The House Hits the Road
Following our annual gathering (the House) in Lisbon, we are poised to bring the conversation about “beautiful business” to more people worldwide — through Chambers and a Book.
by Tim Leberecht
It takes a village and starts with a House.
That’s how the entrepreneur and book author Andrea Kates recently referred to the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community I co-founded that is dedicated to making business more human in the age of machines. Going into its third year, the House is an annual gathering that takes place in Lisbon (November 2–6 this year) and brings together 300 “residents” from different disciplines for five days of exploration, discussion, and collaboration.
But the House is more than a house. It seems as if every door at the House18 in Lisbon was a portal to something new: for starters, the Chambers of Beautiful Business, a series of small, salon-style events run by local members of our community who have attended at least one of our annual gatherings. The idea was born when some of them approached us in Lisbon and inquired about the possibility of hosting a miniature version of the House in their city. We certainly did not expect this enthusiasm to lead to, as of today, 17 Chambers in 14 countries on four continents, over the course of nine months. But here we are, in awe of our community.
The Chambers of Beautiful Business
Each Chamber explores a different aspect of “beautiful business,” from climate change and the circular economy in Stockholm to the mysteries of business in Vancouver to the beauty (and art) of imperfection in Melbourne to pace and purpose in London to the future of (African) capitalism in Cape Town. Some Chambers will be living room conversations with 20 guests in a casual setting, others more polished affairs with stage lights and hundreds of attendees. Venues range from the inner courtyard of a riad in Marrakesh to a repurposed industrial space in Detroit, a co-working-space-meets-music-studio in Istanbul’s Arnavutköy neighborhood, a 17th century townhouse in London Hammersmith, to Sweden’s first and now defunct nuclear reactor in Stockholm. All of the Chambers are, despite the meticulous planning of our local hosts and our team, open-ended experiments. Anything can happen, but whatever happens will be in good hands.
That was proven by our first two Chambers, which took place in Berlin and Marrakesh respectively. The Berlin event, hosted by Nika Wiedinger, Sven Krueger, and Simon Berkler at the offices of Simon’s firm, TheDive, invited the 50 attendees to explore the question of whether organizations can have a soul.
“Organizations can have a soul because we wish they do,” the philosopher Nika Wiedinger (who co-founded and heads up the Center for Philosophical Economics in Berlin; there is also a Center for Political Beauty in the city; apparently, the Germans have a thing for beauty, despite their pragmatic streak) posited in her opening remarks. She further suggested that having a soul would imply the idea of an organization’s personhood and that we should therefore ask ourselves as managers and employees:
“What would be good for the company if it were a person? What would she want? What does she need to enhance her health and wellbeing?“
It is a surreal, radical question that shifts the focus from the quasi-objective (the bottom line) and the individual ego (ambition, success, impact) to the organization as autonomous being, thereby creating an almost tender bond of responsibility which transcends both self-interest and common good. Life is what we project into lifeless things. Beauty is what we discover in the seemingly mundane.
At our second Chamber this past weekend in Marrakesh, co-hosted by Andrea Bury, we discussed the question of inclusive growth in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region and how one might encourage and foster the kind of entrepreneurship that considers business not just as a vehicle for the creation of wealth but for the production of identity and meaning. Under the theme “Grow to Last,” we heard from Abdelilah Lendani, the founder and president of the Youth Forum for Democracy and Citizenship Forum and co-working space The Spot; Touria Benlafqih, a former broker who founded the social enterprise SIDE that runs volunteering programs for soft skills building; Taoufik Aboudia, the co-founder of Marrakesh’s first startup incubator, the Emerging Business Factory; and Bart van Kersavond, the founder of street art blog urbanpresents.
They spoke about innovative ways to support local social enterprises; cultural and societal impediments to entrepreneurship; attempts to overcome long-held views of patriarchy, as well as the overarching desire to craft a new narrative for the region. A key theme weaving together the three perspectives was the need for confidence rooted in local culture and history. As Hanae Bezad, managing director of the coding school Le Wagon in Casablanca, put it to me, pointing to one of the many delicate mosaics on a wall at the venue:
“We built this here, so we should be able to build a beautiful economy.”
