Thami Schweichler is a social designer, entrepreneur, founder, and director of Makers Unite — a social enterprise providing a platform for inclusion of refugees through events and creative design enterprises. He is currently using his background in product design to develop more ecological solutions for medical protection. We chatted with Thami about his current projects and how he and other social entrepreneurs are using this unique moment in history to enact positive change through their business ventures.
When you contributed to our Afterwords project, you talked about the ‘Economy of Care.’ What is the economy of care and how does it relate to how our world has changed because of Covid-19?
What I mean by ‘Economy of Care,’ is walking towards a means of exchange that is not financial anymore, but is about benefitting each other. During Covid-19, we came to understand that we could only survive by caring about each other. We could say this was an experiment in ‘Economy of Care.’
As a social entrepreneur, as a social enterprise, I deliberately choose to create a business to solve a social issue. We make clothing and textile garments and this is a means of revenue which allows me to pay for personnel who can facilitate programs that are given for free to refugees. The better my business, the more resources I have to enable my impact. If you look at a normal company, they’re going to have a market opportunity, go to market strategy, a product offering, and then they’re going to commercialize a product to solve a market issue. That’s an old economy. I dream of a world where the market is not a problem anymore but the planet and people are the problem to be solved and businesses are not competing against each other to grab a chunk of the market, but they are reinforcing each other to have a common, achievable role where people can benefit. If we look at this dream scenario we wouldn’t need capital to understand the benefits that our impact achieves. What is the value of happiness? What is the value of inclusivity? What is the value of pure air besides for our lungs. What are those intangible measured items?
Are you sensing a shift towards this collective change as a result of Covid-19?
Social entrepreneurship tends to be reactive to social issues. A few months later, or a year later, a stream of social enterprises will come up to respond to a given social challenge. 2015, for instance, was the peak of the refugee crisis. And many apps were launched to respond to that crisis, to help refugees. Even if many of them didn’t remain as a viable product, this is something that I would imagine is going to appear now, for instance, how many apps are now helping governments to identify if people have been in contact with someone with Covid-19? From a social entrepreneurship perspective I believe that there’s a lot to come when we think about health and social distancing. The term social entrepreneurship is becoming just entrepreneurship. More and more people don’t see happiness as coming from financial gain. They see happiness coming from achieving a purpose or connecting to a purpose, having purposeful work. If you are connected to your purpose and that brings you happiness, the chain effect of this over time is that it creates a much more cohesive society because people are doing things they love to do. We may be leading to social entrepreneurship becoming the norm, as more people are starting to work on things that they believe in.
How does this relate to creativity and the arts?
They say that the first changes in life are perceived by art and then art influences society as these new ideas are seen through designers and fashion shows, then at the end of the day, becoming the daily life of business. That change used to take 10 years before the Internet. Now, the cycles take maybe six months to a year. We are currently in discussions with the local municipality in Milan for the development of a program like Makers Unite, as supporting the entrepreneurial drive of the city is a focus point for the extension of our impact goals.
How did your business shift as a result of Covid-19?
Most of our products are postponed as most of them are oriented toward cultural events which are all on hold, for example for Milan Design Week, the Olympic Games, and pride parades. In April, we started to make masks for homeless people, and others who could not afford masks and we created a fund-raising campaign to finance their production. Then we were asked to make protective vests for hospitals — in May and June we made 33,000 vests. This was when I discovered the huge amount of garbage that is made in the health sector — a small hospital in the Netherlands uses something like 3,000 vests a day and the city of Amsterdam uses six million vests per year. I worked with partners in sustainable textiles and said “can we come up with something different?” I am in contact with the economic board of Amsterdam to create a sustainable version of a protective vest. We are working with three options for sustainable vests. One is made of organic materials, to be compostable. Another option is to provide a service with clinically reusable vests, which are used, returned to us, treated, and then used again. And this all only became visible because of Covid-19, and that is quite positive. From a social entrepreneurship perspective I hope to have a solution before the next pandemic. There’s so much technology available today, but if no one starts, no one starts. I really hope that this moment of reflection turns into positive action.