Empathy, Museums, and Design Thinking Societal Progress

April 21, 2014

Human behavior flows from three main sources: Desire, emotions, and knowledge. –Plato

As I type these words, I am taking a break from my coursework with the closest of my 12,000+ classmates from 148 countries around the world who are busy conducting a global brain-storming session for the greater good of the society. “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation” is a seven-week “Design-Thinking,” or “Human-Centric Design” problem solving exercise co-created by IDEO.org and +Acumen that encourages participants to form local teams to create solutions for social problems such as encouraging low-income families to save a little more each week, or enabling more young people to become social entrepreneurs (PlusAcumen 2014; IDEO.org 2014).

Global initiatives such as this course highlight an online learning landscape where “knowledge” is open sourced for those who are on the path to become social innovators. However, what brings a global community of problem solvers together is not only the availability of content, but it is a “desire to act” by putting knowledge into good use to contribute to social progress. An “emotion,” which is as old as the humanity’s most profound problems such as political conflicts, economic growth, and sharing of natural resources, is a potent antidote for its powers to change behavior, and re-emerges in the social innovation domain where it is being systematically utilized around the globe as a catalyst for societal progress.

Empathy, our inherent ability to share someone else’s feelings, is a foundational strength observed in successful social and business entrepreneurs, and is also being recognized for its applicability as a professional problem-solving skill as part of the popular Design-Thinking method (Ashoka 2014; d.school 2014; HCD Toolkit 2014). Empathy also surfaces through the aspirations of our Millennial generation for a society where there are more purpose-driven, socially and environmentally responsible institutions mindful of the “big picture,” and jobs that contribute to this world-view. Employers and educational institutions that seek and foster competency in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines seem to be in agreement that soft-skills such as empathy is important to sustain economic growth through a workforce that is competent, but also has capacity to collaborate and create original ideas (Csikszentmihalyi 1997, 12; Van der Ploeg and White 2014).

Our world faces an increasing need for empathy, not only to effectively utilize and create new problem solving methods to design better products, services, and mechanisms for our communities and our planet, but also to inspire a next generation of global citizens who are mindful of the big-picture no matter which career choices they make, and inspire decision makers to think creatively, collaborate, and make wise decisions (Swanbrow 2010; AshokaU 2014, 121). It is true that empathy is a natural ability. However, activating and unleashing it might require a more systematic approach collectively undertaken by formal and informal education institutions through creative alliances with other industries, especially if the expectation is to utilize this skill for a specific set of entrepreneurial goals.

This momentum deserves a closer examination by any public institution with a mission to serve the society, as their sustainability in the long run might depend on it. Understanding what triggers empathy, how it is reflected through individual, social, or institutional behavior, and how it can be cultivated and harnessed as entrepreneurial skills such as creative thinking, communication, teamwork, and leadership, will be the sign of those institutions that will cause positive societal progress and remain relevant to the society in the 21st century.

Museums can play a critical role as informal learning platforms as being safe places for unique and authentic experiences of empathy, by leveraging their strengths in collections and storytelling, and acting as incubators incorporating trans-disciplinary research, experiential learning, and multi-cultural dialogue to foster empathic and creative thinking skills with the goal of positive behavior change, and societal progress.

Empathy & Connecting to the Big Picture

Storytellers and artists have explored empathy long before writing was invented, and wise people throughout history utilized it when putting their knowledge into action to address social problems. Only recently scientists began to understand where in our brain the feeling of empathy appears, and that it can be learned and nurtured towards positive behavior change, a critical step towards societal progress. As empathy has found its many reflections through arts and humanities for thousands of years, cultural institutions such as museums took upon the task to progressively make these treasures accessible to people. Museums should expand their invaluable contributions to public education by aligning themselves with emerging trends and requirements in social innovation and business entrepreneurship and bring empathy to public discourse as a problem-solving tool that can address societal problems.

