It is not often that somebody talks of design and social development in the same breath, as equal partners. But for Achyutha Sharma, creative arts and design are powerful tools that can be harnessed to generate tremendous social impact. An alumnus of NIFT Delhi, Achyutha donned multiple roles as a fashion designer, graphic designer, retail designer and branding and strategy consultant before he decided to blend his love for multi-disciplinary design with his passion for communities and founded Sulochana Development Trust as a platform for the creative community to come together and work for a common vision.
DezineConnect talked to this young creative entrepreneur, about the genesis of his venture, the challenges in working in the social sector and his vision for creative economy.
How did Sulochana Development Trust come about?
After working as a consultant, I launched my own entrepreneurial venture called Antahkaran, which means ‘insight’ in Sanskrit. It is an art organization that customizes art for spaces. Part of the profits was to go for art education for the underprivileged. But when I had to donate that fund, I could not find any charitable organization that was very serious about the fund. So I decided to put together a trust to channel these funds. And that is how Sulochana Development Trust was formed. It started with the idea of offering creative help to organizations in the social sector. But as I talked to industry leaders, met more people and brainstormed over this idea, I realized that there is a huge gap in the creative community itself. Our role as a creative designer has changed. We are constantly seduced to think in a certain way, force people to consume more. In my own work, I had constantly found myself questioning ‘is my work meaningful? Where is my work leading?’ So after my research, iterations with industry leaders, I decided that Sulochana Trust would focus on creative arts and design that makes a holistic development impact in India. The long-term goal is to create a vision of the creative economy and integrate that with India’s development.
Can you elaborate a little on creative economy?
Creative Economy basically implies that anything, which is creative or idea-based that generates money is part of the economy. The world is moving from a capitalist economy to a knowledge economy to a creative economy, where we are saying that it is not just about economic variables but also creative variables. The British Government is one of the few governments that have adopted the Creative Economy policy so far. But what the British Government does is that it recognizes the contribution of the creative industry to the overall economy. What we want is to not only recognize the creative industry, but also create policies that integrate creative arts and socio-cultural contextualization into the economic policy. In India we are going through a development phase that industrialized nations went through 20 years back. And we are following a similar path. In the process, we are losing a lot of socio-cultural ideas, practices and values that came through our own history and culture. So we are saying that creative economy is not just about recognition of the creative industry but also a certain amount of contextualization in terms of our development.
What exactly is your idea of ‘recognition’ for the creative industry?
Creative industry is not recognized as an industry. Like for example, telecommunication or petrochemicals. These are recognized as industries and there are policies formed to promote these industries. There is nothing similar done for creative industry by the Indian Government. Design agencies, advertising agencies or other creative firms are not recognized as part of the economy. Interestingly, around 4 years back the Government asked British Council to carry out research about creative economy in India. They did extensive research, but they could not get even ten large scale companies together to say that ‘we are part of the creative industry’. So the Government very clearly said, “if you can’t get X number of industries together, if you can’t show that this industry is churning out X amount of money annually, supporting X number of livelihoods, then we cannot recognize creative industry. There is no platform, there is no community; there are no industries ready to come together. How can we recognize it as an industry?” And the creative economy report was dumped by the planning commission. But we still do see an opportunity there. We have realized that first we need to show creative arts projects that make measurable impact and prove it to the government. And secondly, we have to show that more organizations have come together for the creative economy vision and want to be recognized as part of creative industry, so that it becomes imperative for the government to recognize it.
What role does Sulochana Development Trust play in this whole vision?
At Sulochana Trust, we have defined four development contexts – social relevance, economic sustainability, ecological balance and socio-cultural contextualization. The trust plays three roles – create, incubate and align. We “create” projects that show a measurable impact of creative arts and design in the social or development sector. We “incubate” ventures that are primarily focused on creative entrepreneurship but also make a development impact in any of the four contexts. And then we would “align” more and more organizations to the creative economy concept. What we are hoping to do around 5-10 years down the line is to ink down a creative economy vision accord, which is like an MoU that people can ratify. Organizations can sign it and say ‘we will align our operations according to the creative economy concept’; And Sulochana Trust will provide them a broad framework of how they can align with the creative economy concept. Once we have this document ratified by organizations and people all over India, it would make a fragmented industry come together under one platform. It would also create awareness and help us to convince the government to adopt Creative Economy as a policy. But this intervention is not a blanket intervention; it will take time as many stakeholders at different levels are involved while working towards our vision.
