This article has been published in partnership with Maker’s Asylum.
Though a global community today, Maker’s Asylum’s journey began in a small room in a Mumbai office that was, quite tellingly, deemed an ‘asylum’ for “like-minded DIY enthusiasts”, founder Vaibhav Chhabra recalls.
It became a safe space for these makers when, in 2013, around eight people — mostly strangers — showed up to help Vaibhav repair broken furniture in his old office at Eyenetra, a health-tech company, after he put out a call for help on social media.
What transpired was an agreement that they would meet every Sunday to “build fun things”.
Today, Maker’s Asylum is taking this fun and love for creativity to the rest of the world and has become India’s first community to offer such a space.
Since 2013, they have encouraged thousands across India to collaborate and innovate in the spaces of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) by “providing them the confidence, tools, knowledge, space, and communities they need to change the world and become globally-conscious problem-solvers”.
Among these programmes is the SDG School — a remarkable platform that combines people’s love for innovation with the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. The result is a host of ideas and solutions that cut across sectors like healthcare, education, energy, waste management, and more.
The upcoming edition of the programme will be held in the third week of February – next year, in collaboration with The Better India.
We sat down with Vaibhav to understand how the activities at Maker’s Asylum gave shape to this peculiar ‘school’, which has, since its inception in 2016, seen 2000 alumni members tackle 12 SDGs with their solutions.
A bit of ‘jugaad’ and a ticket to France
Vaibhav, who began his career as an engineer, tells The Better India, “Over the years of Maker’s Asylum, a lot of people from different backgrounds and age groups began coming to us to understand how they could bring their ideas to life. So we started designing programmes to facilitate that growth. Now we have programmes for ages 13 and above, tailored to go through the process of design thinking, learning about jugaad, frugal innovation…”
Over the years, the community saw a host of projects — from devices to communicate with satellites to robotic arms and leather made out of flowers. The journey of the SDG School, Vaibhav notes, arose naturally from these innovations.
“It was a very organic journey that started as an Indo-French collaboration. The science attache of the French Embassy came to visit us; she was curious about what we were doing. She really liked what was happening and suggested we check out makers’ labs in France as well, and see how we can share this culture together. This was the deal given to me, along with a flight ticket to France,” he laughs.
Vaibhav spent about a month in the country, travelling from university to university to understand their makers’ labs, many of which were government funded.
“That’s when we tied up with CRI (Centre for Research & Interdisciplinarity) in Paris, where they were bringing people from different backgrounds to work on various problems and design curriculums to tackle real-life problems. We started working with them and thinking about how we can help people find their passion. Because once people do that, they begin learning from the things around them. That was a theory I instantly fell in love with.”
Later on, Vaibhav and his team met with officials at UNESCO. “We also had author Navi Radjou, a former advisor with Maker’s Asylum, advising us on all the jugaad innovation, and UNESCO helped us streamline with respect to the SDGs,” he says.
“The sustainable development goals set by the United Nations are quite vast and complex. But we wanted to look at achieving them as beyond problems that the government or an authority has to solve. We decided to incorporate these SDGs to sort of localise the solutions. At the time, we hadn’t heard of anyone else doing this.”
Vaibhav says that since it began in 2016, the programme has taken shape in various formats. In the initial years, it took place once a year in Mumbai. Eventually, they changed this to twice a year, with the second edition being held in Paris.
During an edition of the Bonjour India cultural festival, Vaibhav had the opportunity to meet the French President. “He invited us to initiate the programme in France, and we held our first edition there in 2019. We saw students from India, as well as Europe.”
Since the pandemic, the programme has shifted online, but many universities have continued to join, and many offer this programme as credits for their students, he explains. “Last year we had Ashoka, NID and a few others who gave credits for students to be part of the SDG School,” he adds.
“The way SDG School, previously called STEAM School, functions is that students from across the world — India, Europe, Asia, and more — come to form an asylum. It’s a two-week programme, and in the first week, we go through a design thinking process. Folks from UNDP and UNESCO come to introduce them to SDGs. Then we have team mixers and events, based on which the participants form teams and choose what solutions they want to work on.”
“What’s amazing is that these teams see people from all walks of life, from different backgrounds.”