Empathy can be many things and the domains where it can be applied vary accordingly. If it is not to feel understanding and compassion for another, it is an instinctive survival tool that has become an integral part of our nature. We use the soft, nurturing side of empathy to care for our newborn and our elderly, to tell compelling stories to transfer our knowledge and wisdom, to create and enjoy art, and to remain social beings by trying to understand and relate to others. We also use empathy when hunting, not only for food and animals, but also for ideas in the business world. It is a way for us to stay ahead in the game by thinking like another to predict the next steps ahead (R. Root-Bernstein and M. Root-Bernstein 2011a, 182-201; Csikszentmihalyi 1997, 316-42; Gokcigdem 2014). There is an increasing awareness and exploration of empathy and its applications not only in arts, sciences, literature, or performing arts, but also in politics and governance to solve global environmental challenges such as the climate change. An interesting study commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department looks into how the content of illustrated children’s books published in Arabic in the Middle East might contribute to tolerance that could help alleviate societal problems such as political conflicts, and war (Zellman, Martini, and Perlman 2011).

Dr. Root-Bernstein, a professor of Physiology at the Michigan State University, and the co-author of Sparks of Genius, argues; “Empathizing is a critical imaginative skill, one of the thinking tools common to creative individuals across the arts and sciences, in any and every kind of work. First and foremost, empathizing involves recognizing the emotional state of other people (including other living beings, as well as inanimate materials), putting yourself in their place, seeing the world through their eyes. Stories, drawings, music and other arts have been exploiting our capacity for empathy for thousands of years. In the last few decades, neuroscience has confirmed that the brain has “intricate circuitry for understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings” (R. Root-Bernstein and M. Root-Bernstein 2011b). Understanding the many ways in which arts and crafts can make innovation in sciences and engineering possible, would enable the society to develop the full potential of students in those fields (R. Root-Bernstein and M. Root-Bernstein 2013).

Empathy is an important aspect of connecting to the “big-picture” by closing the artificial gap between arts and sciences, which equally benefit from imagination, and seeing the Universe within and around us as parts of a whole. This holistic view of the Universe is known to have transformative powers towards positive behavior change, and has been utilized by many spiritual traditions. Inspirational thought leaders around the world have long been arguing for empathy, some based upon major personal life experiences after which, superficial issues did not matter anymore, and what mattered was what was in your heart; which was an inherent wisdom that we are all part of a whole, and tolerance and empathy are essential to sustain and celebrate this unity (Kelley and Kelley 2013; Senge et al. 2004; Goleman 2005). Emotional Intelligence, Learning Organization, Systems Thinking, Theory U, and Design-Thinking, are examples of this worldview that find implementations in corporate, educational, and non-profit institutions that take the “whole human” and the “greater whole” into account, and value empathy as a tool that might enable people with a holistic worldview. There seems to be a collective understanding that knowledge should be augmented with wisdom and empathy to benefit the whole. However, as Peter Senge reflects in his Fifth Discipline, on the practicality of creating such empathetic experiences leading to wisdom, where a true dialogue between the individual and the Universe occurs is a rare phenomenon, “a product of circumstance rather than systematic effort and disciplined practice” (Senge 2006, 222).

As nations are racing to create knowledge societies that are built upon the skills offered by STEM disciplines, the role of human behavior remains little explored as a critical element in societal progress. “What makes behavior change, and what makes us act?” are still central questions that could help define, or predict the outcome of social and economic development projects and policies around the world. While investing in empowering individuals with infrastructure, content, technologies, and jobs, we also need to pay attention to what knowledge will mean to these individuals within an increasingly virtually-connected world, how will they use it, and how will they interact with each other when faced with global problems. Will they be able to collaborate, and look through each other’s eyes to identify core problems and make wise decisions when it comes to solving them? Will they be able to think creatively and come up with original ideas, and analyze such ideas investigating them through multiple perspectives, always keeping the “big-picture” in mind? Achieving an awareness of our “connectedness” to a larger picture has long been a challenge faced by humanity. Although there are many paths leading to it, empathy has always been a critical element, and the arrival at this awareness is often described as a profound, enlightening, and liberating experience that intimately connects us not only to the Universe around us, but also within. Museums have all the right tools to bring to life and let visitors explore for themselves what empathy might have meant to our predecessors in solving behavioral and social problems, and what potential it can present for our collective future.

