The House of Beautiful Business … What defines our humanity, what future do we want, and how will we realise it?

January 24, 2019

Inspiration is rare in today’s world of relentless speed, incredible innovation, and bewildering complexity.

Yet in Lisbon I found an antidote. It’s called a house, but is more an incredible meeting of people. It has even been described as a sacred space, not dominated by machines, but by human spirit.

Business leaders, and all kinds of creative thinkers, converge here to share their dreams, passion and desires. It is where the future goes to dance. These people seek a better future for business, to look beyond today, to reach beyond the reductionist, sanitised and automated world. It is for people who believe in business as unusual. For people who believe that business can be beautiful.

It is called the House of Beautiful Business. It is a global think tank and community founded to explore the human future of business.  At its annual gathering, the House brings together a select group of 300 business and nonprofit leaders, founders, technologists, investors, designers, artists, and scientists to explore how to make business more beautiful, specifically how to lead with purpose and passion, build human companies and workplaces, and design for deeper connections in an age of machines.

It is a pop-up community to humanize business in the age of machines. It is a unique space to create positive visions for technology and humanity in a playful and intimate setting. It is a platform to experience human leadership and purpose, design for deeper connections, and prototype the future of work.

The House’s mission is to shape a more positive vision for technology, business, and humanity.

The community is hosted by The Business Romantic Society in collaboration with the BCG Henderson Institute and other partners. It wants to radically change the language, systems, and practices of business through events, publications, targeted research, and learning programs, as well as inspire a worldwide movement of humanist changemakers.

“Imagine the best house party in the world where everyone is phenomenally interesting as well as interested in talking to you, where diversity of thought and background is beautifully represented, and where you come away from a week of intense thinking, extraordinarily energized.” said my colleague Sophie Devonshire, CEO of The Caffeine Partnership, and author of Superfast.

What defines our humanity, what future do we want for ourselves, and how will we realise it? Here are some of the highlights from the most recent gathering:

The artist Helene Lundbye Petersen  drew from her “11 books,” each based on a different colour and representing a different facet of humanity from birth through love, conflict and death, and everything in between. It reminded us that before we can think about defining our desired destination, we must first address the philosophical imperative of “know thyself.”

Keira Havens, the founder of Revolution Bioengineering, talked about the possibilities of biotechnology altering the very fabric of our being — our DNA. If our foundations are potentially malleable, how solid can our human identity be? The question of defining what makes us essentially human recurred throughout the event, especially in relation to which activities could or should be ceded to AI and what remains when this is done. Mortality, empathy, sociality, vulnerability and imagination were among the essential human qualities which were debated and explored. Ultimately, the value of technology will reside not mainly in the possibility of performing current tasks faster, cheaper, or more accurately, but in enhancing or complementing our humanity and our aspirations.

Why do we do what we do?

Ethnographer Jonathan Cook explored how our behaviour is driven by more than functional and economic considerations. In particular, ritual serves to signal what is important to us and also to bridge our abstract beliefs and our concrete actions. He considered what new rituals we need, to signal what should be held sacred in a world where almost anything is possible and where boundaries of all types are being broken down. It is the deviations from economic rationality and instrumentalism which may most constitute our humanity and most deserve our attention, when considering future uses of technology.

Technology can be used to express our identity, or even allow us to commute between multiple identities without losing ourselves. Alternative identities expand the possibilities for experiencing and expressing an increasingly complex world. Pessoa might serve as a role model for digital times, in which exponential technologies such as AI, VR, or AR allow us to assume “exponential identities,” thus liberating us from the more common reductionist notion that “you are your data”. Authenticity must not be confused with consistency. Rather, it can be the freedom to have multiple, even contradictory selves. From this perspective, even the “segment of one” marketing facilitated by digital technology may be an over-simplistic model.

Social activist and change maker Gemma Mortensen, co-founder of More in Common, in conversation with Julia von Winterfeldt, the founder and CEO of Soulworx (who also brought her Humans of New Work exhibition to the House) stressed the importance of giving people agency in overcoming growing social divides. She proposed micro-moments of attachment to foster a sense of belonging and connection. As an example, she referred to the “Great Get Together” initiative in the UK that invited millions of people across the country to spend the weekend with their neighbours. The need for agency also fundamentally changes the role of leaders, shifting from control and coercion to inspiration and humility: “Leadership is no longer about you, but it’s about your being in service of a greater cause,” Mortensen said.

What stories do we need?

Novelist Aditi Khorana talked about how people understand the world and align on a common worldview through storytelling. She described how stories are defined by how they answer the three timeless meta-questions of who are we, what we want, and what we must do to attain it? Many of the narratives we have inherited are about struggling to explore and survive in a hostile world, against the perils of nature and scarcity. In a world characterized by economic excess, domination of nature and virtually infinite information, what are the narratives we need to individually and collectively make sense of and shape the world?

