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“Sri Lanka has an answer and it’s coming from the village”

Updated: May 18, 2022

Sri Lanka’s new ‘economic trinity’ combining agriculture, craft and sustainable tourism, with the village as its centre

Linda Speldewinde talks about the makings of a pioneering design driven grass root innovation program with Sri Lanka’s new ‘economic trinity’ combining agriculture, craft and sustainable tourism, with the village as its centre; and how AOD will be working with the Presidential Task Force for Economic Revival and Eradicating Poverty to facilitate taking this work to a national scale, as well as international networks being created with the Ministry of Regional Cooperation during the upcoming Sri Lanka Design Festival 2021.

To the ones who imagine and reimagine the future, troubleshooting challenges even by a pandemic is an opportunity and more inspiring than daunting. Like everyone else, diving head first into observing, measuring, and understanding the complexities caused by the pandemic on the work of its own eco system was a priority but re-structuring and buying yourself a runway to create for the new and for disruption and a newly imagined future was where the thinking here differed.

Joining DFT for an exclusive interview, Speldewinde started the conversation giving insight to the new venture. “We’ve established a framework focusing on three key areas, almost like a new economic trinity for our work and to focus on the areas that are most likely to kick-start the most amount of growth, where it is needed the most. This is why our vision embraces rural Sri Lanka and the village as its nucleus and an area AOD has immense experience working on livelihood restoration using design and design thinking and creating commercial export markets.”

Following are excerpts:

Q: ‘Sri Lanka’s new economic trinity’; what does this mean? Basically, this is the trinity of craft, tourism and agriculture. We think this triangle of SMEs and industries has the most potential for us to drive the most impact in building livelihoods across grassroots level combining design and design thinking, especially in this new post pandemic scenario. With craft, agriculture and sustainable tourism working together, we can cover a significant portion of formal and informal economies, creating more opportunities when it comes to youth employment, empowering rural family economies and female entrepreneurship.

Q: How exactly do these things work together? Imagine a situation where a majority of our rural households have home gardens growing crops that best suit their climate, parallel to handcrafts that are either traditional to their family, village or newly introduced. Imagine our families in the village being proud and capable entrepreneurs taking charge of their own economies, engaged in lifelong learning practices to constantly elevate their agricultural knowledge and craft expertise through workshops and knowledge exchanges facilitated by entities like us working with the Government. Imagine people from around the world experiencing Sri Lanka’s true spirit in these village settings, engaging in everything from traditional agricultural to food practices, traditional healing sciences, and craft techniques made available through small family-level operations like home-stores selling organic vegetables, fruits, and craft based products, small scale village operations offering traditional foods… All this while the visitors to Sri Lanka are immersed in the island’s most pristine natural environments. It can literally rebirth the tourism industry with businesses built on meaningful, conscious, sustainable experiences. That’s what we’re talking about when we say agriculture, craft and sustainable tourism can work as a symbiotic trinity that can revive Sri Lanka’s economy, with the village at its heart.

Q: What about design; where does that tie in? Design is the way of doing things. For us, design has always been the most appropriate way forward to do things. Design means to plan, to respond consciously to what people are in need of; design is responsiveness. So, in this plan to bring crafts, agriculture and sustainable tourism together, we will use design thinking as the process that will continue to keep our work relevant, responsive and pioneering. This means that designers will be working with crafts artisans— continuing the work that we have been doing for close to a decade with ‘Design for Sustainable Development Foundation’, ensuring that the learning experiences we take to the village will bridge their skills with commercial viability, and constant updates on new and existing markets. Similarly, our work in incorporating design thinking to the travel, tourism and hospitality industries create meaningful experiences that people from around the world can delve into and discover the most authentic and beautiful aspect of what it means to live on this island. Agriculture is a new industry we’re working with, although we have already piloted this thinking by getting our designers to work with agricultural brands, and really pushing boundaries in terms of sustainable packaging design and communication design. There’s a lot to do here and we’ve already ventured into a pilot project close to Kandy. Sri Lanka’s society is historically agrarian. Even today, although we don’t quite see this in our everyday lives in the city, agriculture remains to be the central thread of society. When we take this into consideration and work with it, incorporating agriculture as a home practice, working with regional clusters according to crop suitability. It has incredible potential.

Q: How will people get to experience this with AOD, and at Sri Lanka Design Festival? So, all this work I mentioned that we have been doing with craft, tourism and most recently, agriculture, has been driven by AOD’s network of expertise and talent in design and innovation. Sri Lanka Design Festival (SLDF) —which will be the country’s first virtual design festival— will become the platform to share all this with the general public, and the rest of the world. So, the SLDF agenda this year covers new practices in craft which are being developed at home operations level, insights into our pilot project work incorporating design, agriculture and sustainable tourism, and what our designers do in collaboration with rural artisans. This plan for economic revival is not only at the level of changing how we do things, but also in how we think; this is why SLDF will bring in some valuable discourses on sustainability, building economies with design and supporting rural talent, shaping the way we look at communities in poverty and little access to new knowledge; the idea is to transform the general thinking to see these underutilised economies as those rich with undiscovered potential. So, with speakers like the former Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay who has groundbreaking ideas about tourism, and renowned Sri Lankan artist Anoma Wijewardene, whose ideas on sustainable creativity have been read around the world, SLDF this year has been curated to really shift the way we look at the rural economy.

Q: How are you working with the Government’s plans for economic revival? Our vision, ideas, and work tallies with the proposed initiatives brought forward by the Presidential Task Force for Economic Revival and Eradicating Poverty, and the Ministry of Regional Cooperation for international links. For example, the ‘Conversation with the Village’ (Gama Samaga Pilisandara) and the ‘Return to the Village with Work’ (Wada SamagaYali Gamata)’ programmes promoting female entrepreneurship, housing schemes designed with stores, micro finance, and facilitating 200,000 self-employment opportunities for youth sectors like agriculture and home-based industries. The Government has allocation for this kind of work, and developing crafts like rattan, brass, clay, furniture; our work complements this phenomenally well, and we’re happy to contribute at this decisive moment.

Q: You’re working to build this as a national project? It’s a responsible and active citizen stance. Throughout the decades, our work has always found common ground and the village level work was initiated with the Ministry of Economic Development at the time in 2010 and aligns very well the work and focus of current GOSL plan, and made use of the systems and schemes that were put in place. As active, responsible citizens, we MUST engage with those plans and put them to use. I don’t belong to the passive citizen culture of sitting back to watch; I’m part of a small but growing culture of citizens who want to contribute, and work hard to make the most for Sri Lanka. A call to all business makers, entrepreneurs, designers, artists, researchers, students, performers, farmers, academics, hoteliers, artisans...and all of us, Sri Lankans out there is to get involved and help GOSL initiatives that drive impact!

Q: How will we see all this work coming to life? This year, AOD has conceptualised SLDF 2021, giving all the focus to our continuing work under the theme ‘designed and made in Sri Lanka’, with the theme ‘impACT’; a series of virtual showcases, product design exhibitions, business to business meeting online, forums and workshops that focus on product innovation, sustainable design, art and creative industries be hosted virtually to worldwide audiences, during 15, 16 and 17 January. The State Ministry of Regional Cooperation is working with us to promote Sri Lanka internationally through the missions abroad to use the Sri Lanka Design Festival as a platform to bring promising commercial collaborations. We invite you all to join the event, for free and join this impact driven revival with us, and take part in revitalising Sri Lanka and be inspired to set your initiatives.

Daily FT


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