A new economy, based on creativity, is emerging in the south of the Mediterranean: it stems from design thinking, and it is bringing well-being and empowerment, especially to women. The story of Creative Mediterranean, a design project of UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Agency, in which Italy has a lead role (text written with Giuliana Zoppis)
The artisans of a developing country, an international designer, are a great brand. Mix these ingredients and you will have the typical ethical project: beautiful items, presented at trade fairs and purchased with the guarantee that most of the gains will go to the local community where they were produced.
For Giulio Vinaccia, who since 2014 is the art director of the Creative Mediterranean project, directed by UNIDO, the Un agency for industrial development, and financed by the EU and by the Agenzia Italiana per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo, all this is good but is charity more than empowerment.
Amongst the 7 countries involved in the UN project, Morocco is the one that enjoys a dual digital-to-analogue path, between 3D creativity, new entrepreneurship and craftsmanship with design as added value. Casablanca is a florid cluster of furnishing and living textiles (70 percent national production, 22,000 employees for 120 SMEs) and Marrakech’s interior design is becoming crucial thanks to supervision and creative impetus given by the Italian team led by Giulio Vinaccia. One on all: the Zine Zwine enterprise founded by Wafaa Kiran and now distributed in various European countries.
Creative Mediterranean has created ecosystems in 7 countries (Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia) that allow creativity to become an economic and social driving force. What does it mean?
«It means that we have done our best to create a society that actively allows people to turn ideas into realities: which implies developing places for ideas to originate (schools, training centers), helping businesses seize opportunities, promoting policies that stem from the awareness that creativity and culture generate value. We are talking about countries that are victims of terrorism in all ways: in recent years the revenue generated by tourism have collapsed in these 7 countries, leaving small businesses out of work but also forcing them to stop producing souvenirs and to innovate. Within the 2030 development project, the UN has identified creativity and culture as leverage to generate new wealth also because the data show that it is the fastest growing compartment in the world: in 2011 (last global UN survey) it generated 624 billion in the world, which is twice as high as 2022, with an average annual growth rate of 8.8% (but in developing countries this percentage is 12.1% higher).
It is a complex task that seems more suitable for a politician than for a designer.
«It’s actually a job that’s a bit of everyone and a bit of nobody and that’s why it’s perfect for a designer. It is a joke, but it is true that the designer, by his nature, is trained in problem solving and works only if he goes along with a producer in a marketplace: he has the right skills to mediate between different realities. I would also like to add that this is a job particularly suitable for an Italian designer: the lack of a design-friendly eco-system in our country is a perfect training to manage fluid situations in culturally complex projects. I would have many doubts, for example, about the possibility of a Swedish or a Dutch person, accustomed to working within a very ubiquitous system, in managing something like Creative Mediterranean, where the flexibility and the ability to get out of the schemes is not an option».
What was the first difficulty that you encountered in the project?
«As it often happens, since we are human beings, it was a cultural problem. And it originated from our own ignorance. In industrialized nations, we have a very limited and limiting view of the southern Mediterranean countries and we tend to think of them as a unique entity. In fact the issues are extremely different in each of the 7 countries we have worked with. We had a model in mind: Identifying a craftsmanship and local creativity approach and helping them design something new by rediscovering the country’s tradition and positioning on a national and international marketplace. But it took only a few days of collaboration to realize that there cannot be prepackaged solutions. And to figure out what to do and how to do it, on which cultural elements to leverage and on which not, curiosity was needed together with humility and even patience. Because time, here, flows differently, and there are rites that are worth embracing if you want to proceed».
«In Lebanon, a country with a very long history of relations with the West, we had no issues in finding people able to think about global marketing strategies or dealing with a globalised arena. But its cultural and religious background is very complex and when it was time to identify the traditional local features as inspirations for the new jewels the project members were going to design, the embarrassment was palpable. Who had the lead in developing a Lebanese identity? Muslims (and in detail, Shiites or Sunnis?), Armenians, Armenians-Christians or Christians?»
How did you sort it out?
«I went back directly to Phenician. We thought we would bring the watch back to 3000 years and concentrate on when religions had not yet been born. We convinced the director of the National Museum of Beirut to let ys access to its halls every Monday afternoon and to give us an expert to let us study Phoenician jewelry closely. No-one found a reason to complain, and we carried on with no issues».
The project had exceptional results (all EU development initiatives are monitored in terms of concrete implications for the territory), and now funds were renewed. But some territories were faster than others. Why?
«There are countries, like Egypt, which while being historically less exposed to the world (than, for instance, Lebanon) have a very strong metropolitan cultue driven by young people. In cities such as Cairo, urban subculture is very similar to the American one, with large movements of people working on recycling, artists involved in street art, makers. What was missing was therefore not an education to creativity but the concrete possibility of letting it express itself. That is why our focus was on creating partnerships with small and medium-sized businesses and hubs to enable these young people to work in synergy. On November 27, we inaugurated the first co-working space in Cairo, 700 square meters, with 80 creators and designers working there, providing digital services for companies. And the ministry of industry now wants three more. It is a model that only works here, and in Morocco, in others countries it would not make sense».
When it comes to design, fashion, crafts, makers, people often think that they are dealing with hobby activities. Instead, Creative Mediterranean has created a new economy.
«Both statements are true. Although in this case the attitude that sees creativity as a secondary matter has been an advantage. We designers are often regarded as the court clowns of the sixteenth century, who can say anything to the King, and he will never get cross because he doesn’t take us seriously. This is a perfect situation in countries where bureaucracy is often indescribably complex and where politics and religion intertwine. So when it came to asking for entry permits, authorizations for initiatives or contacts, as soon as we talk about design and creativity, the authorities smile like they do with children who want to have fun and pave the way. And now there are numbers: a turnover of 960 million euros for the 13 clusters (equal to 0.2% of GDP in the Middle East North Africa area) of which 400 million in exports. But the real success lies in the connections we have been able to create: 55 institutions (between universities, government agencies, associations and cultural institutions) are actively involved in the project, 19,300 companies (most of which are micro-enterprises) for a total of 280,000 people of which 56% came from the so-called “informal” sector (people who did not have a clear professional qualification)».
What are the future plans for the project?
«After the Algerian Conference, where the economic results of the project were presented, we received a refinancing of the United Nations and Italy, so everything goes on. In January the UN will also launch a new platform called Design for Development: for the first time, design will be a great strategic glue to coordinate various actions taken by UN agencies, which now act independently. Personally, my next challenge will be in Jordan, at the Mafraq refugee camp: we will have to help the 300,000 Syrian refugees to create entrepreneurial activities. And, in the desert, with such a psychological situation, it will not be easy. But creating is always the best thing for the mind, in any situation».