This originally appeared on the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation blog.
100 social innovators from across the world gathered together at SIX's Summer School in Mumbai this November to discuss 'The Connected Urban Life - How can new ways of connecting make cities better for all?' I was in attendance to represent Battersea Arts Centre with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
We came to share new ideas from all over the world as well as see first-hand some exciting new innovations happening right on our door step in Mumbai. My first trip was to Dharavi, India's biggest informal settlement, to meet a fantastic group of women who are running SNEHA - an organisation which promotes, engages and educates on health issues. They run programmes which foster collaboration between local women, artists, scientists and activists to develop locally resonant artworks which are then presented in an international biennale arts festival in which people from all over Dharavi and beyond come and see the work.
We were shown the art works they had created from recycled materials which included: A comic Book Series (it depicted stories of sex and relationships written from women's perspectives - it included gay relationships, sexual harassment and abuse) and a beautifully embroidered map of Dharavi (which showed where violence against women takes place - the information was sourced from women from all over Dharavi to find out where they didn't feel safe so that the community could come together to find out what was happening in those spaces and find ways to populate them so they felt less threatening to women at night).
For the usually silenced and unseen women of Dharavi, having a platform to make visible their stories is a powerful and political thing. As well as international recognition for their work from the New York Times and other publications, the festival had also been a catalyst for the women to address difficult conversations with their community about taboo and hidden subjects.
For them, the biggest benefit of the project had come about through the process of putting the festival together - it had given them a chance to leave the house (something not often done and certainly not at all encouraged) and come together with other women of all ages and create a social network. We met one badly burned woman who had rarely left the house previously as her husband had told her that her disfigurement would scare children. The project had given her a reason to leave the house and the support network of women around her had built her confidence.
We visited a few more cultural hubs including the NCPA, the fantastic Sitara Studios and finally the Hive - a mini revolution which has started in Bandra. The Hive is a cultural hub run by an activist called Sudeip. He explains that the Hive is an experiment, if he can prove the concept works in Bandra, he will start up another five across Mumbai over the next few years.
The Hive is dynamic and inclusive arts and technology hub based in a poor and diverse part of Mumbai. He describes it as one giant lab/playground, an eco-system with performance spaces, a recording studio, a workshop and seminar space, and co-working and collaborative offices for start-ups and entrepreneurs. The space is multi-functional and encourages a culture of sharing. By day - there are desk spaces with creatives working at laptops, by night - the desks fold away and the spaces become performance areas. On the roof, what seems like a very small open air space, is being turned into a 150-seater amphitheatre - they are in the middle of their crowd sourcing campaign at the moment. It feels like a democratic space being built from the bottom up in collaboration with, and in response to this community's ideas and wishes.
It's an open space where everyone seems to feel welcome. There's free internet all day for kids to use, a huge programme of events, (yoga, fitness, spiritual enlightenment) and a provocative and wide-ranging arts programme which features banned and queer cinema, hip hop, international theatre and open mic. He tells us that some local boys like to make BMX's from scrap they find in the street - so he is putting on a BMX and skating festival in the coming year.
Sudeip is responding to the needs of the people from his community and making it up with them as he goes along with a firm commitment to starting new conversations, carving space for risk-taking and building a creative community, which is radically inclusive.
Everything about the Hive makes me think about a concept we learnt in Dharavi called 'Juggard' - an idea born out of the slums, which means 'an innovative fix'. It's a survival tactic - used to describe what needs to be done without regard to what is conventionally supposed to be possible. It is a term used for solutions which bend the rules and often signifies the creativity needed to make existing things work or to create new things with little resources. It is similar to an approach called 'Scratch' that we have used atBattersea Arts Centre for the last 10 years for testing and developing new ideas with the public. We've used it not only to develop theatre but we are now using it to build a start up revolution in the UK through the Agency, to develop architectural projects and to co-create education programmes with teachers and children. 'Scratch' encourages you to share your ideas with the public at a very early stage of their development (before too much time, money and resource has been invested). When you scratch an idea you ask people questions and consider their feedback.
A few days after the summer school I wandered around the Gandhi museum and found a quote that chimed with much we had been thinking about:
Democracy must in essence, therefore, mean the art and science of mobilising the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of the people in the service of the common good of all"[Gandhi].
This task feels much more achievable now than it was 70 years ago. Not only do we have the likes of Sudeip and SNEHA working with communities to address global issues at a local level - but we now also have the tools to sustain a global network of change-makers to continue to work together to mobilise, strengthen and spread the very best ideas from everywhere all across the world. I, for one, left the summer school feeling rejuvenated and strengthened in our common goal.
Liz Moreton is a Senior Producer at Battersea Arts Centre.
The Agency is an inspiring initiative adapted from Brazil's favelas that Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is proud to support as part of its Sharing the Stage strand of work. The Agency is a collaboration between Battersea Arts Centre, Contact Theatre in Manchester and People's Palace Project that aims is to empower young people to affect positive change in their communities.