Preface to the book “Business, Open Innovation and Art” recently published by MDPI

“Business, Innovation and Art” Special Series Issue #13

Published in
14 min readNov 7, 2020


By BeiBei Song

Published by MDPI Books, October 2020

For much of human history, artistry and craftsmanship were a natural ingredient in product-making and commerce. The Industrial Age, taken over by machines and assembly lines, squeezed cultural values and uniqueness out of many products in favor of uniformity, volume and speed to minimize costs and maximize profits. While industrialization improved the human condition in many ways, this “dehydration” in business has been pervasive — humans were used as simple machines to enable mass production; corporate offices were places for making a living but not living a life; and 20th-Century management was all about efficiency, the bottom-line, and shareholder value (with an obsession about quarterly earnings). Art went its own way, with artists either starving or celebrated in museums and auction houses away from everyday life, or some precarious point in between. This bifurcation led to antipathy between the two worlds, which is taken for granted in modern society. Artists view businesspeople as philistines, and businesspeople cannot see much use of art in corporate life beyond decoration in the lobby, and maybe some branding value, even though some may patronize art after making their fortune.

In spite of such unquestioned but unnatural perceptions, business has much to learn from the arts, and management is more of an art than people recognize. Successful artists and executives share common prerequisites. Business can grow artistically by the alchemy of invention, especially in “innovation economy”. A notion introduced by Joseph Schumpeter in 1942, which became a mainstream concept around the turn of the century, the innovation economy is commonly seen as driven by technological developments, when in fact human factors are of paramount importance. Technology by itself creates as many problems as it solves. Without conducive culture, innovation falters, or does not occur at all.

Ironically, after its predecessors turned people and organizations for the most part into machines, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is attempting to turn machines into humans — but unlike machines in the 18th through 20th century, digital machines of today and tomorrow not only have more and more biological and cognitive properties embedded in them, they make things the way an artist and craftsman would. This is not only resurrecting the Renaissance Man, but also reuniting art and business, without frenzied corporate executives and “disruptors” realizing it. In the meantime, the destructive consequences of extractive capitalism for the environment, the hazardous effects of mass consumption destroying natural habitats and breeding novel pathogens, and anger over structural inequity in our society all came to the fore, laid bare in worldwide calamities and social turmoil marking entry into the third decade of the 21st century.

As companies find the business environment increasingly complex to navigate, the whitewater of changes and crises perpetually rocking the boat, art can be a powerful tool to catalyze innovation and transformation, helping companies (re)discover their compass, create new rafts to conquer the rapids, and find “blue ocean” market spaces in a reborn world.

The “Business, Open Innovation and Art” Special Issue was initiated to pursue research and case studies that demonstrate the value of art in business management, particularly in the realm of innovation. We welcomed insights and data that addressed the frequently asked skeptic’s question: “What is the ROI of an art program?” We sought out views on the difference between art and design, and any art thinking framework which might take the popular design thinking approach a step further. Insights from creative industries that have broader application to the business world were embraced as well.

We were delighted to receive quality contributions from educators, researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurial leaders around the world, who addressed these questions and much more. The articles that we published in the MDPI Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market and Complexity, and are now collected in this book highlight various forms of art practice — visual, performing, conceptual, installation and music — and apply them to diverse activities and industries — higher education, healthcare, sustainability, social innovation, arts and culture, and entrepreneurship — in academic, corporate and non-profit settings, as well as innovation ecosystems. The authors, selected for their expertise in both art and management, investigated and reported on the connections between the two through various formats of intervention such as arts-based learning, art hacking, and artist-in-residence, manifesting various effects on organizational life such as artistic strategies and processes, artful leadership, management aesthetics and art thinking innovation, as depicted in Figure 1. The many functions of art relevant to the business enterprise, and their effects on individuals and systems, are loosely abstracted in Figure 2.

Figure 1 (L). Interventions and manifestations of art in business. Figure 2 (R). Multi-layered functions of art.

