Creativity to Aid Citizens: The Story Behind 'Backup Ukraine'

CCO Chris Garbutt explains how Virtue Worldwide, Blue Shield and UNESCO went about executing an ambitious creative project in a war zone

When war broke out in Ukraine, we, like countless others, felt powerless to help. We wanted to help in a meaningful way but were lost as to where to begin.

As creatives in the ad industry, we’re artists at heart and fundamentally believe in the importance that art plays in culture. So, when images started to leak of Ukrainian citizens risking their lives to protect precious monuments and statues, we had our calling. It was clear that physical defenses were not enough and that an innovative solution was required.

Any creative will agree that our night shift can mean exploring emerging technologies and dreaming of disruptive applications, like a next-generation scanning technology from U.S. startup, Polycam. With this digital tool, anyone with a smartphone is able to capture three-dimensional models of physical objects. So, instead of building an object in 3D, you scan it with your phone, then incorporate it into whatever scenery or creation you’re making. 

While we were considering how this technology could help in Ukraine, we heard Søren la Cour Jensen, chair of Blue Shield Denmark, on the morning news: “Destroying a country’s cultural heritage is the fastest way to undermine its national identity.” That one sentence epitomized what Putin was trying to do and launched us into action with a seething urgency: What if we could create 3D digital replicas of the buildings and monuments in Ukraine?

If we couldn’t stop them from being destroyed, at least we could preserve them forever and aid in getting them accurately rebuilt.

A 3D rendering of the Skete of All Saints of Sviatohirsk Lavra, a wooden monastery in the Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine destroyed by fire.Virtue Worldwide

We saw immediate interest from partners like UNESCO, Polycam and Blue Shield. Together we set out to launch in just 14 days.

Blue Shield’s archival and preservation experts were invaluable and challenged the infrastructure of the app. They had us walk through every step and pointed out optimization areas where we could accommodate the high standards needed to archive a country’s culture. By bringing on board organizations with deep knowledge of the field of museum security and archival science, we were able to make crucial tweaks that we never would have thought of and Polycam showed remarkable dedication in reprogramming their platform to suit.

Getting volunteers on the ground to join us was a wholly different challenge. How do you convince someone whose very existence is threatened to go out of their way for something as intangible as culture?

But we were overwhelmed by the positive reception and the commitment of volunteers, from students capturing statues in their everyday surroundings to people traveling far to preserve valuable monuments, especially considering the significant warnings we included in our communications about never risking personal safety for the sake of capturing heritage. But as we realized, the project presented a way for Ukrainians behind the front lines to contribute to furthering the future of their country.

Volunteer wraps statue with blanket outside St. George's Cathedral in Lviv, Ukraine, to prevent eventual damage.
Volunteer wraps statue outside St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv, Ukraine, to prevent eventual damage.

Statue outside in Ukraine wrapped in covering and padding.
Statue outside in Ukraine wrapped in covering and padding to prevent eventual damage.

We were also moved to see the novel and the unexpected ways that people used the technology. While we had our eyes set on the official cultural heritage, the historian’s history, the people of Ukraine also used the app to capture much more everyday items: The citizen’s history. From artists preserving their own works to families scanning their Easter dinners and residents capturing the havoc wreaked upon their homes by Russian missiles, we saw lived experiences captured in 3D, a format radically more immersive and empathy-driving than flat images.

And a host of local and international organizations reached out to offer their assistance with tremendous generosity toward the culture of Ukraine. It was way beyond what we would have ever imagined.

Virtue Worldwide

In our industry, we’re often guilty of overusing words like “movements.” But this project showed us not just how high the stakes need to be to get that level of dedication; it also revealed how far everyday people are willing to go for a cause they have heart for. And because our project wasn’t driven by prompting audiences with messages, but by enabling collaborators with entirely new tools, we managed to drive change more directly than by simply changing opinions. 

This isn’t limited to the Backup Ukraine project. A host of new technologies like IoT, extended reality, telemedicine and many more, bridge the gap between physical and digital realities in ways that brands, organizations and, yes, movements can use creatively to impact the world directly. They drive a whole new era of progressive change in the world without the middle step of changing opinions.