How Willem Boijens creates space as a non-pretentious practitioner

Happyplaces stories (video)

It’s the start of a creative process. Like in chemistry, you need a particle to have stuff condense, crystalise. And being a practitioner, it is a conscious act that you need to bring into a process before you can start even being a creator in that sense. I look at myself as a practitioner. I’m not a traditional designer as such. I create, but I would not call it design necessarily. I try to make stuff happen with my ability to get processes going, but also to combine people into a conversation to create value and exchange amongst ourselves, to create something bigger than our contribution.

The ecosystem fabric

To me ecosystems are just a structure, it’s a fabric. It is not a thing in itself. I think I coined the term, so it gets a shape so that you don’t talk into abstracts, with the risk of a vacuum. And currently, it is a quite neutral term still. There is not a sharp definition or a method or an approach; it is quite open. And because it is quite open, it is nobody’s territory. So you can explore, you can dive in, you can make connections without running into organisational barriers or structures or ownership discussions that you would like to avoid. The term ecosystem suggests at least an open situation where you can combine things from the inside out and the outside in into new combinations. It is an associative term in that sense. The system as an element does have value for me. Because I do think that by having a systematic approach it gives people a lead way into something that can be perceived as complex or multifaceted. I think the problems you can apply ecosystemic approaches to, all have something in common: there are multiple angles, it is multifaceted, it is undefined and structurally combining things without being a dogma. You can allow different disciplines to join in, and that is an essential factor.

Outside in

I think for corporations; currently, I work for a couple of them, so it is not related for the one I presently happen to be in — there is a very existential question being asked at the moment, and that is: What is the future of being a corporate? What is the added value of thinking and creating value and exchanging value within a corporate structure? One of the most challenging things in that context is letting go of what you think that has brought you success in the past. By opening up that conversation, you start to be open, literarily, for influences from the outside in. What if we were to open our structures for more than just the creation of value that we are capable of. And combine that with value coming from the outside in. I think a lot of organisations are trying to get the grips with that phenomenon. And I think it is crucial for existence going forward; you have to have that perspective. But it is difficult, because corporations are outstanding in control and scale and leveraging scale, but are not necessarily the right vehicle to do this kind of more open cross-pollination type of work. Corporations have created vehicles like incubators and innovation programmes and a couple of other phenomena. But to do this really from the core, it is quite difficult. It can put a lot of things at risk. Your bread and butter, your existence.

But from a philosophical perspective, there is no harm in doing that. And it opens new trajectories, new dimensions that can give you value. But it is a mindset thing. And before corporations can switch over from what they are today to something that is more meaningful in the future, it starts with just connecting on a mind level. You don’t have to put your business at risk to begin thinking along these lines. And that starts small. It is really about the interconnections between human beings first, a conversation, that can influence the broader structures around you. Don’t think that a 30,000 community of people working for a particular organisation can just make that switch overnight. But thinking a little bit ahead, will have organisations still have the same structures, ten, twenty years from now? Unlikely. So, what is the transformative potential today that can make that change happen? How can we start that move from where we are today into that future state?

In flux

I think an organisation is a temporary vehicle, in whatever state. There is no systemic fixed point in time where structures are the way they are. They will continually be in flux. And especially in times like these. Currently, we’re doing a lot of reaching out to individuals in mainly an urban context and try to understand what drives individuals. And what kind of structures people create. And how value creations and exchange takes place. As a signal of how structures are going to evolve into the future. Because corporations then will have a role to play. So there is an added value at, I think, the ‘gestalt’ in how that takes shape, and that is constantly changing. Corporations, the way they were in the fifties in the last century to how they are now and how they will evolve in 10, 20 years from now. That’s a given. So, I’m not thinking: ‘How can I be a rebel within the current structures?’ I’m more thinking about: ‘Where it moves to? How can we have value in the years to come?’ Based on drivers that are already embedded into human beings today. If that becomes more of the ‘new normal’, how can we anticipate, how can we make sure that we have a role to play. There is one particular element in the current timeframe, where people are trying to solve problems: taking the time to try to make a contribution and solve problems that are quite existential. That’s a shared common understanding. And corporations, beyond the usual corporate social responsibility talk, are thinking about: what is our added value if that becomes more like a broadly shared, already expected phenomena in people’s minds? If you have no role to play, your existence is at risk. There is no future if you don’t open up to this kind of thinking. The only role I play is to be a catalyst. I don’t have the answers. I don’t necessarily have the insight that will give you the perspective to solve everything in one go. It is just a matter of creating a fabric of combining individuals that have a contribution and are willing to create value and exchange value based on a different term than just monetary, to solve these kinds of problems.

