Arts and Culture

Why we need the power of culture to pull our planet back from the brink

culture music cellist Yo-yo Ma plays with Mexican music students before his presentation near the Americas International Bridge to highlight what unites American and Mexican cultures, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril - RC14EED2BB50

Crossing borders: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the author of this article, plays with Mexican music students Image: REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Yo-Yo Ma
Cellist, Sound Postings LLC
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Arts and Culture

  • Davos 2020 is calling for a stakeholder economy.
  • Culture can cement the idea that we are all stakeholders in a common future.
  • Political fractures are threatening liberal democracy and its institutions.

I often say to younger musicians that when they perform, they should think of the listener as the most important person in the room. This advice can be contrary to what students are taught, that the treasured values are technical perfection and stylistic authenticity. Often, we ignore the magic of performance, which only happens when there is a profound unity between composer, performer, and audience member. Those moments of unity are what we remember, and it is shared memories like this that become the building blocks of culture.

I have been thinking about the values that culture promotes as we look forward to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. It is heartening to see that on the Forum’s 50th anniversary its core DNA — the idea of a stakeholder economy — has evolved and deepened to encourage us to listen to the needs of everyone. And it could not happen at a more important moment.

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Today, we watch as the values of trust, truth, and service, values foundational to the smooth functioning of a thriving society, are undermined. Political fractures widen and grow more dangerous across the world, threatening liberal democracy and its institutions. And technological change accelerates, affecting and disrupting all our lives.

The World Economic Forum is correct in its call for leaders from business, government, and civil society to convene and build awareness, to take collective action. And the decision to open this meeting with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony reminds us all of the urgency and power of the Ode to Joy, that we are one human family.

'What is missing is hard to describe'

But I don’t think this is enough. I feel something is missing.

What is missing is hard to describe. Hard to measure. It’s something much bigger, and much smaller. It’s something we try to describe as “shared values,” but these words can seem empty today. Or we could call it “culture.” Let me see if I can explain.

Business is about value creation. But culture is about the creation of values, beginning always with trust, truth, and service. Without these values, everything we’ve thought of, invented, and built, from philosophy and art to science and nation states, would not exist — and cannot endure. This creation starts with listening, observing, touching, and tasting. Then holding, trying, and experimenting. Wondering. Loving. Remembering. Sharing. Culture is an organic process that knits us together with the flexible, durable filaments that allow us to co-exist and co-create.


It’s a process that allows — and in fact requires — contradiction. To the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, the sign of a good mind is one that can simultaneously hold two opposing thoughts. To me, this has long been the hallmark of J.S. Bach’s music: his continual effort to find the equilibrium between the objective and the empathetic is what gives us the comfort of both when we are in need. Each time we read Fitzgerald, or listen to Bach, or share a meal, or take a scientific experiment one step further, we stretch our minds to encompass more of each other; we realize that cultural force is what completes the economic and political circle.

I am now two thirds of the way through my own cultural experiment: the Bach Project. From Beirut to Bombay, Medellín to Jakarta, from the borders of the United States and Mexico to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, I play Bach’s cello suites in a single sitting, an invitation to the community to meet, to listen, and hopefully to find that transcendent unity that becomes a building block for a stronger society.

The 'Edge Effect'

But it’s more than a concert tour. In each community, I listen to people talk about what most concerns them and I ask a simple question: how is culture making their community stronger, more resilient? Our communities face challenges from natural disaster and forced migration to civil unrest and violence to environmental degradation and economic disenfranchisement. But one thing is consistent. In every community, I have met strong cultural leaders, visionaries who often sit at the edges of sectors, creating the cultural building blocks we need to address these challenges and ensure a better future.

Like Denica Flesch, a young woman I met in Jakarta, a trained economist who had worked at the World Bank and also happens to be a Word Economic Forum Global Shaper. Denica has combined her deep knowledge of economics with an understanding of culture’s ability to create trust to found SukhhaCitta, a social enterprise that connects textile artisans in rural villages across Indonesia with a global market. Denica has pioneered a new transparency standard: #MadeRight — a promise that any fabric sold by SukkhaCitta is made by artisans making a living wage, is environmentally sustainable, and supports a traditional cultural practice.


What is a Global Shaper?

Her work joins two seemingly unrelated sectors: manufacturing and culture. It echoes the kind of exchange that Fitzgerald celebrated, that we hear in Bach, and that ecologists have long understood as the “edge effect” — that where two ecosystems meet, where there is least density of life, that’s where the most new life forms exist. Denica’s work is a “cultural edge effect,” creating new connections between people and ideas. And it’s the kind of work that I see over and over again, “venture cultural capitalism,” work defined by trust, truth, and service.

Pulling together towards planetary goals

Culture creates trust, seeks truth, and asks us always to work in service of one another. It completes us. With these values as our guiding star, I believe that we can begin to connect the hyper-local on-the-ground reality to the most abstract, planetary goals, all in one uninterrupted arc, like an electric current. Maybe when we talk about “shared values” we are trying to describe that arc, that powerful connection; perhaps when we feel the absence of shared values, we are noticing gaps and schisms along that arc.

Culture and cultural acts can fill those gaps and heal those schisms, making us all stakeholders in our future.

This is why I believe that culture must work alongside politics and economics to help us to recognize our values as shared values, our own goals as common goals. That is the power of culture: it turns the “other” into “us,” connecting our most personal truths to the largest planetary goals.

In Indonesia, I learned that the national motto is Bhinneka tunggal ika: unity in diversity; in the United States, E pluribus unum: out of many, one; India: truth alone triumphs; Kenya: all pull together. Not bad for nations. But maybe we need an aspiration that isn’t national, that’s simultaneously much bigger — something that scales to the size of our planet — and much more intimate. Let us each work to build trust, to seek truth, and to act in service of one another, in our most personal relationships and for our entire planet. Because, as many have said, there is “no Planet B.”

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