Tim Leberecht is the author of The Business Romantic, and one of today’s most original business thinkers. In a world that races towards pervasive technology, big data and the desire to quantify everything, and against the backdrop of eroding trust in capitalism, Tim Leberecht’s provocative book provides surprising insights into the emotional and social aspects of business. He argues that we underestimate the importance of romance in our lives and suggests that we can find it in and through business – by designing products, services and experiences that connect us with something greater than ourselves. Previously, he was the CMO of global design and architecture firm NBBJ, and of design consultancy Frog Design. He lives in Berlin.
“It’s not about being better than robots. It’s about beauty. Our role is to create beauty.”
German-American thinker Tim Leberecht draws a parallel between workplace robotization and low morale among staff. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of romance in business, he suggests.
Tim Leberecht is a romantic. Although as a businessman he was CMO of design and architecture firm NBBJ and of design consultancy Frog Design—both American—he argues that the race towards pervasive technology, big data, and the desire to quantify everything have led to a loss of humanity, or “romance,” in economics and finance. The author of the provocative tome The Business Romantic came to deliver a message of hope at the 9th FHH Forum. His talk, entitled Building a Human Company in the Age of Machines, rested on a single tenet: that creating beauty will help us find meaning again.
It’s hard nowadays to find beauty in the business world; automation, robots, digitalization and AI are all competing with human labor. This changing technology brings with it questions and doubt, and leads to depression in the workforce. A recent study cited by Leberecht found that only 13% of workers feel happy doing their job. And half of all employees will be replaced by AI within 20 years—a prospect welcomed by many CEOs, according to Leberecht.
He believes it’s time to make more room for the romantic, which is a truer reflection of the human soul. Doing this involves putting four principles into action. To begin with, you need to do things that may be considered unnecessary: “I once worked for a company that was the result of a merger of a large IT outsourcing firm and a boutique design firm,” Leberecht explained. A third, new brand was thus going to be launched. The new brand color was going to be orange and lots of orange balloons were ordered to mark the launch. But the board wondered if they were really necessary, and in the end they cut the balloons. The merger didn’t work out after all. “When you cut the unnecessary, you cut everything!”
The importance of intimacy
Second principle: create intimacy. In the West we spend over five hours a day on our smartphones, yet we’re lonelier than ever. Certain sources claim that in today’s societies, every adult has only one close friend. We’re in an age of social isolation. How do we design for intimacy when it’s so lacking? Leberecht recalls how in 2010 performance artist Marina Abramović held an exhibition at the MoMA in New York, where she tried to form an intimate connection with members of the public by sitting across a table from them and sharing a minute’s silence. One way to get closer is to make people take off their masks. Or, on the contrary, to put on masks. That’s what Danone did when it asked its employees to show up for a three-day meeting in fancy dress. We underestimate the power of a wig to sweep away hierarchy and reveal what’s authentic.
Third principle: Don’t be afraid of ugliness. In business there’s a whole vocabulary of positive-speak and jargon to replace the words that cause pain: “modernize” instead of “fire,” “consolidate” for “merger,” “challenge” instead of “crisis.” Leberecht laments how “one startup even says that when someone gets fired, they have ‘graduated’!” You have to say and show things the way they really are, even if they’re ugly. The brain is the ugliest part of the body, but it’s also the most magical. We’ve all been ugly at some point in our lives: as babies, or foreigners, or the new kid on the block, or when we’re drunk… All these situations where we don’t look our best. Even things that seem revolting can be seen under a noble aspect: in 2015 a militant artists’ collective exhumed the corpses of asylum-seekers who’d died on the Mediterranean, and reburied them in Berlin. “The goal was to allow them to reach their desired destination, even after their death,” Leberecht notes. It gives meaning. And that’s vital.
Lastly, the fourth principle: Suffer. “A little bit!” he adds quickly. Why do thousands of people flock to Burning Man every year, the alternative arts festival in the middle of the Nevadan desert? Why do people climb the highest peaks on Earth? Why do people bathe in the icy waters of the Arctic? Leberecht argues that this is to prove that they can survive trials and hardship. Because modern humans need to feel alive, they’ve replaced natural dangers with parachuting and bungee jumping! Or they go to Ikea! Ikea has perfected the art of frustration, with its gigantic stores and flat-pack self-assembly, turning suffering into a marketing strategy. We’re more connected than ever, yet as individuals we’re lonelier than ever; we’re drowning in an abundance of data, but the prevailing sentiment of our time is one of great loss. “Beauty can indeed save the world,” is Leberecht’s conclusion. “If we apply these four principles, and augment them by the exponential digital technologies of our time, then maybe we can be a little bit more human and live our lives more romantically.”
Click on the video to view the speaker’s interview at the Forum.
See which experts and personalities are invited to the Forum.