Empathy & Social Innovation

Global social innovation initiatives and independent on-line platforms share a common goal to raise awareness on empathy for its applicability to solve various societal challenges. Just like empathy can be many things, its applications can also serve to a wide spectrum of social issues on various domains such as; bullying at schools and playgrounds, corporate philanthropy, health care and care giving, policy-making, governance and conflict resolution.

Ashoka, a network of 3,000 social entrepreneurs around the globe is a leading entity advocating empathy and social innovation through fellowships, community building, and other programs, and has been in operation for thirty years. Ashoka envisions a global community of “changemakers” that responds quickly and effectively to social challenges, and one where each individual has the freedom, confidence, and societal support to address any social problem. Throughout its development Ashoka leadership discovered core entrepreneurial skills that exist within this community. Specifically, they identified universal entrepreneurial strengths as teamwork, initiative, leadership, and one that is foundational to the rest: Empathy. This led to the Ashoka’s “Start Empathy” initiative. “Start Empathy” aims to elevate empathy as a key 21st century skill in our schools, our homes, and our communities, and is an online platform that informs and empowers its community with tools and resources compiled from a variety of experts, social innovators or “changemakers” and institutions on how empathy can be nurtured and utilized for social good (Ashoka 2014; Changemakers 2014; Start Empathy 2014).

Another successful empathy initiative for social progress has been successfully pioneered by Mary Gordon through the Roots of Empathy, an empathy-building program in operation since 1969 with a goal to build caring, peaceful and civil societies, and advocates that empathy can be unleashed in classroom setting where babies act as teachers (Roots of Empathy 2014).

The Greater Good Science Center at University of California Berkeley utilizes the results of academic and scientific studies to promote empathy as a tool for happiness, mindfulness, and wellbeing through seminars and workshops catered to students, educators, and professionals (Greater Good Science Center 2014). The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, an online platform established by Edwin Rutsch, facilitates multiple conversations on empathy, exploring how it can be nurtured and reflected in a variety of domains such as politics, governance, music, arts, poetry, education, and interfaith dialogue (Culture of Empathy 2014). Roman Krznaric, a philosopher and a lecturer at the School of Life based in the U.K. leads an Empathy Revolution, where the first on-line Empathy Library and an upcoming Empathy Museum in the works support his argument that the creation of a more empathetic society begins with individuals and they should be provided with a variety of resources and experiential learning opportunities on this path (Empathy Library 2014; Krznaric 2014).

Initially implemented to cater to a business need, the Design-Thinking method which begins with the first step of “Empathy” was originally used to develop popular consumer products such as the first Apple mouse, and now is being used worldwide to tackle social issues. Here, this soft skill is used to “listen” to better understand and gain insight into a real world problem with the goal of designing a sustainable solution. This method can be used not only when developing products and services for large and small corporations that are for-profit, but also can be utilized to unleash the creative potential in any individual who is willing to contribute to positive social change and progress around the world through social entrepreneurship initiatives. I believe that empathy is not only the first step but acts as an adhesive throughout the process by continuously inspiring participants to stay on task until the most viable solution is found, and by giving them the courage to take a leap from theory to practice to implement the solution.

Real world examples of such collaborative work that begins with the critical step of empathic listening can be an app that would allow customers to customize their news feeds, or can result in the invention of an insulated baby swaddle to save the lives of premature babies born in rural communities without electricity or access to hospitals. The same process can also connect one to groups and individuals working on alleviating poverty, improving safety for women, or eliminating food deserts, and diseases around the world. Empathic listening skills are considered a pre-requisite to really understand and identify the challenge, or the problem vs. making assumptions on behalf of the user.

