The Ideas Factory and the Empatheast Forum in Vratsa

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Ed Santman (Changes & Chances) visits Yanina Taneva (Ideas Factory) in Sofia and Vratsa, Bulgaria, in Novemeber 2016.

In November 2016 I was back in Bulgaria after almost 10 years. The first time I visited the country must have been in 2007. It was also my first involvement in an European project. At that time I represented the Dutch Ministry of Justice in a conference in Sofia that was part of a project called PAN (Prison Arts Network). It was an amazing and inspiring experience for me to meet so many new people working in the same field and to see and experience the added value of European work. Without this project and this conference I wouldn’t be doing many of things I am doing now.

This time Yanina Taneva invited me to contribute to the “Empatheast Forum”, a meeting she and her organisation, the “Ideas Factory”, had organised in Vratsa, a city in one of the poorest parts of the country.

The main ambition of the Empatheast Forum was to create a space where all participants could learn from each other and experiment with new models for social change. This idea of learning from one another on an equal level is an element that I really like and is in a way a sign that things have been changing over the years. In the past my own country, the Netherlands, would often present itself at international conferences, like the one that brought me to Sofia ten years earlier, as an example for the rest of the world to follow. The keywords now seem to be sharing, collaborating, participating and co-creating, for me this feels a lot better.

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Ed’s presentation at the Empatheast forum

Sofia, where I spent the first night, was much as I remembered it from ten years earlier, but the previous time I was there, I didn’t meet many Bulgarian people. Through Yanina and her colleagues of the Ideas Factory I saw a different side of the country this time. Not only a different side, also a different perspective; it was nice to see the country through the eyes of a new generation.

This time I was impressed by the commitment and compassion of the young people I met and their ambition to make the best of their lives and to fight for social innovation. Such a difference from the Netherlands, where my own children and many of their friends take all the chances, prosperity and luxury they have for granted.

It was very nice to meet other CitizensLab and Tandem partners like Tunde Adefioye (Urban Woorden VZW & KVS, Belgium), Pavlina Petrova (Vibrant Village Foundation, Bulgaria), Argyro Barata (FEAST, Greece) and the BePart team from Milano there. All of them were also invited to contribute to the forum. Through their presentations and workshops I to got to know their work better. With Pavlina I had some conversations that will hopefully lead to more cooperation in the future. We are currently working on the same prototype for CitizensLab and I hope to meet her again in July in Athens.

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Tunde at the photo exhibition

Personally I was very inspired by the projects of BePart, one of the participants of the Tandem project, that Ideas Factory is involved in, realised with augmented reality. They gave me some ideas that I am currently involving in a few of my own projects.

Shortly after the meeting in Vratsa I went to Milan to visit the BePart Team to discuss new ideas with them (this visit was funded by money from another project I am involved in).

Spending three days among so many people, who feel the need for social change and innovation and are willing to contribute to it was very nice. The informal atmosphere was inspiring and a cooking activity with the local villagers after the electricity failed an experience not to forget easily.

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Bulgarian cooking experience with local villagers 

However, the challenges for all of us in Europe are comparable. Shortly after my visit there would be elections in Bulgaria, with an uncertain outcome. Like everywhere else populist parties are claiming simple solutions.

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The informal atmosphere during the cooking activity

Ed Santman studied fine arts at the Art Academie of Rotterdam. For the Dutch Prison Service he did many projects involving the arts. He currently runs his own organisation “Changes & Chances”, that uses the arts as a tool in projects with prisoners, people with drugs and alcohol addictions and young at risk of offending.

See the presentation Ed used to illustrate some topics in Bulgaria

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