‘Innovation Island’: Sri Lanka as a regional hub for creative industries

Thursday, 27 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The ‘Innovation Island’ campaign is AOD’s most ambitious international campaign to date. It showcases the very best of what Sri Lanka has to offer in order to encourage the world to visit, study and do business with Sri Lanka. The campaign draws heavily on the creative industries to do this, and in doing so, aims to promote many industry sectors including apparel—its long-term partner industry. 

AOD will be premiering the ‘Innovation Island’ campaign at its Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week event (25-28 October) and Sri Lanka Design Festival (9-11 November) this year, that nearly 100 delegates from around the world will attend.

‘Innovation Island’ premiers Sri Lanka as South Asia’s fresh creative dynamic and as a place where a powerful new ecosystem converging creativity, innovation and business, is in the making. It demonstrates how the world can meet a new kind of maker—whether low-tech or high-tech, and join a new conversation on putting design at the service of building a better tomorrows. It is where South Asia’s new hub for design led innovation opens its doors to the world. This is ‘Innovation island’ Sri Lanka. 

Linda Speldewinde, founder of AOD, and the driving force behind ‘Innovation Island’ explains the concept as she joins us for an exclusive interview discussing how Sri Lanka will capitalise its creativity to power up a whole new era in the sector.

“For us as a country, what does this all mean? Globally, the creative economy has been recognised as a critical force for generating new sources of growth, creating new jobs, fostering new drivers of competitiveness, and promoting new business opportunities. In countries such as the United Kingdom, creative industries have grown twice as fast as the rest of the economy in recent years, accounting for over ten per cent of GDP. It has also been recognised that in order to leverage this opportunity, there is a need for creative industries to attain national recognition through national-level policy frameworks. 

“In Sri Lanka too, we are at that level where we have initiated this process, and have two international governments supporting us too. The UK with the creative industries’ knowledge and the Netherlands with design led innovation, circular economy, design thinking and the know-how which is helping us re engineer design in a completely new way. Design is what fuels the creative industries to a great extent, and we need to keep up. We have two key dialogues led by these two countries taking place at the Sri Lanka Design Festival this November.

“Like all of these developed countries where the creative economics have worked, in order for Sri Lanka to continue to grow the creative industries in size and significance, we have to establish ourselves internationally. And, for that we are using AOD’s following internationally and owning it for Sri Lanka, getting the South Asian region involved and further establishing Sri Lanka as the hotspot. It’s the international positioning that we will be looking to establish with the ‘Innovation Island’ campaign that AOD is driving with our two flagship events.

“For Sri Lanka what this means is having more opportunities, a global positioning, the chance to be the voice out of South Asia for this sector. To do this, we have to be effectively internalised and create the jobs of the future. This means that the creative industries must move from the margins to the mainstream of economic and policy thinking. That challenge is as much for government as it is for business and needs to provide the creative industries with an unrivalled pool of talent to draw on and the same formal, structural support associated with other industries, such as assistance with infrastructure and skills development. 

“Further, given that the training for future jobs start now and understanding that creativity is as important as literacy, the role of education is paramount in building the creative thinking required to define the future. In order to move forward further in a meaningful manner, a group of stakeholders from the public and private sector and other key influencers need to be formalised and this is where we are currently. But, on an international level, we are looking to leverage the network, the following and the recognition that AOD has built to over the years for Sri Lanka whilst we grow the national recognition and policies for the creative industries and further establish a deeper multi stakeholder engagement across the country and the region.” Following are excerpts:

Q: What makes Sri Lanka an ‘Innovation Island’?

A: ‘Innovation’ is a broad term. But, what we are capturing with ‘Innovation Island’ is simply how Sri Lanka does it. It is a statement that it isn’t just any kind of innovation that Sri Lanka is presenting—but a philosophy that takes its own unique shape. It shows that ‘innovation’ in Sri Lanka, is influenced by our history, geography, multi ethnic cultures and simply by being an island that is so clearly separated from the world, yet always at the crossroads of international currents.

