Wherever you are in the world, it can be difficult to access funding and resources for a creative project. Often, it takes a village to get an idea off the ground, especially in the field of sustainable design and innovation. This was especially true in 2002, when a Danish initiative called the Index Project launched what has since become the most generous and influential design prize in the world. 

Shaping the project from the very beginning was Kigge Hvid, an artist-turned-trailblazer with a keen eye for strategy and storytelling. Earlier this month, we had the chance to see Kigge in action as a member of the Redesign Everything Challenge Jury. Among those who joined her on the panel was fellow powerhouse Sunny Dolat, a fashion curator, cultural producer and co-founder of The Nest Collective. In 2013, Sunny also became one of the initiators of HEVA: the first creative business fund of its kind in Africa.

Here, we sit down with Sunny and Kigge to learn more about their work supporting creative entrepreneurs around the world, and what they’re still dreaming about doing in the future. We also talk about their approach to circular and life-centred design, and share a few tips for innovators at the beginning of their journey.

Hi Sunny and Kigge! How would you describe what you do?

Kigge: I communicate about biodiversity, mainly through art. I also do a lot of board work and advisory work. But I actually started out as a visual artist many, many years ago. And then I spent about 20 years as CEO of a few big entities, including one of the biggest event venues in Copenhagen. I also founded the Index Project, which had a very broad focus on everything concerning sustainability. Since then I’ve narrowed my focus on biodiversity because I find it so important that people recognise and understand the value of plants in our world. And that we simply have to move from human-centred design to life-centred design. That’s maybe my biggest agenda.

Artwork by Kigge Hvid. Photo: Dennis Lehmann.

Sunny: I never have much ease when it comes to answering this question because of the mix of things that I do (laughs). But I’ve always been curious about the ways in which design and aesthetics inform our identities and understanding of belonging. This is something I explore quite a bit in my work as well as the work we do at The Nest Collective. And the specific curiosity or exploration will often dictate the medium: from fashion and film, to photography and installation. More recently, I’ve also been working as a curator, which offers interesting ways to think about design from a slightly more intellectual and philosophical frame.

Kigge, can you tell us more about how your work for the Index Project started?

Kigge: It started when I was asked by the Danish government to make a very big event to highlight our design heritage. This was during a time when everyone was talking about the experience economy. And so I said yes — together with a friend — but we also said that it’ll be over our dead bodies if they wanted it to be about the aesthetics of design, because we already had so much of that and we didn’t think we needed any more. Instead we did some research, and in the first year I think we talked to over a thousand people from all over the world and all walks of life. We asked them: if we’re going to launch the biggest design award in the world, what should it focus on to be relevant for you? And they were the ones who helped us coin the credo of ‘design to improve life.’

‘We asked people: if we’re going to launch the biggest design award in the world, what should it focus on to be relevant for you?’

What about you, Sunny? What’s the story behind The Nest Collective and HEVA?

Sunny: We founded The Nest as a space to gather artists and connect them to new audiences. So, we operated as an artist space for about a year and a half, running a variety of programmes as many other art spaces did. We had a film festival; an artist’s breakfast; a radio station. And while we were doing all of these events, we sort of challenged ourselves to make artistic work together. Because the dynamic had already been established. And so in 2013, we made our first collective work, which was a series of fashion films. And then we proceeded to make several other works collectively, like Stories of Our Lives (2014).

At the time, many of the collectives that we saw in Nairobi were brought together by the need to share resources (whether in terms of space or equipment or material) but were made up of artists with their own individual practices. We had a slightly more unusual approach, in that we had a co-authorship practice and put out collective  work. This has been great for us because it allows us to create in so many diverse mediums.

With HEVA, things very much started in the same way: as a curiosity within the collective. Many of us were hyper aware of the challenges Kenyan artists were facing when it came to accessing finance and equipment for the production of creative work. And so we set out to establish a fund that would be able to cater specifically to the creative industries and address some of the challenges that we were seeing and experiencing in the ecosystem.

‘Stories of Our Lives’ and ‘Not African Enough’, both by The Nest Collective.

Looking at where this ecosystem is at today, do you think much has changed since you began?

Sunny: I think for us, the challenge when we started was that there was such little data that existed about the creative industries in Kenya. We found that as we were building up the logic for the fund and thinking about some of the interventions that we could offer, we also had to generate a lot of our own data. And so we developed into an interesting hybrid of being a research body, but also an investment fund. And that certainly has continued as HEVA has grown, though the space has come a long way since we began. Thankfully, there’s now a lot more data that exists and is accessible.

‘We set out to establish a fund that would be able to cater specifically to the creative industries and address some of the challenges that we were seeing.’

Kigge: Yes, when we first started Index there was so little knowledge on how to do something like this. And at the beginning it was all very product-focused. But then over the years, it developed into something more — more services, more strategic design, more collaborative efforts. So it matured a lot. But it was super frustrating for many, many years — trying to get the commercial world to really look at the market for sustainability. To see just how big the demand was for these ideas and how much they were needed. Industries were just so slow in understanding this.

