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Art as an innovative means for engaging stakeholders in change towards sustainable transition: the artist, the organization, and the pedagogical contributions

Art as an innovative means for engaging stakeholders in change towards sustainable transition: the artist, the organization, and the pedagogical contributions

Mariana Galvão Lyra, Hanna Lehtimäki, Victor Renza, Thomas Blonski, and Divya Singhal


How can art support the co-creation context-sensitive knowledge to initiate practices through which citizens, organizations, NGOs, and academia can be a part of societal innovation?

Collaboration with artists and the use of arts-based methods harness the power of the creative, imaginative, and reflective capacity of individuals and collectives and build knowledge creation capacity in organizations. Arts-based methods entice people to connect their emotional, rational, and social capacities in imagining alternative futures and acting on them.

Including art in innovation processes in sustainability transitions responds to the need of effective and inclusive behavioral change in just transition. Arts-based approaches support participatory, bottom-up governance and anticipatory future making. Arts-based methods can be used to strengthen inclusivity of all through catalyzing the sense of urgency, building common ground for imagining futures with hope and finding feasible ways forward for all. A multidisciplinary way ofcollaborating with artists to envision anticipatory and participatory future making in organizations and the use of arts-based methods accelerate systemic change.

Using art-based processes to innovate and promote transformative changes towards sustainable transitions advances the state-of-the-art as an approach for addressing relevant aspects at different levels of societal innovation.

At the individual and artist level, art-based methods and artistic processes provide for holistic embodied, sensuous, and cognitive subjective knowledge creation that support personal participation, sense of authorship of future, trust building, hope, social acceptance, and buy-in from people and local communities and organizations.

At the social and organization level, collaboration with artists, use of art as a tool for reflection, and knowledge creation will support participatory and anticipatory processes that involve multi-stakeholder dialogue about the desired future and decision making on the steps to be taken concerning the behavior of communities and organizations[1]. Art is powerful in critical thinking, critically addressing power structures and the taken-for-granted, opening new ways of seeing, and supporting imagination and reframing in innovating novel solutions[2].

At the societal and pedagogical level, examining the role of art institutions, political discourse on art, and the role of art in “the sociotechnical toolbox” in future making enables examination of the constellation and dynamics between societal institutions (political, economic, cultural, technological, administrative). Art is a means for giving a voice to the marginalized and vulnerable[3], while at the same time being powerful in the hands of the elite.

The artist point of view

The “social turn” in the arts emphasizes the significance of social practice as a primary aesthetic value of the artwork. This shift has led to the emergence of socially-minded practices such as socially engaged art. This kind of artistic practices look to bring the arts to the people, taking them out from typical and sometimes not so accessible places such as galleries and museums, and bringing the arts to more unconventional settings such as farms, neighborhoods, parks, and schools[4],[5]. Socially engaged artists are seen as active agents of social change, working on projects aimed at addressing pressing social issues, bridging gaps, mending rifts, and promoting social justice. These projects not only create value for the artists and participants but also have the potential for economic benefits in the future. It is essential to recognize the critical roles that social arts practitioners play in organized movements, acting as initiators, mediators, and key contributors to the social, environmental, and economic pillars of society.

As artists adopt and develop practices that envision and implement new societal structures, it becomes crucial to understand the role of the arts in driving social sustainable changes. Socially engaged art distinguishes itself from traditional forms like painting or sculpture through the social interactions it generates during the creative process. These projects empower communities by involving them directly in the art-making process, allowing them to transform their spheres through meaningful engagement. This collaborative approach underscores the importance of striving for empowerment in collective creativity, which ultimately can lead to bigger structural changes and alternative ways to develop as society.

Sustainability practitioners, artists, academics, policymakers, decision-makers and citizens can engage in active participation on social causes through artistic endeavors. Professional artists are capable to lead social transformations and turn them into collaborative works with aesthetic value, wich are also aimed at fostering social change. Such socially-minded artistic practices look to challenge the status quo by reinventing previous societal structures and addressing critical issues through democratic participation. According to Claire Bishop[6], the essence of these socially engaged art practices lies in participation, where individuals are both the means and the subject matter, distinguishing these practices from other art forms. Yet, artists working in this practice agree on defining their work as an interdisciplinary endeavor, that temporarily incorporates elements from other disciplines in order to bring new perspectives and visibility to issues typically outside the artistic realm. Therefore, support to such initiatives is not an easy quest and there is a need for us to become more familiarized with such practices in the social realm of the arts. 