Everybody knows how creative industries are the future of the global economy, and anyone who has the pulse of tomorrow is now behind the idea of ‘capitalising creativity’. In this picture, Sri Lanka is a new kind of creative paradise in the making. Led by a modern design education movement that derives from our own creative culture and strengthened by our technologies and deep-rooted practices in sustainability and wellbeing, Sri Lanka is really an unusual island with a unique creative economy in place. And what more, with our strategic placement and global reputation as a creative paradise in South Asia, Sri Lanka has what it takes to become a regional voice and a hub for design and innovation. ‘Innovation Island’ embodies this essence.

Q: Where does all this stand in the global landscape and what relevance does it have?

A: At a deeper level, human evolution is at a new height where aesthetics have come parallel to function, where our sensory delight is an essential part of our wellbeing. In this kind of world, creativity and innovation have become more important than ever before. This why the world’s brightest economic minds are saying that ‘creativity means business’ now. With this shift, Sri Lanka is beginning to recognise its best new competitive edge as design led innovation. 

AOD—Sri Lanka’s design-led innovation nucleus—is facilitating the research, strategic knowledge and project leadership to bring about a national policy for the development of the creative industries in the country, in a way that it impacts the South Asian subcontinent and eventually, even beyond. In addition to drawing in new socioeconomic benefits for the country through the creative industries, this strategy also aims to position Sri Lanka’s regional leadership in design-led innovation. 

Q: Where does Sri Lanka Design Festival and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka come into this picture?

A: Sri Lanka Design Festival and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka are events AOD founded with partners in the apparel industry such as Brandix, MAS and Hirdaramani, Coats and key stakeholders such as DIMO supported by government leaders such as the Export Development Board. Both these events aim to showcase, to a specifically invited international delegation and through them, the influential design-business ecosystem in Sri Lanka. This is to draw in new benefits for the country and centre the South Asian hub for design led innovation in the island. 

So essentially, these two events SLDF and MBFW are facilitators of opportunities and networks between design-innovation led brands, businesses and individuals from anywhere in the world, and those in Sri Lanka. We are going to make the best use of these two events this year to fully establish Sri Lanka and put it on the map, and consolidate its positioning.


Q: How will Sri Lanka Design Festival and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka do this?

A: Both events will focus on showcasing Sri Lanka’s best and most unusual infrastructures for creating fashion and design geared towards sustainability and innovation, to a powerful international audience as mentioned above. SLDF and MBFW will promote and showcase progressive work methods (such as graduate-industry collaborations, artisan-designer co-creations etc.), cross-disciplinary initiatives that connect fashion and design with art, heritage, technology, wellbeing and sustainability, and a selection of Sri Lanka’s low-tech and high-tech production facilities for both fashion and design. Another important element is creating platforms for thought-leadership in fashion and design, through forums, talks and workshops that share interesting knowledge, creative intel and research.


Q: Can you tell us more about these forums and 

knowledge-sharing platforms?

A: The South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum held as part of MBFW this year has a reputation as one of the most inspiring meeting places for the regional fashion industry. We’re talking the likes of Mahesh Amalean and Ashroff Omar discussing the future of their business with global fashion business authorities from Copenhagen, London and New York. This year we will tackle the idea of change makers in industry, what makes them and why its essential for businesses to nurture this ‘changemaker mindset’. 

The Sustainable Fashion Symposium will be one of the most progressive discussions we host this year, with a fantastic speaker panel discussing how fashion’s circular economy can be created, with a special focus on Sri Lanka. A discussion that will essentially influence the course of creative education in South Asia is the ‘Design Education Forum’ where the design education model for the 21st century, incorporating a mix of skills, soft skills, foundation literacies and the confluence of technology, innovation and sustainability, will be outlined. Meanwhile, the Female Futures Forum will be a very unusual one where a powerful workforce of the creative economy will be put under the microscope to understand how we can make the best out of them. 

Sri Lanka Design Festival and AOD will host the 2018 edition of ‘Design Katha’ a young, inspiring forum that sells out every year, because it presents remarkable design talent from home and abroad along with their work and processes. SLDF will also present a ‘Creative Industries’ Think Tank’ which becomes an interactive meeting-of-minds where strategies and future policies will be shaped by diverse creative communities. Hoteliers Forum is another fantastic one where tourism, hospitality and creative industries will sit together to share their thinking on a future where their businesses will be woven together. These are some of the conversations that we are so proud to contribute from Sri Lanka, to international fashion and design. 


