The power of co-creativity to innovate against the odds.

This week I was invited to speak at Festival Path, in São Paulo. The largest creative and innovation event in Brazil. I shared how we use co-creativity and design to innovate against the odds at Makers Unite, a social enterprise supporting newcomers to get professional opportunities in The Netherlands.

Makers Unite during Festival Path in Brazil

To speak about creativity in Brazil is very difficult. Brazilians are a people known for its resilience and strength against difficulties by being creative, positive and hopeful. The Brazilian creativity is my source of inspiration more than I believe I am to theirs. Still I was happy to share some meaningful insights related to our work at Makers Unite.

The basis and development of our design philosophy is based on principles of Sustainism. A term coined by the sociologist and thinker Michiel Schwartz in 2010, depicting the key-role of design to play in the cultural shift of our generation.

We see the growing demand from millennials to build careers that are now based on meaningful purposes. Having lives that are more balanced, where financial success is no longer the key to happiness. Thinking of more sustainable ways of living and interacting with each other.

Sustainist Design takes base on these upcoming sustainable and socio-economic values to build upon the responsibility we as designers have to innovate for a better world. Describing 4 key principles as basis for design: Sharing, Localism, Connectedness and Proportionality.

Several socio-enterprises today are working in a similar mindset. I exemplified with companies as Voor Je Buurt — crowdfunding platform for community projects , Rural Spark — off-grid power systems in India; and Fairphone — the first open source phone, fair from end to end of the supply chain. Businesses that have the ultimate goal of solving social issues in an interconnected, fair and systemic way.

At Makers Unite we were based on Sustainst design principles to develop our social inclusion program. There, participants get connected to professional opportunities after passing a six week course of personal and professional development. Our project was awarded the winner prize of the Refugee Challenge. Organised by What Design Can Do, UNCHR and Ikea Foundation.

We discovered at Makers Unite that creating dialogue between the general public and our participants is the key that leads to mutual understanding. Specially taking in count the negativity of the public opinion during the height of the refugee crisis in 2016, we made use of the polemic to open our window for dialogue.

By portraying the half full side of the cup, instead of the empty one, we make use of problems to create opportunities.

While these solutions are fruit of a co-creative design process, listening to all stakeholders is the starting point of all we do. This way we ‘think global & act local’ contextualising to make sense. Therefore we look after to understand the local and social constraints in our development and. make use of it to think of solutions that by consequence are effective.

At Makers Unite, it is part of our DNA to constantly challenge the status quo. So if we describe what we do traditionally: Social Inclusion of Refugees. Our re-write goes on 3 basic beliefs:

1.Refugee doesn’t say anything. Refugee is a legal status that describe a situation, not a person. Newcomers (as we relate to each other) are people just like you and me with experiences, talents and dreams. The way ‘people deal with each other’ should be just as simple and down to earth.

2.Social inclusion is boring. Just the term gives us creeps! Which unsurprisingly make it so distant from the average citizen to perceive how one can act upon it. At the end of the day, there is no complexity in getting to know each other and gather to look for how to find inclusive opportunities in community. However because the term becomes so heavy, people get distance to it.

Let’s get this right: ‘Social inclusion’ should be as cool and hype as ‘buying organic’. The daily deed of the conscious person. Sounds good, feels good, is good. Dot.

3.The topic we work with is polemic and controversial. Oh yeah!!! It is due to the adversity to our area of work that we feel so inspired to make change. Crisis was never meant to be a crisis from the very beginning. The origin of the word itself describes a moment of decision. Right or left? Black or white? Go or no-go? At no time it was meant that crisis is root to a problem. Mostly the result of a problem, crisis is a moment of opportunity. When we can re-think where we are, find solutions that make sense and innovate.

Congolese newcomers presenting their talent during Makers Unite presentation at Festival Path, in Sao Paulo. They are part of the project Talentos Invisiveis (Invisible talents) by UNCHR and ACNUR Brasil.

In synergy to our beliefs and ways of working, the everyday life of co-creating to innovate against the odds is not the most simple of tasks. We are aware of de side effects of bringing in ‘real’ social innovation.

If co-creation is innovation, innovation is risk. And I would think likely. When you are doing something no-one ever did before (thus innovating) the likelihood of getting structural support is low. Be ready to take upon your own risks and support it without external needs. Meaning: Walk with your own legs as soon as you can.

Social Enterprise is the company of the future. In the emerging growth of entrepreneurs with purposed driven goals, we see the weaving of social issues being tackled with commercial solutions. More and more companies are starting with the to using money as a means not as the end objective. There is a huge gap in where the social assistance cannot cope with to where the interest of private companies lie. This field of opportunity has been understood by social entrepreneurs as the future of doing business. Tackle environmental and social issues effectively based on financially viable systems.

And finally, co-creating makes sense. When stepping from creating FOR people to creating WITH people we invariably find solutions that work and make sense to all stakeholders involved. In principle we known nothing, except the ability to hear. Thus by listening to each other and truly implementing our learnings we can create what was never there before. We innovate.Secondly, when learning from the challenges and seeing problems as opportunities we innovate against the odds.

Presentation of Makers Unite during Festival Path in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Makers Unite is thankful for being invited by Dutch Culture and the The Netherlands Consulate in São Paulo to join Festival Path. If you want to know more about how we are daily co-creating against the odds, follow social media channels or drop us a line at