From an individual perspective, artists are also involved in a practice denominated “artivism”. A case study of the play “The New Forest” by the Dutch-Flemish theater group Wunderbaum illustrates how artists can inspire social change and challenge socio-political norms. This blend of activism and art, in artivism, highlights the social responsibility of artists to drive change through their works. Artivists use their art as a tool for political activism, influencing policymakers and societal norms to rethink desirable futures, particularly in areas such as the environment and sustainable development.

As a conclusion, we stress that participatory and collaborative elements central to artistic practices aiming to have a positive impact in society have shown their potential to facilitate structural changes for sustainable development. Socially engaged arts, as a relatively novel practice, brings this perspective on bringing communities together to achieve shared political objectives, raise awareness, encourage dialogues on common issues, or improve social conditions adapted to specific contexts. This cooperative essence of practices such as socially engaged arts or artivism, underscores the transformative power of the arts,  relying on collective creativity and individual participation to effect meaningful social change.

The organization point of view

The study of the literature shows the recurrence of specific terms regarding the outcomes of arts-based methods in organizations. A curious element can be observed: many explanations or justifications for the impact of arts-based methods in organizations are grounded on the notion of performance[7],[8]. To avoid this term, some authors have preferred to talk about value or values[9], as this word carries both an economic and moral meaning. But in all cases, the idea is to predict in advance a certain number of beneficial results of arts-based methods for the organization. This process can be explained as a commercial objective: to convince companies to resort to arts-based methods, it is advisable to speak their language and promise tangible and, above all, predictable results. However, this creates a contradiction with the way arts-based methods actually work, and especially in terms of sustainability.

Indeed, the principle of using the arts implies accepting a large part of unknown or unforeseen elements. It is because artistic creation is based on aspects such as unpredictability and imagination, drift and diversion that it brings new perspectives to the organization[10]. And it is precisely these new perspectives that enable organization members to step back and reflect on sustainability. The role of art as a vehicle for questioning the organization looks to be in line with the classic theory of Argyris, which is sometimes mentioned in connection with such considerations[11]. Art would help to develop a double loop learning process, that is in questioning not only the methods but also the way of thinking that led to these methods. As a result, announcing precise, planned outcomes prior to the use of arts-based methods seems contradictory. Focusing only on performance prevents arts-based methods from fulfilling their potential in terms of sustainability. Keeping a business-as-usual approach would not allow to criticize organisations and eventually improve them in a sustainable way.  Only by leaving room for the unforeseen and the unknown, organizations will be able to benefit from sustainable impacts.

Should we then accept all the unknown, at the risk of going off in too many different directions? Art offers another advantage that prevents this risk. Beyond the tired vision of an inspired or even transcendental practice, art is above all a technique and a method, as described by the sociology of art[12]. As a working method, therefore, art remains within the scope of management and enables us to avoid straying too far from subjects that are useful to organizations. Arts-based methods can therefore be described as an ‘orchestrated serendipity’: the decisive advantage they offer lies in their duality, being at the same time a creative development (which guarantees sustainable approaches) and as a serious, time-tested technique (which guarantees its relevance).

In short, it seems crucial to leave the outcome prediction paradigm to embrace this orchestrated serendipity at the risk of missing out on the real benefits of arts-based methods in terms of sustainability. Literature identified the benefits of such methods as a “new way of thinking”, or “thinking better and differently”. Here, art is seen as an element that breathes a refreshing novelty into the world of management, in that it will challenge the established habits and routines in the organization. It allows us to avoid path dependency and rethink the role of organizations to make them more flexible, agile, and impactful. In a word, sustainable. As such, arts-based methods appear as a plausible link between creativity and sustainability.

The pedagogical point of view

Art-based learning is an innovative pedagogical approach that encourages students to engage in creative processes to gain new perspectives and a deeper understanding of complex issues. This method integrates multiple art forms such as theater, storytelling, poetry, visual arts, and even miniature construction blocks to create an energetic and dynamic learning environment. By moving away from traditional lecture-based teaching, art-based learning brings subjects to life, making them more engaging and memorable for students. This approach is particularly valuable in helping students develop self-knowledge on soft issues. It creates a platform where facilitation and learning happen simultaneously, allowing learners to explore knowledge through their own experiences. This self-driven exploration encourages students to apply their metacognitive skills to understand the subject matter more profoundly.

For decades, practitioners have recognized the advantages of using art to craft solutions to business related problems. Introducing art-based learning in business schools offers a novel way for students to collaborate and discover solutions to real-world problems. As business environments grow increasingly complex, art-based learning provides a channel for students to make sense of these complexities[13]. It stimulates critical thinking and sensitizes students to the urgency of addressing these challenges.

Various universities and schools employ art-based interventions to facilitate action toward solving global challenges. For instance, Ozyegin University in Istanbul has established an art collection known as ‘UniArt,’ which uses artwork to communicate current global issues to students, fostering a deeper understanding and awareness. The artworks in the collection are placed in public places around the campus, including outside the elevator spaces.