What are the biggest challenges that you face in running the trust?
One of the biggest challenges we face is funding. Nobody is ready to fund creative arts and design because they think that is like an indulgence, a hobby. They would rather donate the money to organizations working for disaster relief or feeding the poor or education or healthcare. They feel creative arts is not a priority. So we decided that instead of pitching for funding, we would create projects that generate revenue for the trust. Right now we are putting in our own money to flag off initiatives like ‘Collaborative Community’, where we offer creative consultancy services to non-profit organizations to get revenue for the trust. Also, when we incubate ventures we tell them that once they become sustainable, they should donate a certain percentage of their revenue to Sulochana Trust. So we will have revenue coming from projects that we create and from the ventures that we incubate. That is how we see the trust growing without depending on any external funding.
Can you tell us something about the ‘Collaborative Community’ initiative?
‘Collaborative Community’ offers creative consultancy services to non-profit organizations and for-profits with social impact. A lot of non-profits and for-profits need help in terms of branding, design innovation and strategy; and they don’t have access to that in an easy way. Generally they get freelancers on board but it is quite fragmented. So we have a one-stop shop model of offering these services for lesser money. We charge them money according to the revenue they generate. An organization that is very well funded will be charged a higher amount than an NGO that is not well funded. We are trying to get more and more creative people also to offer their skills on a part-time basis on these projects. We offer branding and strategy in design communication and retail. In terms of design, we offer communication, furniture, spaces, crafts, textiles – many different disciplines.
How big is the team at Sulochana Development Trust?
We are 4 people. Besides that, we have 3 trustees and 5 more people on the Board of Advisors. Everybody is doing a regular job and contributing to the trust on a part-time basis. It is quite a task to convince people to devote their precious time on a voluntary basis.
If I am a designer or a creative artiste, how can I be associated with Sulochana Development Trust?
Oh, there are plenty of ways! It depends on which one you want – create, incubate or align. If you are running an organization and want to align, you can sign our creative economy agreement to promote creative economy. If you are a creative person who wants to incubate an idea and turn it into an entrepreneurial venture, we will review your idea and then get you on board, connect you with the right people, nurture your idea, put together a business plan and also help you to pitch for funding. That is the opportunity under the incubate vertical. And if you are a creative person or designer who wants to start a project that makes a social impact, then Sulochana Trust can help you launch it. We intend to collaborate with creative people. We don’t intend to adopt them and treat them like they need to be told to do everything in a certain way.
Where do you draw the line between ‘projects for social change’ and ‘creative projects for social change’?
The project has to be from one of the disciplines of creative arts or design. We don’t look at every development field. For example, I don’t think we will really be participating in the healthcare sector, until and unless a healthcare organization, an NGO, wants help in terms of branding, marketing or communication from us, in which case it will come under Collaborative Community. But we want to support creative arts and design, and we are focused on that; because we definitely see a lack of opportunity for creative people to nurture their skills and look at something that is more meaningful in impact.
You talked about ‘measurable impact’. In terms of social projects, what is the yardstick for measuring impact and success?
It is difficult to measure social impact in terms of numbers. But I think it is generally not being initiated. Nobody is really thinking, “Can creative arts make a measurable impact? Do we need to really measure the impact? Do we need to document it?” But we feel the need to do that in order to prove to the Government. The Government wants numbers and statistics, and if we have to push our way through that, we have to measure the impact. An example that I can give is the Art Education Curriculum that we are currently developing. It is a curriculum that can be adopted by non-profit organizations for under-privileged children. We have just launched the pilot project and we are testing the curriculum. Once we test it, we will know how it works on ground. Then we can make alternative changes, incorporate feedback and fine-tune it further to make it flexible and adaptable to different regions. We are still in the process of fine-tuning it to get it adopted. Once at least 5 non-profits have adopted it, we will know that a particular number of children are undergoing art education. We will know how many children are progressing within the curriculum modules and we will have a documentation of their assessment and improvement forms. With all this tangible evidence, we can measure the impact of the project.
