Social Innovation

How arts and culture can serve as a force for social change

Wanuri Kahiu Image: Boris Baldinger/World Economic Forum

Pavitra Raja
Community Lead, CEO Action Group On Nature Pillar, World Economic Forum
Linda Peterhans
Specialist, Cultural Leaders, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Social Innovation

  • These 5 initiatives showcase how social innovators and artists around the world are transforming society.
  • Examples include redefining storytelling, changing stereotypes and giving a voice to the voiceless.

The world of art needs more social enterprise, and the world of social enterprise needs more art. Ever since the World Economic Forum’s Cultural Leaders network and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship launched the Centred-Self collaboration earlier this year, it struck us that both fields have only just scratched the surface of how interacting with one other could lead world-changing breakthroughs.

The Schwab Foundation’s community of leading social innovators and the Forum’s Cultural leaders’ network can serve as role models who are leveraging the power of creativity and storytelling to address the world’s greatest problems.

Here are five initiatives from the Schwab Foundation community and the Forum’s Cultural Leaders network that showcase how arts and culture serve as a force for social change.

Redefining storytelling

Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan filmmaker whose award-winning stories and films have received international acclaim and screened at more than 100 film festivals worldwide. Kahiu is an advocate for images of fun, fierce and frivolous African images, and her film Rafiki was the first Kenyan film to be invited to Cannes Film Festival, in 2019.

When her film was banned by her government for depicting a joyful lesbian love story, Kahiu became an unintentional leader for freedom of expression, fighting a constitutional case for her rights. At the World Economic Forum in Davos 2020, she discussed her strive in fighting for freedom of expression for artists, activists and social change makers around the world. “Freedom of expression is not a luxury. It’s a freedom,” Kahiu said.


Transforming communities

More than 30 years ago, Schwab Foundation Awardee Tim Jones founded Artscape, a not-for-profit urban development organization that makes space for creativity and transforms communities.

Artscapes involves clustering creative people together in real-estate projects that serve the needs of the arts and cultural community and advance multiple public-policy objectives, private development interests, community and neighbourhood aspirations and philanthropic missions.

"Art plays a crucial role in shaping and renewing culture: it can shine a spotlight on truth, create moments of joy or inspire us to act. In times like these, we need to empower artists like never before to help us reflect, to rekindle our hope and to imagine a better future,” Jones said.

Artscape develops and manages unique cultural facilities—including community cultural hubs, multi-purpose creative spaces and artist live/work projects—and delivering programs and services that promote creativity and cultural space development. Today, Artscape is recognized as an international leader in creative placemaking, a practice that leverages the power of art, culture and creativity to catalyze change, growth and transformation in communities.


What is a Cultural Leader?

Building a more inclusive world

Thando Hopa is a South African model, diversity activist and lawyer. In April 2019 she made history by becoming the first person with albinism to appear on the cover of Vogue.

In her inspiring talk at Davos 2020, she discussed how issues around race, identity and self-perception were investigated in a 1940s experiment that told children to attribute qualities to a series of dolls that were identical except for colour, and then asked them to select the doll they thought represented them.

For Hopa, this experiment has a particularly personal relevance: as a black African woman with albinism, which doll should she identify with, she asks?

“True inclusivity means finding space for everyone, affording everyone respect and giving people agency over their sense of identity,” she said. Hopa is now paving the way for a more inclusive representation in media that benefit and support all bodies and identities.


Changing stereotypes

When Schwab Foundation Awardee Andreas Heinecke worked at a radio station in the 1980s, he was asked to re-train a journalist who had become blind after a car accident. "He had all these images about this person in his head," said his colleague, Annkatrin Meyer, the head of production of Dialogue in the Dark. "Then the door opened and there was this handsome young guy, asking him if he wanted a coffee, and he was confronted with all of his stereotypes".

Shortly after, Heinecke established the Dialogue in the Dark to challenge society's perceptions of blindness. His organisation, Dialogue Social Enterprise, offers exhibitions and business training in total darkness, creating jobs for the blind, disabled and disadvantaged worldwide. Its exhibition uses blind guides to lead visitors through settings in total darkness where they learn to interact without sight, helping change mindsets on disability. More than 7 million visitors from 30 countries have experienced the exhibition, giving more than 7,000 blind people jobs since 1988.

In his Agenda article for the World Economic Forum, Heinecke wrote that it’s time for more “Artepreneurs” – a term, he says, “that can refer to people who pursue their social mission through artistic means and create models that are innovative, scalable and measurable”.

Giving a voice to the voiceless

Rena Effendi is an Azerbaijani award-winning photographer whose work portrays the socioeconomic effects of globalization on marginalized communities around the world and celebrates the strength of the human spirit.

Effendi dedicated her session at Davos 2020 to telling the personal story of one individual, a poignant story of a 50-year old man who fought to rescue his seven orphaned grandchildren in Syria and whom he had never met.

There is a reason why Rena Effendi wanted to share his story. As we rely more on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, she explained, we lose empathy. "Faces disappear behind data – it is my job to bring those faces back," she said in her moving talk.


The three women artists above belong to the New Narratives Lab, a year-long fellowship dedicated to fostering a new and diverse generation of Cultural Leaders to drive social change. Similarly, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship provides a three-year programme to support an under-recognized movement of people who are developing innovative mechanisms to deliver social or environmental good.

As we continue to bring together both these networks of passionate, driven individuals using their ingenuity to tackle the world’s greatest problems, we are proud to provide them with a safe space to get inspired, lead with empathy and discuss their unique challenges as they continue driving change.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Learn more about the Schwab Foundation and nominate a Social Innovators of the Year 2021 here.

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