Once upon a time, I helped leaders change societies. Or so I thought. Because deep in the fabric of every stuck problem is an invisible cause that leaders can’t touch.
You are not only a physical being, a consumer, a producer, or a citizen. You are an inner being as well, and while your personal aspirations, beliefs, thoughts, desires and other inner worlds seem small, they’re actually a hugely powerful force. Multiply yourself by 5 million (a city), 60 million (a midsize country), a billion or more (a continent). Every single person is an inner being with ambitions, dreams, morals, etc. — and this translates to personal power on a huge scale. What is “inner” and “private” on a personal or individual scale becomes a “culture” and a “paradigm” on a massive scale. This domain is what we call 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 without true “cultural” change at a massive level end up only tweaking systems — and not affecting the underlying “people power” that gives rise to those systems. 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.
If you want to change massive social problems, in other words, you have to work with the inner dimension of people, their inner energies, at scale. The collective interior. The endless sea of every day, human, all-too-human people. And this means you have to understand them — and make choices about harnessing their creative power.
Antanas Mockus, for example, was mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. 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.
I call this kind of work “social sculpture.” I’m not the first to use the term; that was an artist named Joseph Beuys (pronounced “Boyce”), back in the 1960s.
Social Sculpture is an emerging form of public engagement that works directly with the root causes of the toughest challenges — and actually gets results. And heals.
The approach, in brief, is this:
- Diagnose the situation to understand its root cause(s). Discern the beliefs, traumas, and ideas that are driving the problem. Violence in Bogotá’s streets, for example, was rooted in trauma from wartime, apathy, disconnection, and fear.
2. Discover, through creativity, trial and error, and prototyping, the intervention that might engage the root cause in a playful, healing, engaging way. The interaction is the thing that overcomes isolation. Mockus didn’t know mimes would work; he experimented in order to find the right way to engage people and change behavior.
3. Do it. This is different in each situation. The basic idea is: if it works, do it more — and be transparent. People have to know what you’re doing (otherwise it’s propaganda and social engineering — not fun).
Beuys demonstrated this idea 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.
The Beuys 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.
Beuys 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.
Social Sculpture is the 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.
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. In fact, in Magenta we’re combining a decade of experience in large-scale social change with deep creative know-how, and we’ve got some practical tips for you that you can apply right away in your work, where-ever you are collaborating with others, struggling to complete a project, or trying to implement a plan for social change. Download our free MP3 with transcript and understand how to put creativity to use in the world.
And become a social sculptor in your own right.
Let us know what you think! Leave a comment; tell us what came up for you. And thanks for reading!