Despite its benefits, art-based a pedagogy is still relatively less known in the business management education. However, now is an appropriate time to explore how these methodologies can evoke students’ attention to societal challenges and encourage a more empathetic and reflective approach.

Business schools traditionally emphasize evidence-based teaching, but integrating art can help evoke the emotional and reflective thinking necessary to understand and address social issues[14]. When art becomes the primary tool in the learning process, students evolve alongside it. Faculty members play a crucial role in facilitating this type of learning, requiring competencies such as empathy, listening skills, and the ability to create a safe space for exploration and critical thinking. These skills help students’ abilities to inquire, explore discuss complex issue[15].

Art-based learning in business education can inspire young minds, instill empathy, provoke new questions, and develop fresh perspectives. Faculty members are urged to see this approach as a powerful tool for exploring issues without resistance, allowing students to learn at their own pace and in their own unique ways.

Integrating the views towards transformative change

Societal transformation toward sustainability is a systemic change that takes place simultaneously at the individual, social and organizational, and societal and pedagogical levels. Art-based processes address human behavior at all levels of societal innovation. Art is not about fixed results, but rather, about open, untamed processes that stimulate new ideas and catalyze action. Art provokes emotions and reflections, and it invites us to explore multiple interpretations of reality. The creative intent in art encourages imagination and innovation and supports questioning the values inherent in society as we know it in different contexts globally.

Art-based methods involve a deep level of participation and personal impact. Co-creation processes with art and artists invite in experimentation where multiple stakeholders can join equally. Artistic processes empower those in vulnerable and marginalized positions just as well those in the positions of power.  With art, people are invited to address issues that matter to them personally. Envisioning desired futures and futures with hope through personal experience provide a way for gaining a personal sense of authorship of sustainable futures.

In organizations and social institutions art-based methods foster open ended learning that is needed in social innovation. Participatory learning and anticipatory visioning of economically, socially, and environmentally just, sustainable futures have an impact on the ways in which behavioral changes start to happen. Art-based methods give room to describing personal narratives and examine the ways in which they intertwine with societal narratives, the larger context in which we live our lives.

One benefit that arises from art-based initiatives is envisioned solutions and scenarios created in consensus with local stakeholders. Solutions reached in bottom-up initiatives that consider and include societal and more vulnerable stakeholders are rare and very much needed[16]. Involving local cultural and creative actors in co-creation to address complex problems in sustainability transitions fosters the emergence of just, inclusive, actionable, and shared futures locally, nationally, and internationally. Art and art-based method provide novel viewpoints to the power dynamics in the societal structures that play into the temporal and spatial dynamics of sustainability transitions.

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[2] Roosen et al. (2018). Visual art as a way to communicate climate change: a psychological perspective on climate change–related art. World Art 8(1):85-110.

[3] Coeman, Hannes (2017). Researchers under the spell of the arts: Two decades of using arts-based methods in community-based inquiry with vulnerable populations. Edu Res Rev 22:34-49.

[4] Bishop, Claire (2012). Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London, Verso.

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[9] Berthoin Antal A. & Strauß A. (2016) Multistakeholder perspectives on searching for evidence of values-added in artistic interventions in organizations. In: Berthoin Antal A, Woodilla J, and Sköldberg UJ (eds) Artistic Interventions in Organizations. Routledge, pp. 37–59

[10] Bureau S. & Zander I. (2014) Entrepreneurship as an art of subversion. Scandinavian Journal of Management 30(1). Art and Management: 124–133

[11] Argyris C. & Schön D.A. (1978) Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company

[12] Menger P.-M. (2014) The Economics of Creativity – Art and Achievement Under Uncertainty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

[13] Nissley, N. (2010). Arts‐based learning at work: economic downturns, innovation upturns, and the eminent practicality of arts in business. Journal of Business Strategy.

[14] Baker, D. F., & Baker, S. J. (2012). To “catch the sparkling glow”: A canvas for creativity in the management classroom. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), 704-721.

[15] Burnaford, G., Brown, S., Doherty, J., & McLaughlin, H. J. (2007). Arts integration frameworks, research and practice: A literature review. Retrieved from http://aep-arts.org/files/publications/ arts_integration_book_final.pdf

[16] Lyra, M. G., & Lehtimäki, H. (2023). In the Margins of Stakeholder Engagement: Fringe Stakeholders’ Inclusion in Sustainability Transition Initiatives. In Stakeholder Engagement in a Sustainable Circular Economy: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives (pp. 393-425). Cham: Springer International Publishing.