This approach is very much in alignment with the worldview of our Millennial generation and current trends in higher education where service-learning and volunteer work around the world is encouraged, and more and more social innovation related courses appear in higher education curriculums (AshokaU 2014). Millennials value giving back to society through philanthropy and volunteerism, and they want to work at places with good record of social and environmental responsibility. They work independently but their “big ideas” come from teams, from workplace “organized playtime.” Unlike any other generation before them, they are very much inspired to focus on social business models and launch entrepreneurial ventures that aim to solve a global or local issue (Zogby and Snyder Kuhl 2013, 15, 23; Esfahani Smith and Aaker 2013, 1).

Tom and David Kelley, founders of IDEO, a leading human-centric design firm where the CEO Tim Brown coined the term Design-Thinking, argue in their recent book titled: Creative Confidence, that a human-centered approach and empathy are key elements of good design or products that utilize our creative power (T. Kelley and D. Kelley 2013; Brown 2009). Their human-centered design process helped increase the emphasis on empathy in business and non-profit circles around the globe. Stanford University’s d. school, where David Kelley is one of the founders, and IDEO.org the socially-minded sibling of IDEO, are major driving forces behind the Design-Thinking trend that is augmented by online resources, toolkits, and design challenges that encourage aspiring social and business entrepreneurs around the world simply to unpack these toolkits, form local or global communities and teams and get to work, starting with getting out of the building to exercise their “empathy muscle” (d. school 2014; HCD Toolkit 2014).

Empathy is at the convening point of three powerful streams and is currently being used to shape positive social change. Here, human desire to help others meet with a methodology that enables the use of an inherent emotion as a tool, to put knowledge into practice for the greater good of the society. Social innovation advocates consider empathy as a characteristic, and a foundational skill for entrepreneurs, and Design-Thinking method requires it as a problem-solving tool, while the Millennials are very much inclined to explore both domains which would enable them to focus their energy on social issues. This “perfect storm” presents a unique opportunity for museums where they can find creative ways to align their institutional behavior and offerings with these trends through an emphasis on empathy and its numerous societal applications.

Empathy & Museums

As more and more people from various disciplines and walks of life join a global community of social innovators and business entrepreneurs, an increased awareness and demand for empathy as a personal, professional, or institutional skill, as well as an appetite to cultivate it through neutral and safe platforms will be inevitable.

A timely observation, and an important step in this direction was undertaken by Gretchen Jennings, a veteran museum professional who coined the term “Empathetic Museum” in 2013 at a pop-up discussion session at the American Alliance of Museums, where the topic was first presented and immediately sparked an ongoing discussion (Jennings 2013). Jennings suggests that just like people, museums might also benefit from an institutional behavior change and become “empathetic.” Her blog titled the Museum Commons facilitates discussions within the museum community on how museums can be more “empathetic” by design and offers many examples and inspirational stories on how museums continue to interpret being “empathetic” through their policies and programs, issues of accessibility and visitors’ experience, collections and exhibitions, diversity of their workforce, and timely response to social crises (Jennings 2014; Bossert 2013).

While it is remarkable to observe that museums can creatively express “institutional” empathy through a variety of ways, I believe that it is also important to explore “empathy” at museum setting as a phenomenal human social behavior. Considering emerging attempts observed in businesses, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations, more exploration and experimentation around empathy-building might soon become an expectation from cultural organizations, as these efforts need trusted public platforms such as museums to take hold at societal level. Empathy’s many attributes which might also appear as “entrepreneurial” skills such as curiosity, creative thinking, collaboration, teamwork, problem-solving, and leadership, can be better illustrated with inspirational authentic objects, experiences, and stories to highlight the role of this age old emotion known for its powers for positive behavior change, as a force to motivate social innovation, entrepreneurship, economic growth, and conflict resolution. This approach could provide the museums with new ways to present their content in thematic ways to shed light on our human behavior and its consequences through arts, sciences, and experiential learning. In this approach, the focus of the exhibition would not be the objects on display, but an exploration of our own emotions and insight we gain by interacting with them.

