Beautiful Resilience

Author: Paul Shrivastava

Of all the intellectual sources of building resilience into organisations, one of the most ignored and potentially fruitful is ‘aesthetics’. Yes, aesthetics or the sense of beauty has been almost eliminated from organisational products, services, production systems, structures and decision-making. Organisations are obsessed with productivity and efficiency, profitability, cutting costs and eliminating low-return investments. And in the current era of austerity measures, art, aesthetics and beauty are furthest from managers’ minds. So this is a curious time to be making an argument in favour of beauty for organisational resilience.

But art, aesthetics and beauty have much to contribute to organisational resilience — the ability to recognise environmental changes, take action rapidly and prosper. Value added by beauty encompasses mechanisms for recognising changes, acquiring perspectives for action and developing stakeholder-engaged communal well-being.

Apple Inc. has made beauty or aesthetic value a hallmark of its products, thereby attracting more customers and providing pleasure in use. Google’s beautiful workspaces attract talented, creative employees. Cities such as Barcelona, Valencia and Dubai have built beautiful public spaces and buildings that attract more visitors to their venues. Fashion designers offer beauty as the unique selling proposition in clothes, accessories, shoes, etc. to build loyalty and commitment.

The process of aesthetic value creation engages artists, designers, architects, stakeholders and organisational members in a unique ecosystem that builds resilience. Community engagement allows diverse new ideas to come into the organisation, enhancing its ability to detect changes and act responsibly. It builds resilience by reducing use of energy and raw materials, reducing packaging, reducing waste and reusing materials. Beautiful designs are also adaptive, enhance usability of products, encourage healthy choices and are longer lasting. Resilience is also boosted through improved corporate image, reputation and general public goodwill; healthier work places and public spaces; and improved general well-being.

But the resistance to including beauty or aesthetics comes from the argument that it costs more to incorporate. As a result, the world is filled with reliable, technologically efficient solutions which are ugly and non-resilient. Does it really cost that much more to design in beauty? Estimates of additional costs for incorporating beauty could be up to 20% of the cost of the project. Assuming those extra costs should be recovered over a 10- (for products) to 30- (for buildings) year life of the project, we need only 1% additional positive value per year to justify those costs. Surely, all the above benefits of beautiful resilience amount to a 1% improvement.

Dr. Paul Shrivastava is David O’Brien Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, Concordia University, and leads the International Research Chair on Art and Sustainable Enterprise at ICN Business School, Nancy, France.