“Then we move on to assumption testing, understanding facts, problem statements…there is a steering committee that gives the go-ahead to participants for their problem statements. Then we begin creating prototypes. We host a skill bazaar day so participants can learn different skills like digital fabrication, app design, and video editing….It’s all very hands-on. The last couple of days is for understanding the impact model and how to create a business with it.”
Vaibhav notes that this programme does not have juries and winners. “We tried to be different from the usual hackathons that you see. I believe that if you put a prize at the end, it limits your creativity and makes you think more about what will make you win the prize. But we’re working towards the planet, so our focus is on helping each and every team do that.”
As for this year’s edition, he says, “There will be about 40-50 teams as part of the online programme; that’s about 200 participants attending virtually. The programme will be held from 5 pm to 8 pm and will go on for 10 days. Later, we will invite 10 teams for the project acceleration phase, which will happen in Maker’s Asylum in Goa. Over the course of three days here, participants will interact with mentors to help improve and finalise their prototypes.”
Day 4, he says, will be The Better India Summit, wherein all teams, regardless of the invite for the project acceleration phase, can showcase their projects to incubator partners.
Innovations that change the world
Needless to say, the most exciting part of the programme has been the kind of creativity that people display with their projects.
There is, for instance, Bulls Eye — a workshop and game designed for primary school teachers to address bullying in school, and in turn tackle one reason for high dropout rates. The first activity is a video that shows what bullying is, followed by a debate for the kids to understand the aim of the game. The third step is a board game wherein the child chooses different paths to make ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decisions, followed by a discussion to reflect on what they learned from the process.
“There was a project around inclusivity called Make it Loud, which I really liked. It was a simple glove that a person with speech impairments can wear, and it would translate sign language and essentially ‘speak out’ and convert it to speech,” Vaibhav explains.
There was also First Steps, designed by Zaberi Ansari and Anas Shaikh, residents of Dharavi who, based on their own struggles with education and learning English, designed a low-cost game using bamboo and pipe cleaners to help children from low-income backgrounds learn the English alphabet. This innovation also won Rs 10 lakh on the reality show — Inventor Challenge.
“One story was of Saba, whose mother has ALS. She worked on an app for people with similar issues,” he says. “There was Chetan, who worked on BullsEye. He came back to work on a project called YAWO — a sensor that goes inside your shoe sole to observe how your pressure points are changing through the course of your diabetes. What’s beautiful is that many people, like Chetan, come back to the programme.”
Another interesting aspect of the SDG School is that it is open to all ages above 18.
“The oldest person was about 57 years old, and the average age is around 27-28 years,” Vaibhav explains. “We see people in their 40s and 50s coming in, and it’s really wonderful to see the diversity that comes with them. We also have a scholarship this year that has 10 spots reserved for 13 to 18-year-olds. Many young students want to be part of the programme, and they’re all amazing.”
‘It started with a simple thought’
“The programme has always been very emotional; going through the whole journey together of finding a problem and working through it together. It is a fun experience for everyone to learn together,” Vaibhav says.
“Even when the programme became virtual, you could see parties in breakout rooms, people not wanting to leave…we’ve had to stay up all night because the conversations kept going,” he smiles. “What’s wonderful about the SDG School is the human connect.”
As for his own journey of using his learnings to make something meaningful, Vaibhav says, “When I was growing up, I wasn’t a very confident child. I had some difficult times in school. But when I started making stuff, I became more confident in myself. When you’re actually able to open something up and put it back together, solve problems, figure a new space out….that beauty, that maker’s spirit is the culture I wanted to share through this programme.”
“Of course, it has been a challenging journey — we were kicked out of our office spaces, I had no background in business….but it started with a simple thought, and we’ve built on that for the last 10 years.”
“I also wish something like Maker’s Asylum had existed when I was a child,” he notes. “I wanted to normalise and make technology and tools for change more accessible, to reduce that barrier. I see that with young adults when they use the machines for the first time; the way their eyes light up and how empowered they feel to use a device like that…it’s beautiful to see.”
Have an idea that could meet SDG goals? Applications for the programme are now open until 31st January 2023. Anyone above the age of 18 can apply — click here for details!