During the concluding discussion, one of the participants referenced Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay on Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee, and its rather stricken take on all progress as an illusion and something elusive that needs to be constantly reclaimed from the claws of catastrophic history. The man said he found the use of the word “beauty” in a business context refreshing, but asked me to comment on the tension between beauty and the erosion of the civility, if not civilization, he was observing. I replied with Dostoevsky (“Beauty can save the world”), asserting that his famous claim was more relevant than ever in light of burgeoning dataism and nationalism (and the unholy alliance of both). If progress is a permanent crisis, beauty is the great stabilizer. If our economies are becoming more and more exclusionary and our societies increasingly divided, the one universal language that remains is beauty.
While there is the danger of misunderstanding it as merely cosmetic (obviously there are some ugly economic realities for which not even the most beautiful experience can compensate), beauty is a human right that connects us all. Whether we’re in Berlin, Marrakesh, Shenzhen, or San Francisco, almost all of us want to lead a beautiful life, not just a productive or successful one. This belief is at the heart of our community: Beauty is why we meet, and beautifully is how we meet. Business gives us the license to do so.
“The five words that destroy humanity”
The artificial intelligence ethicist and author John C. Havens, who was a speaker and resident at the House in Lisbon last year, recently argued in an article for Quartz that, “Did we hit our numbers?” are the five words that “destroy humanity.” “It’s a common business trope to say “what you measure matters,’” Havens writes, “but when we use those five words as the measuring stick, you get only one answer regarding the world’s primary metric of value: ‘You don’t matter.’” Nonetheless, some people still insist business is only about the numbers. However, this “numberism” is the most reductionist of all reductions, especially with these numbers expected to determine winners and losers and to eliminate any ambiguity in between the two.
Business, beautiful business, is about so much more than that. Ever since the first industrial age, we have secularized business and deprived it of any transcendence, and yet, it shows us again and again that it is the most human of all enterprises — an often messy and inefficient but potentially utterly rewarding way to organize our life’s work.
When Derek Thompson points out (in his critique of “workism” as the new religion for the professional elite) that the role of business has shifted from the means of material production to the means of identity production, then that is the very reason we must elevate work rather than diminish it.
We must fill it with the utmost energy as well as our full humanity, as if our lives depend on it — because they do.
Thompson wants us to liberate ourselves from the notion of work as the product of our lives and embrace the notion where it’s merely the currency. But isn’t it much more beautiful to reject both and simply consider work a vehicle for learning? The challenge then is to learn not just to get better at getting ahead but to learn to get better at what matters, as Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at business school INSEAD, put it in his talk at the House.
The Book of Beautiful Business
What is needed is a new sentimental education for us as workers, a new curriculum that is drawing not just from science, but from the arts and humanities, from fiction and poetry, in fact, we need a curriculum that views business as art.
Pursuing that vision and building on the content generated at the annual House gathering as well as the Chambers worldwide, we are launching the Book of Beautiful Business. Under a Creative Commons license and the guidance of our editorial team, the project will invite anybody who wants to contribute to submit theories and concepts, best practices, case studies, essays, short stories, or even poems (such as the ones that came out of the House last year and are featured in this compilation, edited by House resident Jonathan Cook) about what it means to be human and beautiful in a world dominated by efficiency and profit.
Our goal with the Book of Beautiful Business is to provide professionals all over the world — entrepreneurs, managers, and workers — with opportunities, encouragement, and tools to recognize the beauty of their work as well as the beauty in their organization. We want to help them to unlock it, often enough so that the beauty is not forgotten, yet sporadically enough for it to remain precious.
The framework we use and share with Book contributors is simple, and it is meant to allow for a wide variety of perspectives. To explore the idea of beautiful business at the societal, the organizational, and the individual level, we are asking three questions:
How can we build and nurture sustainable economies that enable freedom and fairness?
How do we create value in effective cooperation with other humans — and machines?
How do we enable and foster a sense of identity and belonging, and integrate as individuals into society?
We hope that these questions will provoke new questions and if there are answers, that they they’ll be surprising.
We want to literally rewrite the rules of business in an act of resistance to unwritten conventions, with the Book serving as a vessel for longing and belonging as much as a conduit for capturing practical knowledge and concrete solutions. An anthology rather than an encyclopedia, the Book won’t be comprehensive, but it will be comprehensively subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and business, despite its naïve striving to be the most objective of all disciplines, remains a highly personal and elusive affair.
To serve our humanity, it can and must be beautiful.
Visit our website to learn more about the House of Beautiful Business. Find out more about the Chambers of Beautiful Business here and about the Book of Beautiful Business here. The next Chamber will take place in Cape Town on April 26, 2019.
Painting by Michael Tompsett