In an increasingly polarized world we must also think about whose stories we want to listen to. Anne Kjaer Riechert, the co-founder and CEO of the ReDi School of Digital Integration, showed that her social enterprise mission was successfully realized, not through a brilliant business plan, but by placing the people she tried to serve — those seeking asylum in Germany — in the center of the process. Inclusion and the narratives that emerge from it were the key to success.

We also learned from filmmaker Arun Chaudhary, who had served in the Obama White House and worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign, that the core of stories which effectively move people is authenticity — the unfettered realness of humans. In that sense, only what is truly ugly can be beautiful. Everything else is cosmetic. This hammers home the importance of rediscovering, in a world of economic demands and technological distortion, what authentic humanity looks and feels like. Chaudhary also made the point that “nothing is beautiful and only little is true.” Fake news, he argued, has always been there and has only been amplified by algorithms: “Objectivity is a business model,” he argued, but certainly not a realistic aim, let alone, a human virtue. This may sound cynical but is in fact a message of hope for brands and the marketers shaping them: perhaps what is needed is not so much an elusive, unattainable truth as much as new and better illusions?

How can we first imagine the future?

Of course, every bold vision of the future will first be dismissed as illusion. In a time when advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to paraphrase science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, humans must act as illusionists who do not seek perfect clarity but rather seek meaning in the fogginess of future possibilities.

Judith Wallenstein, Partner at BCG, said that the future of work is not an inevitability to be forecast and accepted or defended against, but rather a broad set of possibilities which can be shaped and realised by humans, if they can first be imagined. If that imagination is informed by merely changing a few variables in our status quo, we will limit or deceive ourselves. If that imagination is informed by films and literature painting coherent pictures of very different futures, it is much less likely to be constrained. Together, we explored alternative visions of the future through the lens of science fiction and asked ourselves what defines the essence of each tableau, what would make each more or less humane, how it could proactively be brought about, and what it would mean for us individually as leaders and knowledge workers.

How can we embrace vulnerability?

The comfortable stability of life in a large corporation may make technological change and discontinuity seem scary and unpalatable. From this perspective, the degeneration of society into a gig economy may seem like the least desirable future. And it may tempt us to define our strategy as ameliorating change and insecurity.

Gianpiero Petriglieri declared that the majority of the current gig economy is actually knowledge work, and that passion, vulnerability, and autonomy provide the motive force for many nomadic workers. While we might engineer social safety nets to ease transitions, vulnerability and change may actually bring out some of our most human qualities and abilities.

Traditional employment conceives of our “career” as a linear and predictable progression of responsibilities, with the occasional setback, from adventure to stability to independence. The freelancer, however, experiences these stages all at once, in a constantly precarious manner that is both exhilarating and exhausting. But the reward is rich. For the freelance worker, “life is the ongoing journey of becoming one’s work,” as Petriglieri put it.

Innovation specialist Laurent Haug provided an immediately actionable tool for the mobile freelancer worker, allowing them to identify, measure, and trade their currencies, which, aside from money, include reputation, relationships, identity, access, experience, and other intangible assets. “You are a platform,” Haug insisted. His framework opened up the possibility of trading in these alternative currencies, thereby establishing entirely new marketplaces and types of social status. In the future, our value may hinge on the ideas we share, the relationships we cultivate, and the experiences we create.

How can technology make us more human?

Certainly, technology, especially AI, can eliminate the routine tasks that structure our working lives. In some plausible scenarios, there may simply be less “work” to go around. While dissolving familiar structures could be disorienting, in principle, it could also liberate us to focus on our higher aspirations. Dennis Mortensen, the founder and CEO of x.ai, sees a potential world of humans aided by an army of digital assistants taking care of mundane administrative jobs, thereby freeing up time for human enrichment. However, we would need to change how economics works to be able to realize a society based on leisure, self-development or interpersonal services.

There are dangers, too. As we increasingly anthropomorphise technology, we tend also to “botify” and optimise humans. Digital anthropologist and emotional intelligence expert Pamela Pavliscak describes how this trend should give us pause and rather inspire a re-humanization of humans in our accelerated digital times. In fact, a theme running throughout the conference was the importance of reconciling purpose and pace.

“Superfast” author Sophie Devonshire has interviewed more than 100 CEOs and business leaders, and her main take-away was this: the stronger the purpose, the faster the decision-making. Purpose strengthens intuition, and intuition is always one step ahead of rational assessment and analytics.

Or in the words of Jo Burston, the founder of Rare Birds: “Formerly, you got fired when you didn’t have the data. Tomorrow, you will get fired when you don’t have intuition.”

A call to reflection

The relentless pace of technology is generally linked to a call to action. Learn, catch up, and self-disrupt before becoming a victim of disruption. An implicit learning from the House of Beautiful Business should be to balance this with a call to reflection.

