Helping artists to ask out of the box questions about the future
Professor of Sustainable Strategy and Innovation Godelieve Spaas studies what an economy of the future could look like. The three pillars of her work are art, enterprise and research . How important creativity is to her? “Very important. I want to trigger the discussion on a sustainable future. To prevent this from becoming an overly abstract exercise, I look for ways to relate to that future. They have to be inviting ways, stories in a language you can experience.”
Godelieve Spaas develops fluid organisational models, cognitive frameworks and tools for a new economy. “I study the future, but we cannot observe it,” she says. “So all we can do is make suggestions for how it could be.” What’s striking is the creative way in which she shares her knowledge with the audience, and the important role that art plays in her work. Like during her session at CWF2019. In it, she ties together monologues by people who reflect on their own actions from different perspectives with ideas about socio-ecological entrepreneurship. And she has shabby PUR foam figures by visual artist Folkert de Jong express from the future how they start again after things went wrong in our time.
‘Utopia emerges while we are creating it’
One of the ways Spaas does this is to employ the language of the characters from the monologues she uses at CWF2019 during her session ‘A Beginners’ Utopia’. “In these monologues, you feel these people’s conflicts and doubts. That involves the audience with the subject, it challenges them.” Through the monologues, she wants to incite and invite her audience to start working on that sustainable future today. What does Utopia look like? “We don’t know. But we will only find out if we start to act, if we do business, live and work in different ways. ‘Utopia emerges while we are creating it’ We have to move, take the first steps now.”
Spaas sees what’s going wrong in the world. She doesn’t need a crystal ball for this. But what keeps her going is hope. “All we have is hope, our ability to imagine how we can do things differently. Simply repeating that things are going wrong with the world only leads to paralysis. That’s why we need imagination back in our lives, to help us make different choices. At the same time, we have to be honest and recognise that we don’t always know how to do that.” And meanwhile: carry on, and continue to learn and try again. Spaas is active as director of Herenboeren Nederland, a movement that supports people in the development of nature-driven cooperative farms. And together with Rabobank Kunstzaken, she works with art and artists to question banking practices and provide inspiration for transition issues.
Simply repeating that things are going wrong with the world only leads to paralysis
It’s about transition at all levels. “People tend to think that smaller initiatives won’t help, but all solutions also play a role at the local level, often more than at the global level. New technology will help us to produce and organise things more locally and on a small scale. The interlocal exchange of knowledge and experience is the new global. This, of course, requires top-down direction, for instance by means of tax legislation. I notice that companies actually want that type of direction. They ask us to just have that regulation imposed, preferably at EU level, so that they will have to deal with it and can make arrangements to do so.”
Working with people in her network helps her in her mission, says Spaas. “Six professorships in the Expert Centre Sustainable Business at Avans University of Applied Science are together studying sustainability. That collaboration is mutually reinforcing. But I also get a lot of support from the art world. There are a number of artists in the Netherlands who are committed and not afraid to make bold statements. They reason and reflect on developments differently than researchers and companies do. They really help me ask out of the box questions about the future.”
‘Companies that only focus on a single SDG are wimps’
The Sustainable Development Goals are just as much dots on the horizon of 2030 as they are looks to the future. Do they help you think about Utopia? “The SDGs are important because they open the dialogue. They put themes on the agenda that we will have to deal with. But the difficult thing is: they have become fragmented into 17 goals and all kinds of sub-categories. And in my contacts with companies, I see the results of that fragmentation: companies select one or two goals to which it is easy to commit. Take Philips, for example, which says it contributes to SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). To me, that’s not enough and they should also focus on other SDGs. After all, those communicating vessels are what form the difficulty. Companies that only focus on a single SDG are wimps in my opinion.”