Once upon a time, I helped leaders change societies — or so I thought. What I learned is that deep in the fabric of every real social problem is an invisible cause that no leader can control, and over which, even in extreme cases, s/he has very little influence.


Most leaders and change methodologies focus on “systems” — food systems, energy systems, financial systems. They want to change the way the system works so that it doesn’t harm people and planet. It’s like fixing a car. The problem is, systems are a red herring. They’re not the problem. They are the weeds. But we are the roots. You. Me. And 9 billion others, among whom are some very powerful, very selfish others. Powerful and selfish root systems do not bother with whether a few people are chopping weeds.

Think of that amazing graffiti artist downtown. They paint a picture; it glows. Where does it come from? It comes from their ideas, their intuition, their feelings. The invisible part of them. Now — multiply that invisible aspect by as many people as there are on earth.

If you’re a change leader and want to solve the world’s problems, that is your creative medium.

People are not mere physical beings, consumers, producers. or citizens. We are also inner beings — and while your personal aspirations, beliefs, thoughts, desires, and other inner realities may seem small, they’re actually a hugely powerful force in your life — and they are, as a whole, a hugely powerful force on the planet, now and in the future.

Think of how profoundly your beliefs and ideas shape every detail of your life. Now multiply that by 5 million (a city), 60 million (a midsize country), a billion or more (a continent), and the whole earth. This domain is the collective inner life — and its power shapes everything.

In my former job, we’d get all the “important people” in the room, the idea being that if the powerful people make decisions together, they can change things. But in practice, it didn’t quite work out that way. In practice, leaders who drive for “systems” change while ignoring the collective interior at a massive level can only end up tweaking systems. That is how it works. If you’re not focused on the roots, you will only every chop the weeds. They end up rearranging deck chairs, so to speak.  

Does this mean problematic systems can’t be changed? Well — no. But it does mean that systemic problems whose root causes are in culture can’t be changed without taking culture into consideration.

This means that anyone who wants to change massive social systems must work with the inner dimension of people, their inner energies, at all scales. You must dive into and learn to swim in the endless sea of everyday, human-all-too-human people. And this, in turn, means you have to understand them — and make choices about harnessing their creative power.

So what does all this mean and look like in practice? Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, proves the point. He’s famous for his theatrical interventions that quickly, effectively, and inexpensively pushed both the city and the country in a new direction.

Mockus famously deployed 400 face-painted and white-gloved mimes at Bogotá’s most dangerous traffic intersections, where pedestrians were regularly killed by drivers ignoring traffic lights and driving over sidewalks to get around other cars. The mimes theatrically championed good driving behavior and shamed bad driving behavior, triggering shame in some and pride in others. This game changed the reckless behaviors permanently, within a few weeks, without involving police, military, or force of any kind. Bogotá — and with it the whole country — inched away from apathy, chaos, and mayhem, towards healing from decades of civil war. It was simple — but profound and far-reaching.

We call this kind of work “social sculpture” — a term first popularized by artist Joseph Beuys (pronounced “Boyce”) in the 1960s. in reality, the social sculpture is the society we all create together. And the social sculptor is the one who instigates that co-creative activity.

Beuys demonstrated the principle in a public artwork project called “7,000 Oaks” in Kassel, Germany. It was designed to heal the deep psychic scars of the Third Reich and help renew German, European, and Western culture over the life of the oak tree — several hundreds of years. So instead of tweaking systems, he was inoculating culture at a massive, super long-term scale.

Beuys and his team spent just a few million dollars over five years to realize an utterly simple but city-changing idea. In the city center, they piled 7,000 basalt stones exactly as thousands of bodies were piled in 1943, when the city was bombed. Gradually, each stone was placed upright, sticking at least a meter out of the ground, next to a tiny oak tree, all over the city.

He called the stone/tree combination a symbol of death and life: one would remain static and gradually crumble; the other would grow from a tiny sapling into a mighty oak. Sidewalks were dug up, traffic rerouted, and underground pipes moved — all on the backs of taxpayers and donors. Some citizens were bothered by the inconvenience and expense of it all. Trees were broken, and complaints filled the news. But within a short time, the trees were no longer tiny; they shade the city and change colors in the autumn. “You can’t touch a Beuys Tree,” one woman declares in a documentary about the installation. They are gradually defining the city. We look back in 2017 and say, in 1982, something happened. It’s significant. It’s huge. It’s society changing.

All for a few million bucks and some creative work.

This type of action is an extension of art beyond the museum and art world. It uses art and play in ways that engage people in shaping their shared social reality together. It enables society to change itself.

This is far, FAR more powerful than a few leaders — even the most powerful — can do. Leaders can’t heal nations and build from within. They can inspire that, it’s true — think Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela — but such leaders are so few and far between. What’s singular and important about social sculpture as a method is that it doesn’t need a King. It just needs a few artists, a bit of cash, some bravado, a bit of permission — and it can roll.

Of course, everyone already shapes social reality anyway—it’s just that we don’t do so artfully. Beuys and Mockus demonstrated that it’s possible.

One last example. In the last decade or so, Tirana, Albania has gone from being the poorest city in Europe — a literal cesspool with open sewers in the streets — to a burgeoning trade and cultural destination.

The extraordinary metamorphosis began when a painter became mayor. No one else wanted the job, he’s fond of saying. (Today, Edi Rama is the prime minister of Albania.)

Rama’s big play was to paint Tirana’s communist-era concrete buildings in a glorious blaze of bright colors and abstract patterns. The colors were a signal to the masses that life could be different, and that the government was open to radical change. There were other things too: the plazas were cleaned up, the cinemas began to show foreign movies. Lots of small things.

Rama was after a cultural revolution first: he knew that was key to an economic revitalization. And it worked. Bam.

Could it be that we can solve many of our social challenges if we understand, focus, and apply cultural agency to build the SOCIAL SCULPTURE?

We believe so.

1 Comment

  1. Hannah du Plessis on June 29, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Thank you Jeff. I especially resonate with this sentiment: “Leaders can’t heal nations and build from within. They can inspire that, it’s true — think Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela — but such leaders are so few and far between.”
    I wrote this piece, just after Mandela’s passing, which echoes your point: https://www.good.is/articles/thank-you-nelson-mandela-for-showing-us-the-way

    I look forward to more conversation and actions like these where we enact the world we long for.

    Also, beautiful drawings in Kahane’s new book.

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