An example of this is the Exploratorium’s “Science of Sharing,” an innovative exhibition that highlights the role of empathy –or the lack of it, through a carefully designed set of experiences where visitors explore the act of sharing. The Exploratorium argues that fostering an understanding of human social behavior is of fundamental importance in meeting the challenges of the modern world such as energy crises, arms races, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. They support this statement with several exhibit prototypes that highlight the importance of sharing and collaboration, which are two positive outcomes of empathy (Exploratorium 2013).

I have first experienced the concept at the 2013 Association of Science and Technology Centers Conference and Expo, where in keeping with the Exploratorium’s well-tested approach two prototypes were introduced by Dr. Hugh McDonald. A social psychologist and the project director and senior science writer, Dr. McDonald invited me to play with him the “Sip, or Squirt” game, an activity designed to spark “collaborative problem-solving.” As curious visitors gathered around us, I must have looked tense, like a dueling cowboy in a Western movie, trying to read the other’s mind in order to survive. What was interesting that as soon as I chose to share and collaborate, suddenly, there were no longer any reasons to get stressed. Of course, I felt grateful that my opponent also chose to share, preventing a real duel! In a social setting such individual choices would have defined the outcome with implications on the whole society. “Sip or Squirt” simply explored the human reaction towards sharing, which could only be achieved if one had empathy towards the other. In this experience, each player controls the other’s water fountain. Both players have a choice to let their opponent drink water or get water squirted at his/her face. If both parties intend to harm the other party by selecting “squirt” neither party can have access to the water. If both choose to sip, then they can both enjoy the resource that they are sharing. If one picks sip, while the other picks squirt intending to harm the other, then it becomes a grudge that only escalates with multiple attempts to get even. Sounds familiar?

Grounded in research in social psychology, economics, and game theory, the Exploratorium’s “Science of Sharing” is designed to provoke public insight into strategies for balancing short-term personal gains and long-term outcomes for communities and societies. The project is co-developed by museum partners with demonstrated histories of investigating emerging issues in science and technology, such as the Museum of Life and Science, Dialogue Social Enterprise, and the Heroic Imagination Project. It is a part of a 3-year project that is funded by the National Science Foundation to bring scientific study of human social behavior to a broad audience, and nears its completion in late 2014. The project is based on the argument that social phenomena –such as those underlying the way we perceive social situations, share resources, interpret the motives of others, and work together to solve problems –are open to inquiry and experimentation just as are physical and biological phenomena explored in museums and science centers.

Experiencing the Exploratorium’s “Science of Sharing” prototypes prompted me to ask the following questions: How nurturing empathy can help us create better global citizens; who are full of curiosity and an appreciation of the big-picture, but also better entrepreneurs who are willing to use their knowledge for the greater good through economic growth, and social innovation. The prototypes were intended just to accomplish this: “A moment of reflection, a moment of contemplation, a moment of discussion with someone else” (Chang 2012, D3). I found this powerful not only at a personal level, but also for its potential implications on existing and emerging cultural institutions around the world, as this would make a unique “human-centric” museum experience, especially when it is combined with collections through carefully designed programs geared towards the cultivation of empathy as an entrepreneurial skill. While existing museums could find creative ways to augment their offerings with empathy-based programs, emerging cultural projects taking shape around the world with the goal of cultural and economic development could also benefit from this approach (Gokcigdem and Seaters 2013; R. Root-Bernstein 2012).