More specifically, the articles feature the following major themes, addressing art’s value in business and innovation:

1. Creativity and Other Skills Needed for 21st-Century Work, Inadequately Trained in Conventional Business Schools

● Recognizing similarities between the cognitive process used by classical guitarists, innovative managers and entrepreneurs, Jonathan Gangi exposes a promising link between musical creativity and non-musical problem-solving [1].

● Sogol Homayoun and Danah Henriksen’s literature review reveals that the positive relationship between creative personal identity and creativity at work is “stronger when individuals have opportunities to engage in non-work experiences — such as arts-based activities — and apply these toward solving work-related problems” [2].

● An interdisciplinary class at University of California, Berkeley created by Sara Beckman, Stacy Jo Scott, and Lisa Wymore at the intersection of theatre, art and business explores both collaboration and innovation, and demonstrates how such integration “opens unexpected potential for student development as future contributors to society” [3]. The transformational experiences students go through in the course help them develop spatial thinking, abstract reasoning, and active listening and observation skills, as well as creative imagination and critical discourse. The course impact confirms earlier research findings [4-7]that literacy in the arts prepares students to negotiate cultural differences, challenge existing paradigms and navigate contradictory data; and that working collaboratively within a collected intelligence enables them to find solutions that are not only technically superior but also ethically and culturally evaluated. Embedding liberal art content in a business course enhances students’ ability “to understand undefined outcomes while allowing for failure and risk taking” [3].

2. Interdisciplinary Development, Organizational Learning and Cultural Change

The effects of arts-based initiatives (ABIs) exist far beyond academic education, in real-world organizational environment, as evidenced by two decades of research, according to Claudia Schnugg and BeiBei Song’s article on artscience collaboration. With a brief historical background on ABIs and summarizing their effects in general, Schnugg and Song closely examine one specific approach — artist residency programs, typically taking place in research, development, and science settings, and gaining popularity among government, corporate and scientific organizations alike — as an ideal means to foster interdisciplinary collaboration for innovation and to tackle complex challenges confronting society and business [8]. The article, which dissects 58 interviews with artists, scientists, engineers, managers and curators involved in 18 different programs at academic, scientific, corporate and cultural organizations, explores the multi-faceted contributions of artscience collaboration. The benefits of such interdisciplinary development are many:

● New perspectives and insights

● Personal and interpersonal learning

● Leadership development

● Future vision

● Innovation process

● Cultural transformation

● Liminality and rites of passage helping staff to cope with and navigate change

● Contextualization, communication and exchange with the next generation and society at large

All of these play a vital role in cultivating a new generation of leaders [8].

Although ABIs in the context of modern management are relatively new, there are many examples of art-driven interdisciplinary learning and creation in human history. There was of course the Renaissance, when such integration was the norm. Among other historical cases cited by Schnugg and Song is Joseph Beuys’ art‐driven social transformation, the focus of a study by Fabio Maria Montagnino. Beuys’ Social Sculpture concept intertwines “the artistic process with social, economic, political, and environmental criticism” to trigger “a collective transition and shape society”. The multidisciplinary “from chaos to order” approach taken by Beuys’ 100 Days of Free International University enabled discussions that wereotherwise impossible in a world of rigidly separated specializations. The idea of “shaping” the change presently permeates the open social innovation arena, where a “new organizational model is characterized by a porous structure, with knowledge absorptive capacity and systematic involvement of multiple stakeholders” [9].

3. Artistic Strategies and Processes for Differentiated Product Development and Creative Problem Solving

Among the value that artscience collaboration brings to innovation are complementary thinking processes and visionary approaches to product development, as exemplified by the revived and re-designed E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) Program at Nokia Bell Labs, featured in Schnugg and Song’s article. Similarly highlighting the famous E.A.T. and PAIR (Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence) as well as residency programs at Kohler, Bosch and Microsoft as frames of reference, Berit Sandberg takes a deeper examination of artistic strategies and work attitude through an intervention format coined by the author as Art Hacking, aimed at “collective idea generation and the development of solutions for complex, possibly socially constructed business problems afflicted with uncertainty, which from a management point of view cannot simply be solved with common economic tools” [10]. Sandberg’s experiments corroborate and add to similar findings in numerous existing literature [11-15] that:

● the artistic process explores unknown paths, radically changing directions if necessary, making detours, abandoning failure and starting anew;

● artistic attitudes expose different interpretations of reality and facilitate sensemaking; and

● artistic methods differ from rational, systematic management procedures by mindfulness, intuition and authenticity.