Higher cause, better connections

I think the role of the product is dramatically changing. The ownership of the product is no longer the key driver. It is no show off element. It is culturally deeply embedded into people’s mindset. And the interesting crossroad of the company that I currently work for is that there is a lifestyle element and a functional element to it. But, mainly it all comes down to the creativity of human beings. How can we unlock creativity in individuals that allows them to create exponential value? That’s the critical thing. And a product is just a lead way into that. And it’s a given, by manufacturing products, if you are not in the habit of getting into circular concepts around that, I would question if that is sustainable, to begin with. That is the basis. You have to have an understanding of that what you are doing is sustainable from a social responsibility perspective, a cultural responsibility perspective. You can have technical assets that provide that uniqueness in a product, but that is also not sustainable, easy to copy. So there has to be a higher, a more significant cause where people can live up to have a role to play going forward. We deeply zoom into the creativity aspect, using that as a constant. If you look at the history of humankind, creativity is by far the most constant. That is there to stay. That’s not going to change, and it is a factor that is there forever. And that, to me, is the potential you can continuously can tap into. But than zooming into the cultural aspect of that is a zeitgeist phenomenon. That will constantly evolve. That’s where you have to reach out, make the connection with local communities to figure out what’s going on. And have a non-pretentious attitude in making sure you’re an individual like anyone else. It is not the brand that you represent. It is not the corporation that is going to make the most significant difference. It is about connecting on an equal level.

Practise makes perfect

I see myself as a practitioner. And practice keeps me in the moment. I don’t look into the future to try to predict what is going to happen next. I try to leverage my skills as being a practitioner to figure out what meaningful connections are. I do a lot of sketching. I do a lot of figuring out of what the relationship is between things that even in my mind are not necessarily connected. But what if I were to make that connection? Is there any value that I can derive from that? And that is the skill that you first have to develop, but it needs to be maintained. It is like playing sports. If you want to be on top and want to have a certain level of performance, you have to train. So I keep myself fit, in that sense. But also the playfulness of it is something that you need to nurture continually; if it becomes a habit, or a traditional way of doing things. I think the energy of playing is therefore easily gone. If you’re an athlete, and at the end of your career you trained hard, and you can’t sustain a certain level of performance, the playfulness is already gone. If you look at people that I admire, not only in sports, by the way, then there is this playfulness. This fun aspect of being happy in what you do. It is not necessarily continually changing, you are good at what you do, but there is happiness related to it. And that shows off. So I try to stay fit if it comes to that.

Play and particles

In every large corporation where I started in, there is this question of: ‘Is it okay if I allow myself to be playful?’ Or do I need to have a title, a certain academic study or a track record of doing things? No, it’s fine! Let’s detox. Let’s forget about everything we know. Allow this playfulness to first come back to the surface. And let’s take it from there. Because when it is not there, then we are over rationalising things. We’re giving into the structures that we try to, at least challenge. And before you know it, you’re part of the problem. So you can’t step out of the problem and see if we can resolve anything anymore. So that’s crucial. In all the teams that I created over the years, there is this initial phase of detox. It is unlearning in that sense. Not that I have to educate people in what to do and what is appropriate, but there is an element of stepping into a corporate environment, thinking that that is not appropriate. And people are giving into the pressures of larger structures, larger organisations, cultural aspects, without even knowing sometimes. And just putting people back to the idea that we should not forget about the power of creativity, is just sometimes just that little particle that makes people give in to certain conditioning. It can be overwhelming, a large structure, if you enter a building with a lot of brand power and people talking in a very sophisticated way about things. But let’s just take it at face value. You need to be looking for the meaning behind the words. And that is more important than the appearance.