Where do you see Sulochana Development Trust in the future?
I definitely look at scaling up Sulochana Trust; getting more and more people under Sulochana Trust to work and show measurable impact and more organizations to be aligned. Right now we are focusing on building Collaborative Community and Art Education Fund. But we are also talking to British Council about kicking off a creative economy campaign in campuses and organizations. We are on a learning curve. We are developing practices and revenue models that can generate revenue for us; we are trying all corners to get the trust running more actively. But we need to be patient, especially when it is for a development impact. It takes time in India. As young people, we sometimes become very impatient and we want to give up very soon. I have experienced that myself.
Besides time, what are the other key factors that matter in social projects?
Social projects are about multiple stakeholders. How you involve different stakeholders from different strata and get them to agree to one idea, one vision, is a huge task. We can convince creative people. We can also convince certain social sector people. But to convince the local authorities, government bodies, municipal people, the villagers and the local people, to align them to a certain idea and to motivate them; that is something we are trying to learn to do successfully. Secondly, I think, it is also about the ecosystem. There are very few support mechanisms of finance, teams or institutions that will support you. There is a compete lack of ecosystem for us to take this forward within the social impact sphere.
People generally have the impression that social work is something that you do at a later stage of your career or when you have enough money. How is it working in the social sector at such a young age?
I wouldn’t say I am the only one. I have been meeting a lot of social entrepreneurs who are very young, just 24 or 25 year old. They have done amazing work in the social sector. But yes, it is a huge financial constraint; especially for people who don’t have that kind of financial support. I completely understand why they should do it at a later stage. But I also think it is highly unfair to assume that somebody working in the social sector should not expect money. We are not ready to pay a CEO of a social organization 10 crores a year. But we are ready to pay a CEO of, say, Coca Cola 20 crores a year. Someone who is working in the social sector equally deserves to get well paid. Although a lot of social sector organizations have huge funding, they refuse to pay certain people for the right talent. That is something where the social sector needs to go through a change. And I am sure it will.
JAM (just a minute…)
What is the best moment of the day?
When I get a sense of reassurance that I am on the right path.
If there were one person for whom you would like to design a thing. Who is the person and what would you design?
There is a very famous Austrian artist who is no more. His name is Hundertwasser. He was a theorist, an artist and an architect. He made his own clothes; he built his own boat and travelled around the world. I would love to do a painting for him.
One word that would define your personal working style?
As a creative entrepreneur, one thing that you would like to change in the present system?
Support mechanisms. We need to have support mechanisms for institutes that can nurture skills and talent.
If you were an animated character, which one would it be?
King Julian from Madagascar. I like his sarcasm.
Any role models?
Yes, there are many. My role models are people who have gone beyond the ordinary and have really come through in life.
If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title should be?
I would be very uncomfortable if someone actually wrote a biography about me. I feel biographies are about ‘me’, ‘myself’; and I am never comfortable with that. It is always about ‘we’. So yes, maybe the title will be ‘Not me, but we!’
What are you afraid of regarding the future?
More than fear, it is a sense of sadness about losing the socio-cultural values in India; India going through degradation than development.
What are the challenges you face in the present context?
Running the trust, getting funding, getting the right motivated team together.
One aspect of design you give the highest priority to?
One aspect of work in the social sector you give the highest priority to?
One design related book you highly recommend to read?
Ways of Seeing by John Berger. It is not really a design book, but it is at the meeting point of art and design. It is an amazing book that every creative person should read.
One motto for all social entrepreneurs and creative entrepreneurs?
I would give the motto that I generally use; ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, which in Sanskrit means, the world is your family.
(Achyutha Sharma is also the India Ambassador for Sandbox, the global community of achievers under 30)