As a result, artists are able to master ambiguous, uncertain situations with uninhibited inspiration, unconstrained by rules and limits, and finding solutions in non-linear explorations and on creative roundabout routes.

4. Art Thinking, Strong Inner Self and Radical Innovation

The concept of Art Hacking espouses the view that “art is not about solving problems but ‘finding solutions for questions yet unknown’” [10].Therein lies a distinction between the popular innovation framework of Design Thinking and the emerging approach of Art Thinking, elucidated in more depth by Peter Robbins. In his article Robbins performs a comprehensive literature review and theoretical analyses of both concepts, put in practice in a revelatory case study of an organization facing an existential crisis. The author shows how Design Thinking, with its inherent user-centric approach, tends to anchor solutions in more prosaic and incremental territory; whereas Art Thinking, by asking new questions, spending more time in the open-ended problem space, staking out bold new possibilities and looking for uncontested space, can lead to more penetrating insights about the future. This in turn can create more radical breakthroughs beyond existing markets [16], anticipating needs of future stakeholders [8].

A framework Beckman, Scott, and Wymore use in their “Collaborative Innovation” course — the “Inner-Other-Outer” modes of attention — can be helpful in understanding the distinction between Design Thinking and Art Thinking as well. The framework posits that successful leaders employ three types of focus:

● Inner focus (on internal physiological signals, personal aspirations, contemplation of callings, deep exploration and discovery of the self, and emotional resilience despite setbacks and distractions), which is best represented by the Artist Way.

● Other focus (on developing cognitive and emotional empathy for others and social sensitivity to identify what others need), which sets the foundation for Design Thinking.

● Outer focus (on understanding complex systems and institutions, often providing context for Inner and Other, and facilitating discovery of unexpected connections), which roughly corresponds to Systems Thinking.

Along with co-author Céline Verchère, Jeanne Bloch sheds light on the Inner Self and its dance with Other and Outer, in their article reflecting on a qualitative experimentation derived from her own art-tech installation that explores climate change mitigation. “The artist who connects sensory experience during creation including technological developments helps the audience connect to their sensory and emotional spheres while interacting with the artwork”. Such connection allows both the creator and the users to experience “often hidden or unspoken issues and to question the meaning of innovations. It opens up a space for dialogue and advances user’s environmental consciousness as well as contributing to implementing innovation that transcends the idea of market need and seeks to connect to global needs that integrate human and nature” [17].

Quoting German philosopher Ernst Bloch, Bloch and Verchère speak of the “anticipative consciousness”, which the creative and imaginative Inner Self contributes to and converts into actions with energy. Such “anticipative consciousness” was exemplified by Joseph Beuys’ art, which anticipated an open, participated, and non-exploitative development approach founded upon a holistic vision of society and nature. This creative approach became “the essential kernel of today’s Open Social Innovation paradigm”; and “is now prevailing as the mainstream model to shape innovation, not only in the business landscape but also in the social and environmental domains” [9]. These open social innovation features anticipated by Beuys’ artwork “rely upon collaborative organizational structures and behaviors, but ‘revolutionary’ individuals — the ‘social entrepreneurs’ — are usually pivoting the change, catalyzing the available energies around the transitional actions”, and engaging individuals around a core set of values.

