Seeing the drive for innovation in sustainability through the lens of beauty

Please indulge me as we move into a different way of thinking, as we consider how we can and often do aspire for ambitious action on sustainability. This isn’t about new buzz words or new branding schemes to further confuse those involved in this ubiquitous and all-encompassing space; nor is this about how to engage with grumpy executives. It is about us, as passionate people, and how we can continue to be driven to be truly creative, inspired and good people. It’s about wanting to be in many more of those rare situations that have given us goose bumps. It is about beauty.

Whether from an epiphany moment such as Ray Anderson’s “spear in the chest”, an everyday activity such as a client discussion that we know is moving in the right direction, or something new and incredibly out of the blue; beauty drives us to be more and better than how we currently see ourselves. It may very well be the most positive, constructive, and thought-provoking driver for disruptive ‘do different’ (rather than ‘do better’) behavior.

Beauty engages us, intrigues us, and makes us feel as though we want to see and do more – so as to be inspired and to help us understand how we can become better thinking, doing and inspiring people.

“What is beautiful?” seems less of an important question to address than understanding the degree to which we see beauty in the world, and if/how we are both inspired and attempt to emulate these twinkles of brilliance through others spheres of our lives. Many times I have caught myself getting into mindsets of mostly considering what was wrong with a practice, situation or system; rather than focusing on what is working well (as practiced with appreciative inquiry) and how to do things differently – i.e. how to  change the game through concepts such as biomimicry, rather than incremental considerations.

I was recently inspired by The Artist, a movie whose concept interested me greatly given my love for simple stories and old fashioned romance. But I was also a bit skeptical about how a silent movie could truly engage people, and have the qualities of an Oscar-winning movie. Despite seeing the movie on a plane, and my initial mindset, the movie provided me with a tremendous sense of joy and optimism.

The Artist was a perfect example of how beauty allowed for the total package to be valued at much more than the sum of its parts, and unlike many of the other Oscar-nominated films of the year (many of which were very entertaining) this brought about a truly unique and powerful emotional response. It was as if it was the first time casting my eyes upon La Grande Jatte, feeling the yearning that came from reading Love in the Time of Cholera, tasting my mother’s unmistakably own seafood chowder, or melting to the seductive voice of Emily Haines. After watching it, I knew that this movie deserved all of its accolades, and will be remembered.

As an uneasy sustainability thinker, aspiring inspirer and occasional doer, there have been new and powerful sustainability concepts such as integrated reporting,  governance and materiality that I (and many other experienced practitioners) have ‘deep dived’ in recent years.  I have even crafted new tools, research pieces and practice methodologies to help improve business approaches towards sustainability. These dives came as a result of both passion and necessity and while they will likely continue to be important, there will be newer and better concepts that I hope to discover, share, refine and integrate that will sometimes come as a result of serendipitous inspiration.

A completely unrelated and unexpected event inspired me to write my first ever online editorial / thought piece, and got me to think about beauty as a critical aspect of sustainability and innovation, by applying it in a very broad and intentionally ambiguous way. Now, as a result, I cannot fathom a mindset that is more critical and interesting to approach than what will undoubtedly be an endless search for beauty, and the inspiration, out-of-box thinking and ambition that it will bring.
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Wesley Gee is a Senior Sustainability Consultant at Stantec Consulting Ltd, supporting many organizations (including Stantec) in identifying focused and ambitious approaches towards sustainability. Wesley is also Board Chair of AIESEC York and the Canadian Baha’i Business Forum, father of a beautiful 2 year old daughter, and proud supporter of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series as an occasional facilitator.

  • I find your article very profound, insightful and inspiring, dear Wesley. Couldn’t agree more with some of your thoughts.
    Yet, your remarks make it clear to me that you are a heart-driven person, even though you sail through the never easy or predictable worlds of businesses, sustainability and innovation, where rationalizing concepts and doing things are far more appreciated than feeling sentiments.
    These are very inspiring notes about your appreciation of Beauty, which is one of the three very fundamental types of results or end states that humans beings are allowed to get and appreciate as outcome of human and non human processes (such as nature’s). The other two are Love and Harmony.
    Anyway, this is tricky, because when you talk about Beauty, you are dealing about Harmony of the form and this is often expressed with Loving manifestations. Your note, for instance is full of these three virtuous items. Another way to look at this is realizing that Beauty is highly regarded and self evident for the appreciative, loving, soul while rational thinkers have devoted substantial time and effort trying to determine Beauty’s standards, parameters or even equations. The insatiable search for formulas and equations for Golden Ratios, Fibonacci Sequences and other complex rationalizations of science with regards of the architecture of Beauty is a nice but pretty worthless quest. We all agree that Beauty is something very difficult to agree upon or standardize on reliable parameters.
    Nature offers by far, the most spectacular examples of beauty: just look for example the magnificence of the see, a stared night or a field of flowers or grain. Man can only mimic the magnificence of beauty in nature. Not the Mona Lisa, neither the Venus of Milo can come close to the beauty of a pretty young woman. The best, most elegant house or temple cannot compete with the imposing presence of many nature wonders such as forests, canyons or mountain chains. And yet, man mimics nature in many ways and feels happy, productive, rewarded and even wise on doing so. Man has become even presumptuous at it. We even sometime think we are some sort of “little gods” and become cocky, presumptuous with our doings. And yet we can be very appreciative of our results: we can stare at some of our outcomes, like buildings, highways, industries, resorts, casinos, cruisers, space shuttles, car fleets, machinery, paintings, artwork and crafts, but yet we need to realize the extremely high costs that man, most of nature’s species, the atmosphere, seas, rivers, forests, jungles, snow peaks, glaciers -namely our whole planet, are paying for these crappy human misadventures. Just look at our dumps, favelas, refugee camps, islands of waste, junk foods, drugs, pornography, cruel never ending wars, human trafficking, genoma experiments on animals and foods… well, lets stop here, the list is very long.
    So at the end, I think that at the side of your message, it lies mine: let’s try to recover the true Beauty and Loving Harmony. Not only as business people, as men and women who need to live, love and leave some space for our children, we need to recover common sense and go back and regain a basic appreciation of what Beauty truly means for the world. And lovingly act upon those simple, yet powerful guidelines.

    Cheers !