Let 100 flowers bloom: exploring new approaches to entrepreneur support and international collaboration online

Twenty British Council-funded groundbreaking ‘digital experiences’ are now live across six countries, experimenting with new ways to support creative and social entrepreneurs, and building communities online.

The pandemic has forced friends, families, and institutions of all sizes to reimagine how we come together. Musicians livestream gigs from their homes. Families gather on FaceTime for the holidays. International conferences are conducted on Zoom. These measures were necessitated by social distancing and travel restrictions, but many are likely to endure as vaccines remain scarce in many countries and as concerns mount about the environmental costs of air travel.   

Like so many other organisations, the British Council has had to significantly adapt its operations in response to Covid-19. With offices in more than 100 countries as well as large teaching centres and global exams services, the UK’s cultural relations organisation has moved many of its operations online and it expects that even after the pandemic it will deliver around 70 per cent of its activity online and 30 per cent in person. 

DICE (Developing Inclusive and Creative Economies) is one of many British Council programmes which in the past year have developed digital convening experiences and tested new approaches to deliver activity online. 

 

Grants across six countries

As part of this effort, DICE launched a DICE Digital R&D Fund which has offered grants of up to £15,000 to 20 pairs of organisations across six countries – Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa and the UK – to co-develop and co-deliver ‘digital experiences’. 

Broadly speaking, the experiences are designed to address economic exclusion through creativity, enterprise and social impact. These experiences kicked off in March 2021 and will serve an estimated 2,500 people directly (and 15,000 people indirectly) in distinct ways: by introducing and developing new technical skills for creative and social entrepreneurs, by supporting individuals to become ‘changemakers’, and/or by facilitating collaboration and dialogue between and among artists and entrepreneurs. 

We have found that creativity has been the best way for us to really pass on knowledge and build the capacity of the creative social entrepreneurs we support

UK-based Hatch Ideas Worldwide secured a grant with Brazil’s Instituto Vereda to bring together creative social entrepreneurs with finance professionals, app developers and social game makers to create the methodology for a game that can develop financial competency and confidence. The aim of the game would be to support entrepreneurs to access finance and thus bolster their abilities to address economic exclusion in their communities. 

According to Yemisi Mokuolu, Hatch’s founder and CEO, the partners chose a game-based approach because, “we have found that creativity has been the best way for us to really pass on knowledge and build the capacity of the creative social entrepreneurs we support”. 

She says that developing a game is, “the most creative way in which to support them in building their financial competency and confidence”. 

 

A variety of approaches

True to the experimental spirit of DICE, the digital experiences supported through the fund range in approach and are delivered by different types of organisations, known as ‘digital partners’. They include creative and social enterprises, impact hubs, universities, cultural centres and a world heritage site. 

Coventry University, for example, is partnering with Rumah Harapan Mulya of Indonesia, a community organisation devoted to empowering people with disabilities through entrepreneurship. Together they are working with the 94 residents of the Kampung Disabilitas Ponorogo (Ponorogo Disability Village) to develop their economic independence and affirmative senses of self and external identity through digital tools. 

In line with DICE’s collaborative ethos, each pair comprises two organisations from different countries. Most pairs include a UK partner. However, Becky Schutt, the outgoing head of DICE, says: “Four of the experiences will be delivered by global South-South partnerships to consider what the British Council can learn from this mode of cultural relations without a UK partner in the room.” 

For instance, two renowned creative hubs – Brazil’s Instituto Feira Preta and South Africa’s The Hive Network – are collaborating to support women, youth and LGBTQ digital entrepreneurs who have been excluded systemically from economic opportunities in their respective countries.

 

 

Making the most of digital collaboration

“The shift to digital delivery is raising fundamental questions, such as how do we build community and collaboration digitally, how do we narrow the digital divide, and how do we build cultural relations online,” says Schutt. 

For Mokuolu of Hatch, building partnerships online has been a learning experience. “Co-creating digitally seems far slower than in person. The trust building and the non-verbal communication that lead to those ‘a-ha moments’ are lost or slowed down; whereas a face-to-face hothouse situation would have brought about many more solutions in a quicker and more fluid way,” she says. “To overcome this, we have had to be more direct, intentional and process-driven in our delivery.”

The shift to digital delivery is raising fundamental questions, such as how do we build community and collaboration digitally, how do we narrow the digital divide, and how do we build cultural relations online

While they are delivering these experiences, the digital partners are also building a community of practice with each other and the DICE team. This community is facilitated by experts in inter-cultural group dynamics, creative social enterprise and peer learning, and it offers a variety of spaces to learn from the experience and expertise that the partners bring. “Crucially it gives those that often spend their careers generously creating learning environments for others the opportunity to have one created for them,” says Schutt.

“One aim of the community of practice is to explore together how to foster values such as inclusion, connection, experimentation and co-design in online environments,” says Schutt. “We aim to co-design ways to connect meaningfully and to consider together what parts vulnerability, digital fatigue and ego play in building online collaborations. Ultimately, we hope to strengthen relationships so that partners can develop their projects and partnerships with the support of a global community of practitioners, drawing on everyone’s collective wisdom.”  

Mokuolu says that being part of the community of practice “has been an incredible opportunity to slow down and look at the way we work, sharing and receiving insights, having time to think, experiment and explore, so that we create programmes that provide the most value for our beneficiaries and ourselves”.

To capture and make the most of the learning, the DICE team has also commissioned research based on the digital experiences that focuses on what international cultural relations can look like online. 

Find out more about the DICE Digital R&D Fund

Header image: A drawing created by artist Benjamin Phillips during one of the project's community of practice sessions earlier this year