Art as the Crux of Human-Centered Innovation

Image via Sacha Wynne

Image via Sacha Wynne

Notes from our Founder and President's recent talk at the Pratt Institute in New York City.

The Arts at the Crux of Human-Centered Innovation

I’m not sure how familiar you are with business jargon, but industry has largely co-opted terms from the art and design world, and pulled them into what McGill University’s Nancy Adler calls the “dehydrated language” of management.  Creativity, design thinking, and storytelling - are buzz terms used widely in the corporate world, but few businesses are actually putting their actions, or their money, where their mouths are.  Art/culture/design, after 30 years of culture wars, is undervalued or devalued in a culture that is currently obsessed with STEM and big data. 

In 2006, Adler asked the business sector “now that we can do anything, what will we do?”   The answers she proposed illuminated how crucial the artist’s perspective is to meaningful innovation in business.  The answers, provided by the private sector since were apparently: continued focus on STEM and Big Data, to increase efficiency and convenience. 

But should efficiency be prioritized over all else?  How many Frankenstein’s monsters has this quest for convenience birthed?  It’s acknowledged that big data is subject to human error – it’s not infallible – so why the blind trust?

We need business to turn to artists, because only they can lead the private sector forward in ways that that secure the future for nature and humanity.  Artistic ideas are grounded in universality, in reality, in the communities they serve.    Artistic innovation creates at its core: to teach and learn more about life, science must destroy.  It is art that builds and rebuilds as it teaches and learns.

For businesses seeking to reach customers, this perspective is crucial.  We cannot be explained through statistics, but we can be understood through our stories.

So, where do we go from here?  How can artists challenge the business paradigm?

1.     There is always room for more narratives that offer solutions, so don’t hesitate to create a new one, no matter how far out it may seem initially

a.     STEAM initiatives have powerful potential - The strengthening of an ecosystem in which the arts, humanities and sciences, along with the public, private and non-profit sectors operate symbiotically would be incredible. 

However, art need not be viewed as something that enables STEM. We need to articulate its inherent value.  The intrinsic needs to stop apologizing for lack of “rigor”. Instead, perhaps we need new measurement tools to gauge impact. 

b.     There aren’t enough human-centered solutions that expand upon the idea of “social good”.    There are so many needs that remain under-adressed and are ripe for innovation – from low employee morale to lack of work/life balance, from systemic racism to intra-cultural bias.

2.     The art/culture perspective fills gaps in the dominant narrative, by providing access to a plurality of perspectives and encouraging empathy

a.     The disparity between the election results and the prediction from mainstream media outlets exposed the chasm between stats (numbers) and stories (people).  Communities are real and vital.  There is a difference between the real self and the digital self, and art is provides ways of reaching people meaningfully.

3.     The symbiotic relationship between the arts/culture and business shouldn’t be approached as “selling out”, but rather in ways that create opportunity for generating and sustaining arts practice, which in turn bridges gaps between people.

a.     In a fairly recent New York Times article on tech innovation, writer Allison Arieff quotes Jessica Helfand – author of Design : The invention of Desire – “ empathy, humility, compassion, conscience are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation”.  It is the artists who can bring these “key ingredients” to the fore.  

b.     Silicon valley has made a mint from building businesses upon algorithms that target human behavior, but they are formulas and life is anything but formulaic.  This signals opportunity for artists to create new paradigms that replace focus on shareholder value with prioritizing stakeholder value.

Technology has changed the way we (and the speed of how) we discover, but there are billions of dollars invested in products and services that have no real meaning or value.  This is an opportunity for artists and designers – to co-create alongside the traditional industries (or on our own), in ways that do more than just produce distractions and insta-millionaires.  We have the power to create in ways that benefit and bring together all segments of society.

Solidarity at standing rock showed us the power of culture and community to bring about positive, human-centered change.  It’s no surprise that artists from within and beyond the community played integral roles on-site, helping to spread awareness and expand the sense of shared goals.  To quote Patti Smith – people have the power.

Hot Links | Createquity on The Impact of the Arts and Culture

Arts participation contributes directly to quality of life by increasing self-reported happiness and life satisfaction.
— Createquity

Our Founder, Sacha Wynne, recently had the honor of collaborating with Createquity’s research and editorial teams on a few articles.  This includes a recently published feature article that explores the impact of participatory arts activities on the health and quality of life of older adults. 

From Createquity: 

With both the U.S. and global populations aging in unprecedented numbers, this article sheds light on the promise of participatory arts activities in alleviating some of the challenges that come with getting older, and the ever-growing need for creative aging. 

In particular, the evidence on participatory arts activities and the health and quality of life of older adults indicates that:

            • Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)

            • Taking dance classes bolsters cognition and motor skills, and even lessens the likelihood of developing dementia later in life

            • Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction

            • Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem

Just how the arts benefit society is one of the most studied topics in arts research…[Createquity] has sought to determine how the arts contribute to or detract from wellbeing in various ways, and the strength of the evidence supporting each mechanism. 

This week, Createquity released another article and an infographic summarizing their findings to date.  Per Createquity, “this will be the world's first resource that not only depicts the state of evidence demonstrating the various benefits of the arts, but tracks shifts in that evidence base over time.”

We encourage you to explore the findings of these pivotal reports.

The WÆRK Team 

Weekly Links | August 12th

 A Few Perspectives on Why Art Matters | Human-Centered Design in the Non-Profit Sector | The Future of Art/Tech | More Internet-Driven Homogeneity

Weekly Links - May 20th, 2016 | Participatory Culture | Empathetic Urban Planning | A Call-to-Action for Artists | Theatre for People with Autism

Weekly Links - May 20th, 2016 | Participatory Culture | Empathetic Urban Planning | A Call-to-Action for Artists | Theatre for People with Autism

This week, our favorite reads showcase culture’s vast reach: from urban design to cognitive therapy to creative practice to philosophy.

