Creativity in communities during Covid-19

The third Conversations of our time event brought together four talented women to talk about creativity in communities during the pandemic. We were joined by Rashmi Dhanwani, Founder of the strategic consultancy for the cultural sector in India, Art X Company, Jude Kelly, UK-based Founder and Director of The WOW Foundation and Tizzita Mengesha from Ethiopia, the co-founder and CEO of social enterprise, Maisha Technologies. The event was chaired by Ojoma Ochai, Director for Arts for the British Council in Sub-Saharan Africa, who lives in Nigeria.

Creativity is often associated solely with the arts and people who work in this area. Being creative though doesn’t necessarily mean writing a book or performing on stage. Despite the fact that two out of three speakers are involved in arts or arts-related enterprises, the conversation largely focused on a wider definition of creativity, on inventiveness and innovation.

Here are some of my personal impressions and reflections. Please watch the recording to discover many more interesting and practical ideas shared by our panel.

Creativity as a mindset

Creativity is not a tool or a guideline, it’s a mindset, according to Rashmi. This way of thinking allows us to see the world around in new ways, to be more open to the unknown. It takes courage and there is always a role for creativity to play on the individual and communal levels, Jude says. It’s difficult, but essential, to imagine changing the status-quo and seeing problems as opportunities for creativity and improvement.

Creativity as a response in a crisis

This creative mindset allows us to see beyond the devastation, fears and troubles that Covid-19 pandemic has brought and the problems it has revealed and worsened. Jude stresses that we have learnt from history that crises can also bring change and progress.

Questions from the audience included whether someone can be creative if they are in poverty. In the Conversations of our time series speakers have talked a lot about the opportunities that the current crisis presents and how we can use it to reinvent our reality. Jude raises an important point, saying that if you are in a secure position yourself, then you have the ‘brain space’ to think about such things. However, if you are struggling for survival, then this idea can sound shallow, insensitive and condescending. On the other hand, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, Tizzita says.

Here are two of the many examples shared during the discussion of creative ways of dealing with a crisis:

Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Nizamuddin Basti

Rashmi shares a story of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture that has a conservation project in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi. The Foundation’s team was working on the project together with the local community. They empowered women to become local health workers and young people to participate in the tourism industry. They also enabled the establishment of women centres, where they were involved in craft-based production. Then, in March 2020, an international religious conference took place in the area and turned it into a Covid-19 hotspot. The Foundation together with the community came up with a plan of action. The local health workers have since spread out messages about coronavirus and how to avoid getting infected, while the women centres have made 15 thousand masks for a community of 20 thousand people among other things. This helped bring about a dramatic reduction in new cases of Covid-19 in the area.

Filament for 3D printers

When coronavirus hit Ethiopia, Tizzita’s social enterprise pivoted towards the response to the pandemic. It was decided to create PPE for health workers. However, there was a lack of filament for the 3D printer to make it. Tizzita and the team focused their attention on locally available resources and realised that they saw a lot of plastic waste. After conducting a research, it was established that the waste was recyclable and could be made into filament. The solution therefore addresses two issues at the same time: lack of PPE and pollution of the environment.

Five ways to apply creativity to support communities

Our three speakers gave us five essential ways for a creative idea to turn into a viable long-term solution for the community:

  1. Come together with the target audience to better understand what the need is;
  2. Reach out to your network of stakeholders to co-create the solution;
  3. Analyse the resources that you have and your capabilities;
  4. Activate community assets and encourage the community to take control;
  5. Continue to be present and visible so that your skills, expertise and networks are accessible to the community.

Digital divide

Jude shares many examples of how The WOW Foundation have pivoted their activities to adapt to the new reality in many countries. One of them was the creation of a 24-hour festival with their partners, including the British Council. A WOW live event wasn’t possible in Nepal due to the lack of digital access, so a different, more distributed model was developed. It was based around creating many rural hubs: “one person’s digital access and everyone else’s ability to join in”. It encouraged people to share their digital access.

One of the key issues that have become even more acute during the Coronavirus pandemic is the digital divide within countries and continents. The need to socially isolate has made us operate more in the digital world and, according to Jude, digital deficit is ‘a literacy issue’. She predicts that this is going to be the most important issue together with healthcare to which we will need to apply creativity.  It’s not just about technology, it’s about the right to digital access, especially if you are a woman or a child in a difficult situation.

Tizzita acknowledges that Africa as a continent faces many challenges in terms of access to technology; however, she also sees many signs of positive change. She gives an example of M-Pesa, the innovative mobile banking service, that was created in Kenya out of necessity in 2007. Tizzita concludes by emphasising her optimism about Africa’s future relationship with tech.

Please share your own thoughts and ideas at #ConnectedByConversations - and don’t forget to register for the next event, The future of work, which will take place on 15 October.

Angelina Twomey