaks we could make to our prototype for the next one.

We told stories and leveraged our communities to help us along our journey. We created a prototype that combined our love for creating, with our love for people.

When the time came to submit the idea, we both saw it as another milestone, with many more to come. We were at the cusp of building on an idea that had the potential to save the environment and in turn, change the world. Why stop now? We are still in touch, working on refining our designs and continuing on the path that we set off on through the Circular Design Challenge.

‍Not pictured here: Three divergent thinkers whose steady stream of creative ideas had me juggling three dry erase markers.

But why did I tell you all of this? Because prototyping is simple, powerful, and in every sense of the word, magical. The concept of creating small, scrappy iterations of a product and using it to refine an idea is something that can be applied to your life. Here’s how I’m prototyping my life:

To begin, I use everything that I have learned through this journey to empathize with myself. Twenty four years of self-empathy helped me formulate my own question:

“How might I create a life for myself that adds value into the lives of others?”

Then, I brainstorm. I formulate a list of ideas that will help me answer my own question. I identify ideas that I feel will truly help me find answers to this question, and then create prototypes for those ideas.

One such idea is to use my passion for photography as a medium for telling stories about communities in Detroit. I started simple—imparting my knowledge about photography to anyone who was willing to listen—to try and explore the intersection of photography and education. Next, I started taking pictures of events within the city, which quickly transformed into volunteering my time as a photographer for a community program that provides micro-grants to local social entrepreneurs. Using the feedback collected from this experience, I am now working on storytelling projects with local nonprofits in Detroit to bring to light some of the challenges facing our city today.

‍Capturing and sharing moments like these has offered incredible personal insight into what it truly means to craft a life of personal happiness and adding value into the lives of others.

One scrappy life experience at a time, I am collecting feedback and discovering those facets of my life that will truly help me add value into the lives of those around me.

“Success is a function of who you surround yourself with” is knowledge that was imparted to me by one of the many incredible individuals I had the chance to meet during my time as a student. So here I am, imparting this to you.

Surround yourself with incredible people.

Learn from their experiences and teach them your own.

And in the end?

Leverage the power of community to create a world that celebrates creation through human collaboration.

Learn More

You can find out more about Naman by connecting with him on email or LinkedIn.