We should not be the passive recipients of an imposed or inevitable future. Rather, we are the agents of change, which should be designed to further our own human ends. Thrust, our ability to accelerate, must be matched by vector, our ability to steer. But our humanity is not so simple as to be self-evident. It must be distilled from our daily routines and distractions and re-conceived in a new context.

We are at a historic turning point where reflection on who we are and what we want becomes paramount to successfully exploiting technology.

In 2016 The House got together to create a Manifesto of Beautiful Business. In an age of AI, data, and automation, what will the future human organization look like? And what exactly will make it human? It describes the values and principles of a business that truly embraces radical humanism, based on a much broader notion of what it means to be human at work:

We thrive in the tension between profit and meaning.

  • We may profit, but our primary motivation is not the pursuit of profit.
  • We believe that the choice between profitability and humanity in business is based upon a false distinction. The process of going through struggles of meaningful work is as valuable as the end product that it creates.
  • Annual reports should consist of epic stories of struggle and transformation, with financial income as a footnote.
  • We place less emphasis on individual performance than on our collective coherence and progress.
  • We seek to liberate the potential within ourselves through our work, and within others through our trade with them.
  • Good jobs are jobs that make us come alive.

We trust that by creating a more human experience of work, we will create growth and find opportunity.

  • We believe in the value of beauty and fulfillment for their own sake, but also understand that emotion is the fuel that propels the engines of business.
  • When people say that our work is warm and fuzzy, we accept it as a compliment.
  • We seek to create market disruption on a deeper level, for the purpose of enlightenment, not just for the creation of profit.

We respect cycles of life and honor the disruptions to those cycles.

  • We develop strategies that account for long-term needs, not just short-term demands.
  • We balance short-term gains with sacrifices enabling development over the long term.
  • We recognize that business itself follows a cycle, so we do not make short-term decisions. We weather the storms, knowing that what goes down will come up.
  • We look to the past for inspiration as much as to the future.
  • We see that work fits within larger cycles of life, which can include occasions for celebration, but also times of struggle and mourning. Providing space for the recognition of these experiences makes our workplace stronger.
  • We seek business advantage by cultivating the power of negative space. We believe that down time is as productive as time on the clock. We understand that the human mind solves problems while it is taking a break, sleeping, and on vacation, in ways that it never could while sitting at a desk.
  • We are mindful of the need for team members to terminate or take a break from professional relationships in a way that respects both individual and collective needs.

We pay attention to culture and context.

  • The value of goods and services is relative to cultural beliefs and emotional feelings.
  • We examine cultural systems of behavior.
  • We seek to involve ourselves in service to the larger community within which our work is situated.
  • We pay attention to small details, looking for the big insights hidden within them.
  • We pay attention to product trends within their cultural context, not just as fads in isolation.
  • We are a tribe.
  • We learn from and serve other tribes.

We value service and sacrifice from passion rather than from enforced policy.

  • We believe in the worth of what we do so much that we would do our work even if we weren’t paid for it.
  • We seek opportunities for voluntary suffering in our work, knowing that what we create through that work will be made the richer for it, and understanding that the sacrifice will not go beyond humane limits. This suffering is not expected from us, however, and cannot be demanded of us. It should be given only when we feel called to do so.
  • We are allowed to bring our pain to work and express it.
  • We look for opportunities to give while at work, not just to receive.

We are curious and questioning.

  • We acknowledge what we don’t know, seeking to fill gaps in our understanding.
  • We recognize that there are some things we will never know for sure, and embrace the worth of mystery, which arouses our curiosity even as it rebuffs efforts at detailed scrutiny.
  • Before we seek to provide answers, we seek to understand our questions.
  • We ask a full range of questions, and match them to research methods especially suited to those questions.
  • We recognize that both quantitative and qualitative research methods contribute to human understanding, and seek to use both, with each informing and deepening the practice of the other.
  • We haven’t settled all our questions: Should we pursue exponential growth? Are we seeking sustainability? Are we trying to create a revolution, evolution, or something else? How can we work with metrics in a way that does not strip the humanity out of our work? What are the alternatives to performance reviews? Are we trying to achieve mystical transcendence, or just trying to get people to feel as if they are part of something larger than their own individual ambitions?

We pay attention to the intangibles.

  • We believe that the value of metrics must be put in practice alongside non-quantitative, non-standardized systems of information, analysis, and meaning.
  • We don’t allow a job description to restrict the work we contribute or how we compensate.
  • We believe in the power of mystery.
  • We listen to what is not said.
  • We need time at work that is outside of purposeful structure, in order to wander.
  • We don’t allow a job description to restrict the work we contribute.
  • Being who we are is as important to our work as doing what we do.

We value flexibility in how, when, and for what compensation we work.