Even now, I often work on boards and see ideas that first appeared 20 years ago still being talked about as if they were new. This is one thing I still wonder a lot about: why is it that we have so much knowledge available, but it takes so many years for people to pick it up? If we had better processes throughout society for picking up new knowledge, we would be able to move forward on the sustainability agenda much faster. That’s why I try to tell all the companies I work with that they need to work with teams who professionally scan for new knowledge, not only within their field, but also broadly. These are the kind of things that’s going to make you more resilient and turn you into a first-mover. So part of the work is about making these connections.

Playlist of recent Index Award winners.

What ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR creative entrepreneurs at the beginning of their journey?

Kigge: I think there’s one thing that’s really, really important, and that is to be more professional than others would expect of you. Because as creatives, we are sometimes thought of as hippies, or unserious people — which means we have to overdeliver. So I feel that when we’re talking to other audiences, we need to perform at a higher level. We need to be super professional in how we bring our ideas across, because our way of thinking can be scary to people who are not used to it.

Sunny: I agree. I think one of the things that continues to be a significant challenge, especially when it comes to investment, is that creative practice straddles this really interesting line of sometimes being perceived as a hobby as well as an enterprise. And because of that, it’s so easy for creative entrepreneurs to operate rather informally. This can make it challenging for potential investors, because a high standard of record-keeping and documentation around things like the flow of cash and resources is important to determine the level of investment a business can handle. And so just widely, I’d say that formalisation is something that’s really important for creative entrepreneurs.

‘Return to Sender’ by The Nest Collective. Photo: Nikos Karanikolas.

Another common thread between you is that you’re both writers, who OFTEN challenge the stories we tell about design and sustainability. Why IS storytelling such an important practice?

Kigge: It’s important to make what we do as relatable as possible. Storytelling can help people understand how a solution or an idea could change their everyday life. And that’s one of the strongest things about design — that we’re able to communicate stories in a visual way.

Sunny: For me, one of the beauties of storytelling is its ability to introduce and carry nuances and capture the varied lived experiences, realities and imaginations of different communities. I think one of the biggest gaps when it comes to sustainability and circularity is that for a long time, the narrative and framing have been a little bit one-dimensional. And I worry about that, because even though some of the building blocks and understandings are certainly shared, there are various nuances in different parts of the world as to what these things really mean.

In the Global South, for instance, the language of sustainability and circularity may be new,  but the practice is sometimes Indigenous. And I think that the power of storytelling is that it allows us to speak to different communities in a way that is specific and nuanced.

‘The power of storytelling is that it allows us to speak to different communities in a way that is specific and nuanced.’

We’re honoured that you’re taking part in this year’s  Redesign Everything Jury. What kind of things do you look for in a winning idea?

Kigge: First of all, the judging process was super fantastic. Looking at all those stories again, all those solutions — it was really a privilege. I loved it. And I’m always looking for projects that utilise the unique ways of nature. Because I think that there are a lot of problems we could solve if we just learn how nature does it. I also look for solutions that are genuinely new, and changes that are very small but are very bright in thinking. These are the things that may be tiny right now but have the potential to grow.

Sunny: The jury days were amazing. The review process before we actually met in Amsterdam was illuminating as we had time to comb through the applications and see the different ways people are approaching unique challenges at a global and local level. It was really incredible to see so many designers tapping into Indigenous and vernacular knowledge and approaches and either leveraging or adapting those to design modern solutions. And of course, because I work in the fashion and textile space I was quite curious to see what people were thinking about in terms of the future of materials and I was thrilled to see a number of exciting and innovative applications in that category.

Lastly, what is one thing you would redesign or change today, if you could?

Kigge: For me, the answer still goes back to plants and biodiversity. It’s something we don’t talk about enough. In every school all over the world, for example, kids are learning about photosynthesis, but I’m sure that 99% do not really get it. We all know the word, but even for me, it’s only been a few years since I truly understood it. So how do we ensure that kids all over the world are taught to deeply embody and understand photosynthesis? Because it’s the most important process in the world — and we need to reconnect ourselves with nature. If I had one wish, that would be it.

‘For me, the answer still goes back to plants and biodiversity. It’s something we don’t talk about enough.’

Sunny: I would like to answer this specifically for Kenya, and say that I would redesign public space in the city. One of the things we are grappling with in Kenya is that a city like Nairobi is growing so rapidly which has increased demand on housing and infrastructure, and sadly, public space is just not being considered as a priority as we design for the future. It always feels like a little bit of an afterthought, and there’s not enough consideration around how public spaces can be designed for the wider consideration of the wellbeing of communities. So for me, that is something that I’d really love to redesign.

Redesign Everything Jury Days, May 2024. Photo: Anisa Xhomaqi.