Weekly Links - April 22nd, 2016

Love is forever
that’s all your life
love is heaven sent
it’s glamorous
— Prince

This week, reeling from the loss of a musical genius, we’re sharing articles that reveal the transformative power of art in every aspect of life.

Vox on why we mourn artists we’ve never met so deeply.

An ArtPlace study on how the arts and culture intersect with public safety.

A National Foundation for the Arts blog post on the art (and necessity) of failure.

How Rick Lowe’s experiment in livable art continues to transform the everyday for ordinary people.

Pop Culture is Homogeneous and Quantification is to Blame

This is what happens when pop culture is quantified: a cycle of sameness that’s approaching critical mass.  The hackneyed beliefs that deftness with digits implies authority and that algorithms hold the answers are costing us dearly.  To be tethered to quantification is to be risk-averse.  It is to be inoculated against the essence of creativity.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Popular Film

Hollywood is insistent on churning out remake after remake, like a fast food chain that produces empty art instead of calories.  Its merchandising machine, designed to buffer the risk of disappointing box office receipts, distracts the public from the substance of the films it’s created to support.  The executives running Hollywood don’t have the patience to wait for box office receipts to grow, and no longer allow films the time to find their audiences. 

Popular Music

Turn on the radio and you’ll be struck by not only the monotony of the songs, but the sameness of the sound.  Not surprisingly, most of it is made by a handful of producers whose anonymous work is catchy and mundane in nearly identical ways.

Popular Photography

Editorial photography is dominated by the same names, doing the same things. They’re holding fast, instead of charting new territory, probably because publishers are risk-averse at a time that’s financially challenging for most magazines. 

Meanwhile the editorial ethos is being replicated blandly on social media.  Influencers across the globe use filters and flashes in attempts to duplicate the moods of Terry Richardson’s night life, Mario Testino’s sunscapes and Tim Walker’s sugary palette.  The artificial brightness of this Instagram fodder bleaches imperfections and erases depth to cultivate the all-important personal brand, incite covetousness and sell something.

Popular Nightlife

Two words: Brooklyn aesthetic.  Is there anything more uninspired than the globalization of “Brooklyn Cool”?

Popular Fashion

To quote Calvin Klein: "When I see motorcycle jackets for $2,000 that are distressed or ripped jeans from couture designers, I think to myself, 'Are they kidding me?' We've been doing this for 30 years. It's not new," he said. "I understand why it's young and cool, but there is a thing about respect for women and trying to make women look as beautiful as they possibly can, and also [creating] new things. There's a lot that's going on that's disappointing" (italics ours).

Popular Journalism and Prose

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can’t judge a digital article by its title: the headline has devolved into a path to an advertisement.  Writers are forced to adhere to SEO at the expense of both message and craft, even though the increasing sophistication of search engines renders it largely unnecessary.  Meanwhile as magazines and newspapers struggle to gain readership, advertorial publications produced by consumer brands rise.  

What is this doing to the way we absorb information?  What is this doing to our ability to communicate and think in nuanced ways?  The advent of advertisement everywhere is suppressing quality creativity and impairing our abilities to connect – with ideas and with one another in significant ways.  The quantification of fundamentally qualitative products and services strips them of their true value and renders their creators impotent.

If everywhere becomes a point of sale, what do we become?

What can we do to change this? 

We can acknowledge the fallibility of data. The best expressions of human life are never formulaic and yet here we are, relying on algorithms. Because we are unpredictable beings, the only thing continued reliance on numbers will ensure is that change is inhibited.

The public and private sectors must begin to prioritize qualitative measurements as valid key performance indicators for arts/culture products and services.  This will nurture the development of diversity and enrich the quality of popular culture.

We’re all searching for meaning – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities and from the world.  Every experience we seek and every product we buy is driven by this quest.  Instead of stalking us with advertisements, it would be more effective for businesses to put as much into the shared creation of meaning as into the production of profit. 


Photo by violetkaipa/iStock / Getty Images

Weekly Links - April 8th, 2016


As we move deeper into April, change is upon us.  The articles that caught our attention this week refer to fundamental shifts in perspective that are essential to securing a sustainable future. Our favourite pieces serve as reminders that algorithms alone are not the answer.

The Chronicle of Higher Education articulates that theatre studies explore and express human actions repressed by technology, and are valuable in the digital age.

The Australian posits that it isn’t STEM but STEAM that will help us to realize our true potential.  That incorporating art/design processes into technical innovation is the best way forward.

Down with clickbait!  Jesse Weaver set Medium alight this week, with a rallying cry for the production of quality content and the empowerment of creative professionals.

We’re grateful for BBC Culture’s introduction to “digital detox zone” Libreria, a retailer that seeks to restore the sense of wonder, conviviality and conversation that are the provenance of the bookstore.


Weekly Links - April 1st, 2016

This humanities-driven approach to innovation can create ‘game-changing’ solutions to the major challenges of our societies. They can help transform the ways in which we conceptualise, manage, study and act in the world.
— Kirsten Drotner + Mariachiara Esposito in EuroScientist

This week we discovered several STEAM-y stories.  Our favorites are shared below:

An Italian case study provides recession-proof advice for arts and cultural organizations.

Billed as an intersection of art and technology, this week’s inaugural “Light City Baltimore” festival is transforming the way people look at the city.

Science Europe’s Scientific Committee opines on the importance of the human factor in radical innovation and establishes the arts and culture as “game changing” catalysts.