We asked three fellows to reflect on their experiences so far as part of the IIC. Their remarks capture commitments to a diverse range of activities and reflect expanding perspectives and worldviews. Before we share their responses with you, here is a little background on each fellow.

  • Neelakshi Rathore graduated from Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur in 2012 with a BA in Architecture, and she received her MA in Urban Design in 2014 from Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology. Neelakshi is on the IIC-DMICDC team, which is working to design smart charter cities.
  • Shirley Yan graduated from the University of Chicago in 2014 with a BA in Public Policy. Shirley is on the IIC-NSDC team, which seeks to create job growth and promote skills training in the textile industry.
  • Brennan O’Rear graduated from American University in 2005 with a BA in International Politics and Economics and he received his MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2014. Brennan is on the IIC-CEL team, which is creating affordable urban and rural electrification schemes.

1. Tell us about an exciting encounter you've had during the fellowship.

Shirley: One memorable encounter that I had was presenting to the Punjab Chief Secretary, Joint Secretary of Technical Education and Joint Secretary of the Department of Industries on how to re-imagine the textile space in Punjab and revitalize its growth. It was exciting partly because I was able to meet such high level officials, but also because this meeting was the realization of several months of hard work. It can feel like work is going nowhere sometimes, or that you don't really know how your stakeholders are going to feel about your work. But this was a great win that validated all the confusion I was feeling. It also showed me that all work within the Indian Government isn't just red tape and chai – there are people who really want to make change happen and are willing to help you move it along.

Neelakshi: Meeting our lead mentor, architect Peter Ellis, and his team in Chicago would definitely be one of the highlights of the fellowship for me. I had known Peter for his exemplary work both at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as well as at Cannon Design. Having him constantly lead and guide us through the nuances of city designing and development through his extensive experience in various parts of the world has been extremely helpful for the project. 

2. What is a new skill you've learned as a fellow?

Neelakshi: The biggest takeaway for me so far has been learning to work with multiple stakeholders in a project. From the government leaders to the office staff to the consultants, each stakeholder brings with themselves varying scope of involvement and motivations for the project. Learning to align everyone's expectations with the ultimate goal of the project will be crucial to my professional growth in the long run.

Shirley: FLEXIBILITY. We've changed directions about 100 times – not because we lack direction, but because we are getting different feedback from NSDC, the textile industry, and other stakeholders. Part of doing good design work is being able to listen to what people are saying and incorporate that feedback (or lack of feedback!) into your work.

Brennan: One of the most important skills I have honed as a fellow is that of pitching a particular course of action. Working with so many individuals from the private, non-profit, and government worlds has taught me always to frame the presentation of evidence in terms of a particular stakeholder’s interests. Once I became more practiced at recognizing the interests at play and framing the presentation of evidence given those interests, it became much easier to move various stakeholders to work with one another towards shared goals.

3. Describe an experience that has changed your perspective in some way.

Neelakshi: I have been extremely conscious of the gradual shift in perspective I've had in terms of understanding the complexities in bringing about actual "change" on ground. Coming to the fellowship as a fresh post-graduate with close to zero work experience, I have realized that it is often easier to theorize change and innovation, but working to bring an idea to reality takes an in-depth understanding of the work, systems, cultural practices and organizational norms.  

Brennan: As a member of the IIC here in Delhi, I am part of many communities, including the expat community, the University of Chicago community, the public sector community, and the community of my local residential neighborhood, among others. This means that I have had the opportunity to meet and work closely with a variety of people. I have caught myself on numerous occasions attempting to interpret this variety within a single cohesive worldview. Yet again and again, my experience as part of this fellowship has forced me to acknowledge the situational complexities that impact the world in which I live. 

4. What is one thing that you have tried during the fellowship for the first time?

Brennan: Being part of the IIC has forced me to work as part of a larger team for a greater duration than I had in the past. That experience has helped me learn to be a stronger team contributor. As a result, I have become a better listener and a more effective participant in shared decision-making.

Shirley: Does street food count? I was too afraid last time I came to India, but my stomach has gotten stronger. 

5. In your own words, what does innovation mean?

Brennan: I think we are often tempted to think of innovation as de novo – as a lightbulb that suddenly goes off in the mind of some eccentric visionary. Even the word’s etymology suggests novelty. Yet almost invariably, what is termed innovation constitutes the novel application of one or more existing approaches, often in cleverly synergistic combination. Therefore, to be innovative, we must practice focusing on end-user need while applying a variety of analogistic frames, proven alternate methods, and design principles to meeting that need.

Shirley: Innovation is the capacity to have an attitude different from the norm and to act on that attitude or idea. It doesn't have to be coming up with a new ground breaking idea. My lack of experience in the textile space is actually a strength, because it affords me a different perspective of doing things. It also means that I don't get "stuck" in the norms or attitudes prevalent in the industry. 

Neelakshi: Innovation to me is not only about bringing new perspectives into the project, but more importantly about actualizing concepts and ideas to an implementable form. In the last five months, our priority as a team has constantly been to ensure bringing to life ideas, seemingly simplistic on paper but a task to implement.