  • Our business requires more than financial income to keep it going. We sustain each other through emotional investment as well.
  • We know that financial compensation, though it should be fair, is not what drives the most fruitful work.
  • We believe that professional communities should organize themselves in such a way as to support the ongoing wellness of their members, not just to advance their financial income.
  • Even as there is flexibility in compensation, there needs to be clarity about the terms when they are set.

We are resilient.

  • We design our work in order to remain relevant in the long run.
  • We do not sacrifice our long-term viability for the sake of short-term gains.
  • We do not wait until we break to take a break.

We are biological, natural creatures, not machines.

  • Biological creatures are inclined to work from their own intrinsic drives, including the drive to create and maintain social connections.
  • Biological creatures have complex needs, which include interaction with stimulating environments.
  • We formally acknowledge that we cannot be expected to perform at the same level, in the same environment, at set times. Forcing this predictability steamrolls our natural lives.
  • We are not physical tools to be owned and used for others’ purposes as if we are merely objects.
  • We are more than just our minds, algorithmic networks for information processing that can be replicated or uploaded into databases.
  • As human beings, we are bodies and minds integrated together. Our bodies cannot work when our minds disengage from the job. Neither can we properly solve problems and engage in acts of economic creation when our bodies are not allowed the conditions they need to behave naturally. We therefore can only be successful when we are allowed to come to work as complete human beings.
  • Our humanity cannot be reduced. It emerges as a result of our complete selves.
  • We need fresh air, food, exercise, and meditation.
  • As organic creatures, we need freedom to behave naturally, understanding that there are mysterious processes that bring us to health and success which cannot be made more efficient or micromanaged.
  • The ability to refuse to work is a critical part of our humanity. Human work is work that we can refuse.

We are thick, dense, and inefficient.

  • We strive for thick presence rather than lean distribution.
  • As a counterbalance to artificial intelligence, we can be thick in the sense of being stupid — appropriately stupefied by an overwhelming experience that cannot be experienced by an algorithmic network.
  • We believe in the strength of strong ties, in the attachment that comes from spending more time on something or with someone than necessary.
  • We consider pure efficiency a waste of time.
  • We embrace wasting time as the prerequisite to intimacy, creativity, and innovation.

We shift from the rational to the intuitive.

  • While quantitative metrics are a valuable tool, there are many things that cannot be understood just by being counted.
  • We trust people’s ability to participate in coherent systems of meaning even if they do not consciously understand them.
  • Human minds are complex, involving subjective methods of decision making that operate effectively outside of the rules of logic.
  • We don’t follow a single plan from start to finish. Our work is iterative. We learn what works by trying things that fail.
  • Every now and then, we will be called into a quest, without even understanding what it is that we are seeking.

We work with purpose and strive for significance.

  • When one of us shows up for work out of obligation or habit, it is a sign of failure.
  • We need to find a match between our tasks and our values.
  • When we hear ourselves justifying an action that is not in accord with our values, “just this once,” we know that we are headed in the wrong direction, because one departure from our values will lead to other departures, and break trust with each other, as well as those we work for.
  • None of our work is mundane. The smallest task in our projects is sacred.
  • We are empowered to chase down spontaneous tangents. We bring positive energy and compassion to our work.
  • We support each other’s ideas and passions, even if we don’t understand right away how they will fit into the business.
  • We are attentive to each other’s strengths, vulnerabilities, and struggles.
  • We treat each other as members of a community, depending upon each other.
  • We are equals with each other and with those whom we serve.
  • We provide each other with positive, affirmative feedback.

Our work is transformational for the people involved, not just about getting bigger.

  • The minute that scaling up compromises the experience we seek to create is the moment it is time for us to begin scaling back.
  • We are transformed ourselves, through our work.
  • We transform our clients, through the experiences we create through our work for them.
  • We transform the companies our clients work for, through our example.
  • We transform the consumers of the products and services of our clients, through our service.

We look for new frames.

  • We honor the advantages of conventional perspectives even as we subject them to critical examination and look for alternatives.
  • We find solutions to enduring problems by looking at them from new perspectives, re-examining fundamental premises that others take for granted.
  • We seek out deeper dimensions to those commercial landscapes that others perceive as flat.
  • We identify unnecessary legacies in professional culture and look for ways to transcend them.

We believe that the most beautiful route brings more value than the most direct route, and that we will find productivity through obliquity.

  • The cultural landscape in which business operates is not flat. Straight lines are often not the most effective routes to follow.
  • Our projects are not just problem-solving exercises in which the ends justify the means. The experiences we have along the way are as important as our arrival at the end of the path.
  • Our relationship with work is sensual.
  • We create aesthetic worth by taking time to invest value in our work.
  • We look for artistic expression and symbolic interpretation of industrial processes.
  • We won’t always do things the same way. We seek deviation even from the most successful routines.
  • Our work is purposefully inconsistent.

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