5. Leadership as Art

Sandberg found unexpected leadership qualities among the artists engaged in Art Hacking experiments. “Usually it was the artists who set impulses that allowed for progress”. “They demonstrated aesthetic skills, took the initiative with fluency, encouraged lateral thinking by coming up with original ideas and led the process while stimulating a change of perspective by profound questions.[…] their perseverance in crisis situations pulled the others along […] cautiously and persistently guiding their fellow players through the process by being role models in creative behaviour without reclaiming a special status within the group, acting out an integrative form of creative leadership instead.” As “cautious actors” they carefully shepherded the group’s work process. “However, their strong presence and constructive behaviour made them secret leaders. […] The others perceived them as of equal rank while simultaneously being in a subtle leadership role” [10]. This speaks to an artful dimension of leadership that incorporates tacit knowledge, physical presence and influence by inspiring interaction, complementing intellectual and analytical skills. This is consistent with Schnugg & Song’s research findings of ABIs in general, and of artscience collaboration in particular, highlighting the catalytic role that art and artists play. Artist-leaders can open up new perspectives, imbue organizational aesthetics, and improve cognition. They heighten the organization’s capacity for complexity, ambiguity, contradiction and uncertainty [8].

6. Higher Purpose, Humanistic Values, and Sense of Meaning for Work and in Product

The notion of aesthetics goes far beyond style and sensory pleasures, reaching deep into the human psyche. It elevates the mind, affects beliefs, represents our values and defines our actions through life. In the same vein, integration of the artist way into management has impact beyond strategies, processes and skills training. Art thrusts a human-centered perspective on technology and business. For example, the artists’ ability to bring the “human component” into the development of technology is credited as E.A.T. program’s essential contribution to Nokia Bell Labs. Consumers today expect not just utility from their purchases, but also identity and alignment with their personal values. “Products and experiences that evoke wonder, joy, hope, and happiness, or help personal expression, can connect with consumers on a deeper level and command a premium” [8]. Artful exploration and aesthetic design are crucial to satisfy these needs. The needs for positive emotion and value alignment are also exhibited in the workforce, where employees and students want to engage in work that is innately human, meaningful, productive, and creatively fulfilling [2]. Furthermore, many consumers and younger-generation employees are keenly aware of the challenges the world faces, from environmental damage to rampant inequality, caused in part by corporate greed and catastrophic externalities. They demand greater accountability from the business world. There is a growing movement of entrepreneurs and intellectuals advocating for Quadruple Bottom Line, adding Purpose to the progressive Triple Bottom Line of People, Profit and Planet [18] [19]. This fourth organizational goal benefits the cultural and spiritual wellbeing of employees, customers and communities, in harmony with the environment. These frameworks help map the return on ABI investments to broader bottom-line evaluations than narrow, near-term financial measures. Art has a unique role to play across all these value domains, but is probably the most prevalent in the fourth bottom line [8]. Art in its essence is an exploration of the human condition. As digital machines acquire more and more human-like cognitive intelligence, the profound question posed by art about what it is to be human will be ever more vital, for society and business alike.

Together, this collection of outstanding articles reflects a New Renaissance movement towards re-convergence of knowledge, a revival of humanness in the age of artificial intelligence and harmony between man and nature. The research, case studies and experiments demonstrate a rich, multidimensional relationship between art and business, be it artistic strategies and processes, artful leadership, or art thinking for radical innovation. Clearly, art is not just a beneficiary of corporate philanthropy. On a societal level, art is an active economic driver and an agent of change towards a more sustainable and equitable economy. For individual firms, art can be a strategic asset for innovation, a cultivator of a more creative, resourceful and passionate workforce, and an impactful investment in their ability to navigate complexity and transform.

On a personal note, this special issue project has been an intensely gratifying experience for me. I was honored to have Professor Piero Formica and Dr. Claus Springborg join me as guest editors. I am also grateful for the generous support from JOItmC editorial leadership and staff throughout the process. Integrating business and art is taking on more urgency today as the world undergoes the crucible of transformation, calling for fundamental changes in the way humans learn, create, and interrelate. This presents unprecedented challenges as well as unprecedented opportunities. We are grateful for the intellectual and spiritual contributions authors have made to this project, and we look forward to future collaborations in advancing the fundamental role of art and humanities, together with science and economy, in this crucial phase of human history.


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#Innovation strategist. #Creativity agent. Executive educator & coach @StanfordBiz. #Art #science #tech fusionist & curator. Founder @Essinova.