Behavioural Change: Leveraging Creativity to Create Impact

28th June 2021

By investing in creativity that aligns with their values, companies amplify their impact and demonstrate their purpose by generating true behavioural change. After all, advertising agencies invest in talent to harness their creativity and provoke behaviour that drives (often financial) business results. As the importance of triple-bottom-line reporting increases, however, businesses are increasingly looking to achieve financial results while producing meaningful social, environmental, human, intellectual and inclusive value. This creates the need to invest in behavioural change that drives ESG objectives, as well. 

As businesses, we do not need to attempt that alone. The practical application of creativity, combined with design principles, can be leveraged through partnership to drive change. At the forefront of this are practitioners in design and architecture, who combine art and engineering to achieve profound results that define our health, habits and horizons. This is not just a matter of using recycled materials or implementing carbon-efficient processes. To truly shift the dial, purpose-driven leaders have the monumental task of successfully impacting the decisions that billions of individuals make to encourage better outcomes for everyone. 

“Architecture is the physical act of social change and the manifestation of it.”

– Sir David Adjaye 

To explore this topic further and share best practice at the forefront of this space, Boster Group CEO and Founder Susan Boster was delighted to sit down with two leading creatives who put human behaviour at the centre of their practice: Sumayya Vally and Yves Béhar.

Built on Boster Group’s 20 years of experience in partnering global corporations with cultural institutions and social impact foundations, as well as Sumayya and Yves’ creative prowess and business expertise, this conversation highlighted three key themes about how global leaders think about generating behavioural change: first, the urgency and responsibility of ‘getting it right’ (which is, not by coincidence, the theme of the CogX festival, Boster Group’s long-time thought leadership partner, for whom this talk was curated). Second, the necessity of empathy and partnership to authentically engage with diverse stakeholders and devise solutions that are attuned to their needs. And finally, the importance of legacy. Behaviour is not easily interrupted, and business leaders from every sector have a responsibility to consider the long-term impact of the change they will create to ensure it is truly sustainable. 

Leaders have a responsibility to design work that creates sustainable, positive outcomes 

Any tool, product, service or building has the potential to be used to make negative or positive impact. Global technology companies, in particular, are beginning to see the realisation of that potential at scale. In recent years, however, they have been developing ways to encourage their platforms to be intentional tools for positive change. “These very critical 21st century ideas about sustainability, about equity, about access to technology… are critical for our survival, and design can serve that,” Yves remarked, “but it’s also a big responsibility.” Creators who do not design their ideas right from the start risk setting themselves – and sometimes, entire sectors – back years or even decades. In service of this, he pioneered a model of working he calls ‘venture design’, in which he takes equity in the start-ups he works with in order to ensure his role as a stakeholder is meaningful and tied to the long-term impact of his work. 

Yves’ approach to generating positive impact – drawing on his experience in establishing new categories – focuses on conceiving entirely new systems, rather than designing better alternatives for existing (but flawed) systems. “It’s going to be a long road to get to sustainability solutions because we have a lot of embedded systems that just aren’t changing,” he said, explaining that additive, rather than subtractive, manufacturing is an area he is especially interested in. For example, one of Yves’ projects uses the 50% waste produced by timber processing to 3D print blocks of wood. “If you change the entire manufacturing process… you’re creating a new world.” 

Sumayya’s perspective is similar, having grown up in Johannesburg – a city that is “unequal by design.” We continue to see historic inequality reflected in buildings across North American and Europe, as well, where offices, restaurants and even homes have separate wings, bathrooms and even entrances for people of different ethnicities or socio-economic status. What Sumayya embraces, however, is that if architecture can be used to create and exacerbate inequalities, it can also be used to address them. She also emphasises the urgency of finding solutions to today’s crises. She and Yves both highlighted the role of empathy and stakeholder engagement in that process. 

Meaningful engagement and meaningful impact are all about empathy

Both our speakers agree: Good design requires empathy, and the ability to understand your stakeholders and how your solution will impact their lives. Sumayya expands, saying that empathy doesn’t just mean interviews or town halls with the local community. “Sometimes the stakeholders that we are working with [don’t] have the language to be able to articulate the depth of the crisis that they’re facing.” To overcome this, Sumayya experiences the places and communities she is trying to reach, observing the spaces people use and what they do there. Her Pavilion, for example, is inspired by everything from front porch steps to public canopies, learning from the architecture of “generous” spaces that convene, support and strengthen communities. “I think architecture is always an act of projection; design is always propositional, it’s always based in the future by its nature,” she adds, saying that for her, stakeholder engagement means “learning and negotiating place, rather than projecting it from the [start].”

Yves agrees, adding that the central role he thinks designers can play is to be at the service of different types of communities. He gives the example of fuseproject’s collaboration with New Story and ICON, which is ‘building’ new, 3D-printed homes for an impoverished farming community in Mexico. He talks about how the design had to start by understanding how that community cooks, collaborates and comes together in ways that are authentic to their location and culture. “We present different ideas and change them and transform them and adapt them [in response to stakeholders].” Susan agrees; this process echoes the extensive due diligence period Boster Group undertakes with all of its projects to ensure that the resulting partnerships are fit for purpose for the stakeholders on both sides of a relationship.

“There’s so much richness and so much texture in thinking from other ways of being.

– Sumayya Vally 

This also highlights the significance of intentional inclusion and the value of diversity. When stakeholders are excluded, leaders lose creativity and meaningful stories; and, as Sumayya articulates, “A whole generation of thought that could have evolved.” For this reason, it is important that diverse voices are both heard and empowered to think about how things can be structurally different, rather than expected to perpetuate the same politics that already existed. Sumayya gives the example of the Serpentine’s new ‘Support Structures for Support Structures’ fellowship – part of the legacy of her work in London.

Life after life: The legacy of creating change 

‘Support Structures for Support Structures’ was conceived in collaboration with Sumayya as a way to give back to the communities and generous architectures that had been so instrumental in informing her Pavilion and which were so incredibly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is just one example of the way she thinks about ‘social sustainability’; pieces of her Pavilion are also distributed throughout four other London neighborhoods as part of an effort on her part to create ‘new seeds of collaboration’ between the Serpentine and other London communities. To continue to mine the value of diverse voices, leaders have a responsibility to ensure those voices continue to thrive long after initial collaborations have been executed. 

“It’s important to think about how we deepen different networks in the arts.”

– Sumayya Vally 

Yves concurs, talking about how he approached circularity through his project with The Ocean Cleanup Project, which is focused on clearing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He helped the organisation design a pair of sunglasses – a cheeky nod to the many of us who have lost a pair or two to an errant wave – made from the plastic retrieved from the Patch. The proceeds from glasses sales all contribute to the Ocean Cleanup Project’s ability to collect more plastic, which allows them to manufacture more sunglasses, and so on until – as is now the case – the Project has raised enough to clear about half of the Patch. The collaboration was designed to help ensure that the Patch continues to be cleaned and pilots a new way of processing materials for other companies – building a legacy that reaches far beyond a pair of sunglasses.

Through partnerships like these, global leaders can harness creativity in service of scalable projects with meaningful legacy. Boster Group’s purpose-driven partnership work is all about understanding these relationships and pushing for deeper, more impactful results through empathy, mutual benefit and the careful consideration of long-term positive outcomes. The firm understanding of how creativity, the arts and design – led by exceptional people like Sumayya and Yves – are key contributors to this effort will become even more significant over the next 10 years as corporations, foundations and global institutions come together in partnership to get it right.

Interested in hearing more? Watch the full conversation as it happened here.