Kiran Bir Sethi

| Design for Change

Kiran Bir Sethi

Servane meets with Kiran Bir Sethi. The story of Riverside School, Aproch, and Design for Change, the famous global contest, is not a story of an educator, or a leader, or an activist trying to change the world – but it's a story of how Kiran Bir Sethi's world changed when she became a mother.

I love what Kiran says: "Inspiration has a shelf life. Every week you need to be inspired again".


Servane: How did the "Design for Change" competition, and Riverside School project come about and what impact are you making?

Kiran: "Let me introduce you to my son Raag … who was all of 6 years old when with a single stroke a teacher removed choice from his consciousness… His crime: he had chosen to write his own version of the essay "the cow". That day, he went to school thinking “I CAN’ and returned home believing ‘I cant’. It got me thinking about…….CHOICE … it is this word that we remove from our children’s vocabulary - not for one day, one month or even one year - but for 15 years of their formative lives. And then we wonder why they don’t become proactive, responsible or empathetic citizens.

That day, I removed my son from school.

What was I supposed to do then?

The easiest solution would have been to change his school. But the problem was not the school, it was the system. This is where my design background allowed me to respond to the situation rather than react out of helplessness.


Design starts with saying ‘what if’ rather than asking ‘what’s wrong’. This shift is significant otherwise we end up solving the wrong problems and wonder why change does not happen.

At the heart of design thinking is the message that we are not helpless, that change is possible and that we can drive it.

So, my response was: "Designing an education model that would empower children with the tools to help them go from ‘I Cant’ to ‘I CAN’. This is how, in 2001, Riverside school was born.


The Riverside School, a K-12 school with 300 students in Ahmedabad, India, epitomizes a model of education at the school, and integrates academics tightly with personal development, collaboration, design and social action.

The school believes that curiosity fuels the learning process, and when encouraged, helps students find and pursue their passion. The Riverside School delivers an educational approach based on a 'Common Sense Model', where children are placed at the center of the educational program. It aims to unearth each child's inherent potential by putting them at the heart of their learning and fostering a culture of 'I can'.

This philosophy has been recognized as an effective educational model, most recently by Education World when Riverside School was voted India's # 3 International Day School (2013). Dr. Howard Gardner has also validated the teaching methodology practiced at the school.


Design for Change School Challenge was designed to take this culture of ‘I CAN’ for all the children of the world. DFC is a call to action for school students to identity a problem around themselves and implement an idea to solve that problem. The challenge is aimed at getting children to develop empathy by understanding the need of self and others and then translating that empathy into action for positive change in the community.

Through the four easy steps of Feel, Imagine, Do and Share, children are dreaming up and leading brilliant ideas all over the world. Children are proving that they have what it takes to be able to design a future that is desired.

"Children are born entrepeneurs!" (link)

Children were addressing issues that directly bothered them. No longer was their idea small and insignificant. Empathy became an important lens through which children saw their world. In the last five years, Design for Change has spread to more than 30 countries and 400,000 children, who have led more than 650 awareness campaigns, saved more than 480,000 liters of water, set up more than 100 libraries, built 750 restrooms in villages and taught 1,900 adults to read and write.

The "Design for Change School Challenge" has won the prestigious “INDEX – Design to Improve Life” Award, in Copenhagen, Denmark in September 2011, and the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Youth Innovation Award in 2012."

S: What is your own background, Kiran, and what have been the biggest learning curves for you as a system design and education entrepreneur in the past 3 years?

K: I am a designer by profession and when I became a mother I think the interest in education was ignited simply because of what my son was going through. So, it’s a very personal story and my experience with my son’s schooling just bothered me enough to say I would start my school, so it was really that one moment when I just took my son out of school one day because of what he had experienced, and I realized that I would just do anything else but not send him back to that kind of a system. So that’s really where my interest started.

The biggest learning curve for me is ‘you will infect something only with what you have’

When I got into education, I felt that was the one key ingredient that I had to give to my students : less fear and more competence. I want them to feel that they are not helpless, that when they confront a situation they will not say, “I don't know”.

When children ‘do good’ they ‘learn good’. With our system their whole being is involved in the learning process – experiencing, learning, prototyping – and through that process a broad range of skills is developed. So that’s not just the academic skills but also the 21st-century skills of collaborative enterprise, of agency, of empathy, of problem- solving, of critical thinking.

The greatest investment you can make is in yourself. If you invest in yourself first, then you can invest in others. Still, my father taught me that nobody and nothing is indispensible. Living in the present, if you live it 100%, is important than holding on to what you might have in the future.

S: What top 3 rules/values do you always stick to, no matter what?

K: First, be the change you wish to see in the world!

Then remember that hope is not a strategy!

Finally, nothing is of value unless it is shared...

S: You work at the junction of education, system design, technology, social impact, social intelligence, what kind of mindset do you need to have to be able to work in that space? What skills are important?

K: In today’s fast changing world where the information doubles every two years, a very critical mindset to have is the design thinking mindset – optimistic, collaborative and user centered. This mindset allows you to see opportunities instead of problems.. Design thinking starts with empathy, builds on creativity and then activates agency.

S: What kind of resources do you need at the moment to grow Riverside school?

K: An idea sticks and grows with the partners and minds that get attached to it – so, working with people, organisations, funders to spread the word, advocate design thinking and celebrate children as role models of change through visibility would be great!!

S: Finally, which women in the social innovation space inspire you and why?

Shaheen Mistri – CEO of Teach for India.

Poonam Bir Kasturi – Founder, Daily Dump – both believe and act upon the belief.


Company info

Ogunte is no longer operating. We've moved on!
Please visit Conscious Innovation


© 2001-2021 Ogunte. All rights reserved.