THE BLOG

The Ideas Factory

In the middle of Sofia is a big space where the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov once stood. In 1990, the removal of Dimitrov's preserved body, followed by its cremation and burial, was a symbolic rejection of the old regime. The mausoleum itself was taken down in 1999, though a majority of Bulgarians opposed the demolition. It took the authorities four attempts and lots of dynamite to bring down the solid marble structure. Other than a small tent occupied by a religious hermit, the space has been empty for over a decade.

In 2011, the architect Sylvia Aytova -- with the help of the Ideas Factory -- put up a wooden pavilion called the Utopia Box. It was an ingenious construction: a box that could be turned into a stage, a place for workshops, an exhibition space. Here the citizens of Sofia could imagine a new, fluid public reality. The creators of the box provided the pavilion as a gift to the municipality. The city, which had in fact cosponsored the structure, simply tore it down.

New ideas sometimes take a little while to take hold. But fortunately the new ideas keep coming off the assembly line of the Ideas Factory, which has been translating the energy and creativity of Bulgaria's next generation since 2006. I met up with Yanina Taneva, one of the forces behind the Ideas Factory, at the organization's office in Sofia last September. She talked to me about the impetus behind the founding of the organization.

"Everything that we were watching as children on television, all this inequality, made us so angry, but we were kids and couldn't do anything," she told me. "But some of us studied in universities outside Bulgaria and then came back. What we saw was huge injustice, especially regarding the environment. This topic became so well known in Bulgaria because we started a few campaigns that turned out to be huge. And people recognized in environmental problems everything they didn't accept for so many years: corruption, injustice, inequality, poverty."

The Ideas Factory has been instrumental in the revival of environmental activism in Bulgaria. It has integrated the arts into social movements, and it has worked hard to link up activists in Bulgaria with activists elsewhere in Europe and around the world.

Like the Utopia Box, the Ideas Factory is a new kind of structure for Bulgaria: flexible, innovative, responsive to the needs of the public. "Smaller organizations have the advantage of being flexible," she told me. "Established organizations can't change easily. Our strategy is to stay small and maintain contact with lots of associated people. We just need to stay flexible. Change is the only thing that is happening for sure in the world."

Sofia continues to have a big empty space where Dimitrov's embalmed body once lay. But it probably won't remain this way for long. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, big cities abhor empty spaces at their center. And groups like the Ideas Factory keep coming up with ways to involve Bulgarians in recreating their present.

The Interview

Tell me about the work you do today.

What I do today is try to change things: to empower people to decide on their own, to help people know that being a citizen is not just about paying taxing but that that the state owes you certain things, to realize that there is power in small- and medium-sized entrepreneurship.

We created the Ideas Factory, which is where we are now. This was the first visible statement from our generation. We started it in 2006. Everything that we were watching as children on television, all this inequality, made us so angry, but we were kids and couldn't do anything. But some of us studied in universities outside Bulgaria and then came back. What we saw was huge injustice, especially regarding the environment. This topic became so well known in Bulgaria because we started a few campaigns that turned out to be huge. And people recognized in environmental problems everything they didn't accept for so many years: corruption, injustice, inequality, poverty.

We started defending a wild region on the Black Sea coast that was about to urbanized and appropriated. It was a very long process. It's still not finished. But six years later, just a few months ago, we won in court. I was 22 when we started, and I devoted a lot of my personal life to this effort. We connected arts and creativity to this campaign. We created a network of people who wanted to make change but didn't know how. Because of the socialist past, people were living in parallel universes. This is one of the worst heritages of that time, that people just can't work together. That's what we try to create: a new culture of collaboration for change. These campaigns have helped us create a wide network of people working in different fields.

We are now putting together a Changemaker Academy, building the capacity for change, helping people build whatever they want to build: an initiative, an NGO, a social enterprise, an informal group. We acquaint them with the theories, with experiential learning, with the people they need to know. We also put it all into the global context. People here think that Bulgaria is the worst place on earth to live. But I think there are a lot of social resources here. The relationships between people here -- which are not formal so people don't always appreciate them -- can be a huge resource for solidarity, for building informal networks.

We are small: just three people. As a new NGO, we were very lucky to have U.S. funding.
I was recently at a big conference in Mexico on social impact and making change. There were philanthropists there, investors in social change. And I was the only one from Eastern Europe. And there were people from all around the world. We have a huge vacuum of innovation and investment in innovation in this part of the world. Compared to Asia and Africa, Eastern Europe is no longer interesting. Investors are like: we've done what we've done in Eastern Europe. But the damage from what they've done is so huge. We have to deal with the damage from socialism and from democracy to build an independent society. It's a huge process.

We try to be part of all the Balkan networks because Bulgaria has been kind of cut out of the Balkans. We work with contemporary artists, young artists. We work with an agency that rents spaces. We use their unused space for blitz art, for interventions in places that are not commonly used for art. Young generation artists have difficulty getting into the art world here. The establishment artists build huge walls against the newcomers. That's why we're still losing very precious people: to Amsterdam, to London.

Our generation of organizations is much more open. We're an informal network and can work together without the formal structures. It's so much easier.

Tell me more about saving the wild area near the Black Sea. Why did your group choose that spot? And how did you make it into an issue?

I came back from Germany where I was studying and working at a gallery for contemporary art. When I came back I saw Bulgaria with different eyes. I was very frustrated to see one of my favorite places being part of a huge system of money laundering. People intuitively didn't like this scheme. They didn't have arguments, they didn't know what to do, they didn't know any networks. I was very frustrated. And frustration is a mighty power that moves many of us forward.

I received a letter from a girl who said, "Guys, this is where they're going to build the next big hotel, and I want to fight it." We were just 20 years old. We were watching "investments" coming in, and they were building on the Black Sea coast, these Russian, Irish, and UK "investors," destroying a lot of places that everyone loves. Bulgarians have grown up camping because there isn't much else to do. This culture of camping is quite beloved. This girl was the first one to talk about stopping the hotel project. Many of us were thinking this but didn't know how to act. So, three or four of us formed the core of a group. I was coming from advertising and PR, so I used the skills I knew. Others came from web design so they designed the website. Everyone did what they knew.

Until that moment, after socialism, "activist" was a very dirty word that you didn't want to be linked to. We managed to make activism cool, particularly for young people. We had a 24-hour party so that everyone could come, including mothers with children. We tried to reach everyone. At that time, there was no Facebook, so it was hard to do it so easily. We used our contacts with the media. We made a statement that was really clear. We were the first to say that we just weren't accepting these things.

At the beginning no one took us seriously. Then we lay underneath the excavators. That's when the campaign really started to grow. It wasn't planned. It was an emotional answer to what the politicians were doing. We started to talk about sustainable development and things that were not really known. Actually this was more of a civil participation campaign than an environmental campaign. But we saw that environmental arguments were working in our direction. So that's what we used. And thank God this part of the Black Sea coast is very precious for environmental reasons. When Bulgaria entered the EU, the area was preserved on the EU list of preserved sites.

In order to get that EU preservation status, did you have to push the Bulgarian government to apply?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.