“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” novelist Michael Ondaatje writes in The Cat’s Table, and it was a strange coincidence that I came across this enigmatic line on the descent down from Davos, the Swiss ski resort that had just convened some of the world’s most powerful men and women for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.
The paradox of Davos is that it is both highly public and highly secretive. Relationships and business transactions are on show, as much as they are taking place in back room meetings and private encounters on the peripheries, far away from the glitz and glamour and where the buzzing doesn’t need buzzwords. Davos is the great equalizer and the great divider at the same time. The hierarchies are both formal and explicit (manifest by the color of your badge), as well as situational and subtle, with small smart mobs forming around the most sought-after, both on- and offsite (“one minute you’re in, the next you’re out”), in emotional roller coaster, funicular, and shuttle rides between recognition and rejection, belonging and alienation.
Andy Warhol knew it all along: “Good business is the best art.” And lately, a number of business thinkers and leaders have begun to embrace the arts, not as an escapist notion, a parallel world after office hours, or a creative asset, but as an integral part of the human enterprise that ought to be woven into the fabric of every business—from the management team to operations to customer service.
John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and author of the book Redesigning Leadership, predicts that artists will emerge as the new business leaders and cites RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, as prominent examples. The author William Deresiewicz heralds reading as the most important task of any leader. John Coleman makes a compelling case for the role of poetry in business. Intel named pop musician will.i.am as director of creative innovation. And the World Economic Forum has been inviting arts and cultural leaders to its events for several years and this year added the ‘Role of the Arts’ to its Network of Global Agenda Councils.
Indeed, the “art” of business becomes ever more important as the “science” gets ever more ubiquitous. Against the backdrop of our hyper-connected economies and as Big Data and sophisticated analytical tools allow us to maximize process efficiencies and standardize best innovation practices worldwide, intuition and creativity remain as the only differentiating factors that enable truly game-changing innovations. Like any “soft asset,” they cannot be exploited, only explored. And like artists, innovators must develop a mindset and cultivate creative habits in order to see the world afresh and create something new.
When more than 800 leaders from business, academia, civil society, and government convene at the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai next week, the Global Agenda Council on Values, of which I am a member, hopes to serve as the glue between the more than 80 Councils that are addressing the most pressing issue of our time. By engendering a cross-Council dialogue, the Council on Values can act as a bridge between the public and private sector, between different industries, faiths, cultures, and generations - and different sets of values.
In light of the financial crisis, growing social divides in many countries, and deepening mistrust in business, a multi-stakeholder dialogue on values is more important than ever. In our hyper-connected world, the consequences of our actions are more transparent and dramatically amplified, and the gap between values and behavior is increasingly open to public scrutiny and subject to systemic effects. Consumers and citizens demand more transparent, collaborative and inclusive models of value creation that produce well-being, happiness, and meaning as much as profits. However, it appears that even well-articulated and broadly supported moral principles are difficult to translate into day-to-day decision-making and into the behaviours observed by suppliers, dealers, customers, and employees, with their varying and often conflicting value systems.
Happiness and well-being have entered the business mainstream as new indicators of economic progress. Bhutan pioneered the Gross National Happiness Index, the UN issued a Happiness Resolution, and the Harvard Business Review recently devoted a special report to the topic. A growing number of companies are looking into creating Big Data-enabled products/services that measure and enhance happiness/well-being, and a growing number of companies are beginning to leverage the potential of Quantified-Self-apps to improve workplace wellness (and productivity).
“Choose your enemies carefully, 'cause they will define you Make them interesting 'cause in some ways they will mind you They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends Gonna last with you longer than your friends. -- U2, “Cedars of Lebanon”
We know that opposition is an integral part of the creative process. But sometimes opposition itself can be a creative act. Beyond common tactics (listed on this Community Toolbox site as “deflect, delay, deny, discount, deceive, divide, dulcify, discredit, destroy, deal”), it can manifest itself as craftsmanship and art--whether it be street art by Shepard Fairey or satire like these recent Mitt Romney campaign spoofs Venn diagrams.
As Make Shift’s editor, Steve Daniels, observes in the current issue, the nature of resistance is changing. Case studies ranging from Occupy Wall Street to neighborhood activism in Port-au-Prince illustrate that a combination of social technology and street-level ingenuity is producing new tools, techniques, practices, and skills for vocalizing opposition. And these in turn drive boycotts, counter-movements, and insurgencies, as well as opposition at a more mundane level, in day-to-day interactions.
With regard to business, numerous acts of creative opposition abound, from product hacks (e.g., hackers of IKEA products and Microsoft’s Kinect) to Beck’s decision to release his new album only as “sheet music” to be recorded by his fans. The entire maker and crowdfunding movements, as well as “innovation communes” such as The Glint, the Rainbow Mansion, and the Memento Factories can be seen as fundamental acts of creative resistance to business as usual.
All of these trends made me think about creative opposition within companies--about employee activities that are counter to the top-down policies without crossing the line into the unproductive and illegal. From passive disengagement, noncompliance, and disobedience to passive aggression, covert sabotage, and overt conflict, which tactics are appropriate, legitimate, and effective? How much resistance from its fringes can an organization endure before it is threatened at its core--and stops being an organization altogether? And most important, why would fostering creative opposition even be beneficial to companies?
Innovation was the overarching theme of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) 2012 in Tianjin this week. As a representative of a design and innovation firm and as a member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on Values, I was delighted to see that many panels and conversations approached innovation from a holistic perspective. That meant not contextualizing it solely as technological disruption or process optimization, but as a deeply humanistic endeavour that connects consumer and producer, along with other stakeholders (increasingly in hybrid roles), in a creative act. Innovation, after all, is a human enterprise.
“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” the 17th century philosopher Pascal famously said. Four centuries later, however, research asserts a direct correlation between openness and happiness. It turns out humans are social animals, after all. “Openness is the freedom to be one’s self,” one self-help blog states, representative of common belief. I concur. In my life, openness has been a prerequisite for almost anything good happening to me – from moving to the U.S. to meeting my wife to, most recently and fittingly, speaking at a TED conference focused on the theme of “Radical Openness.”
How can technology and a group of creative minds help build a more human and truly social enterprise that is designed for the 21st century world and restores trust between business and society? That was the big question tackled by the interdisciplinary Reinvent Business hackathon – a collaborative, rapid ideation and software programming event – that we hosted in our San Francisco studio this past weekend.
Co-developed by frog and LRN, and in partnership with Blumberg Capital, BSR, Carnegie Mellon University, Cue Ball, Dachis Group, Fast Company, Net Impact, Silicon Valley Bank, and the World Economic Forum, Reinvent Business brought together a diverse group of 150 software developers, designers, gamers, filmmakers, storytellers, and business leaders to design and build innovative products and services that have the capacity to change corporate behavior from within. Based on the belief that social technology and design present a unique opportunity to drive higher levels of transparency, empathy, and self-governance within companies, our goal was to create concepts and prototypes for software applications that translate values and principles into concrete interactions and tangible experiences at the workplace.
As business leaders speak of the “Human Age” and claim that capitalism is being replaced by “talentism” -- defined as access to talent as a key resource and differentiator -- many companies have embarked on initiatives to “unleash their human potential.” Those are big words and noble ambitions, and naturally they seem worth striving for. But as one of the hosts of a hackathon in San Francisco this weekend, which invites developers, designers, and other creative minds to “reinvent business,” I have been wondering: What is a “human” business, anyway?
Accelerated innovation and adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment—and in some cases, replace—the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it in a recent talk.