Q: What is the main message that you are taking internationally?

A: The key message delivered from both these events is that Sri Lanka is an exciting new destination for fashion and design that is geared towards sustainability and innovation. An island where businesses, industries, designers, artisans, educators, students and fresh graduates are open to collaborate with brands, businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs from all over the world. 

With what we present this year, we will act as an advocate of fashion, design, innovation and sustainability, and their convergence with business. Sri Lanka is ‘Innovation Island’ and we have worked hard over the last 15-18 years to get here, we have the substance, the following, the global fan base and we are just simply consolidating it all for our country this year. That’s really what’s happening and our teams are all really excited to be doing this.


Q: Why is AOD behind this?

A: AOD is part of a complete ecosystem of businesses built upon design led innovation. Founded on the philosophy that design and innovation can impact transformative development for Sri Lanka and the rest of the South Asian region, AOD utilises creativity and new ideas to reinvent industries, realign products and services and mobilise talent with commercial relevance. It functions as a dynamic collective and includes a network of entities that begin with education and stems to talent development, mentorship, brands and platforms that create opportunities for recognition and entrepreneurship.

AOD being connected to the industries of education, retail and real-estate, providing retailing design and innovation lead ideas, services and products is naturally a part of the founding vision of the creative industries of Sri Lanka and it’s well poised to lead this. AOD is driven forward by a multicultural workforce of over hundred resident experts that include futurists, academics, creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, designers, analysts and young dreamers and collaborators range from artisanal, curatorial, policy-making, industrial and diplomatic backgrounds among many more.

So, it is fitting that an educator takes the lead to inspire the business world and the state to take a deeper look at how best to bridge talent and business for the future. After all, education is the birthplace of a country’s economy—the breeding ground of its future professionals. We have always had the view that education is not just about instilling knowledge and skill in people. It is also responsible for bridging the gap between talent and business—taking the lead in pointing towards the future where a country’s economic potential is better harnessed. For AOD, this has always been the reasoning that leads it to collaborate so closely with governments and business to catalyse economic potential of creativity.


Q: To you personally what does this mean?

A: I absolutely love my country and in the early days had a real free hand to build this sector from nothing. To me it was about taking what our country has to offer, and as a region what we had to offer and creating the kind of design generation that would go out there and add value to the economy and to industry and make a difference, in terms of creating impact. We are nowhere at the end of journey but today we are seeing the results of all of this. At the time, what we had to take global was the apparel industry and the visionary thinking some of their industry leaders have, which was unique and had the ability to link cottage industries like handloom and other craft. Since then, we have had many industries and others come on board to join this mission. 

To me, inspiring others around this vision and getting people on board has not been a challenge. I guess when you’re focused around building impact and actually you have the credibility of doing the work for it, it’s not difficult. Now what’s important is going to be taking Sri Lanka’s positioning global and putting it on the map, scaling up and establishing a deeper multi stakeholder base locally and regionally. For me, from an AOD point of view too, it makes sense as at AOD we are driving the next step and driving the Colombo Innovation Tower project these days on Duplication Road across our current space. And, we are hoping to use this as a base to drive this whole sector to the next level. Colombo Innovation Tower is a physical 100,000 Sqft plus space but that gears up to open next year. I have spent many months, this year, travelling across the world and selling Sri Lanka’s message and inspiring key international stakeholders to come over and the results of that is what we will see this October and November.


Q: Any closing remarks?

A: The ‘Innovation Island’ thinking may be led by AOD, but as it actualises, it is really a concerted effort between many forward-thinking, intelligent partners. We’ve got the support of the most visionary partners from the apparel industry from MAS, Brandix to Hirdaramani, Coats, GT Nexus and from automobile giants like Dimo, plus the State sector represented by the EDB and international governments like the Netherlands’ Embassy and the British Council. Our banking partner HNB, advisor PWC, long-time supporter Mount Lavinia Hotel, Wijeya Newspapers which has always helped us share our ideas and gather momentum for the work. We have many other supporting partners who make our events work and their incredible engagement will be shared with our event media as this campaign unfolds. The team at AOD, our other teams at FashionMarket.lk and many more who come together to make it all work is behind this.