The public discussion of empathy as a phenomena at museum setting is critical to disseminate a public message that despite all the resources that we have (natural, economical, skill, or knowledge-based) without empathy towards one another, ultimately all is obsolete if we do not learn how to cooperate with one another towards putting our knowledge in the service of the whole. A reliance on formal education or heavy investment on infrastructure and technologies alone are not equipped to meet the most profound challenges the humanity is facing. Cultural institutions with a mission to serve their communities are destined to tackle this imminent societal challenge of empathy-building. Their ability to analyze such emerging global challenges and willingness to collaborate with others to overcome them might be important criteria to determine their relevance to their communities, and their sustainability in the 21st century.

Museums can respond to this challenge in a variety of ways: By becoming more “empathetic” institutions as Jennings suggests, which would be reflected through their institutional culture, the diversity of their workforce and leadership, timeliness of their response to social events, or by the degree of their collections’ accessibility to visitors. Or, as suggested by the Exploratorium’s “Science of Sharing” exhibition, empathy can also be explored as a phenomenon on its own, which could be described as a “human-centric exhibition” or a visitor’s experience as the feelings and the emotions of the visitors would be the focus of such exhibitions instead of the objects that might be on display. In collecting museums, this exploration could be customized to highlight the institution’s content through creative storytelling around universal human themes to provide the visitor with a “thematic” lens to acquire knowledge versus a chronological or geographically fragmented, encyclopedic presentation. Museums could also create their own curated adaptations of Design-Thinking challenges at museum setting, incorporating the museum’s content and strengths as part of the design process.

Museums are uniquely advantageous for their awe-inspiring authentic objects to tell powerful stories that could enable visitors imagine, explore, and experiment empathy first-hand. More importantly, by becoming incubators of innovation through creative alliances, museums can enable new ideas to cross-pollinate towards groundbreaking human-centric products, services, mechanisms, and experiences that might have long-term positive societal impact, which can also help their institutional sustainability.

Responding to this momentum calls for its own Design-Thinking session for museums. Local and global teams consisting of museum professionals, representatives from social innovation and empathy initiatives, along with museum visitors of all ages and backgrounds combined with representatives from businesses, international development, non-profit, civic and government agencies, and formal and informal education sector could discuss what kind of a role museums play within this ecosystem. A good next step for this would be to develop a toolkit, specifically designed for this challenge.

Back in my coursework for “human-centric design for social innovation,” our team consisting of three members, including an economist, a business executive, and yours truly, have started our journey three weeks ago with the pre-identified challenge posed by the course organizers: “How might we enable more young people to become social entrepreneurs?” This challenge led us to utilize our empathetic listening skills where we conducted interviews with students, teachers, parents, museum professionals, as well as social entrepreneurs. This helped us narrow down our design challenge as posed in the following question: “How might we enable K-12 students get exposed to empathy as an important entrepreneurial skill through museums?” According to our on-line toolkit, next we need to conduct an intense, but fun brain storming session that involves hundreds of post-it notes, to turn our collective “insight” into various “prototypes.” The final steps of our coursework would require us to turn these prototypes into a single final “product,” which would be shared along with thousands of other products contributed by our classmates from around the world, hopefully inspiring new ideas, jobs, collaboration, and solutions for various social problems.

This is work in progress. As we are about to embark on the “ideation” phase, we are far from having a final “product” which is a requirement to complete the challenge. However, in keeping with the open-source spirit of Design-Thinking, I am allowed to share with you our aspirations which are currently shaping my team’s direction: We have realized that museums should be on the forefront of discussions on empathy’s real-world applications by incorporating it into their existing efforts to align their offerings with STEAM disciplines. “E” for empathy would be an effective adhesive to the existing STEAM formula as knowledge becomes more meaningful when used for social good as evidenced by social innovation projects around the globe. This could help not only fill jobs with competent and creative people, but also can lead to the creation of new jobs through innovative thinking. This would help foster economic growth, as well as the role of the museums in society by positioning them as critical players in economic development and societal progress through their contributions to positive behavior change in individuals. The ESTEAM approach would enable us to keep the big picture in mind in our social or business entrepreneurship initiatives reminding us of our connectedness to a greater whole so that our future is built upon societies that value not only technical skills and knowledge; but also wisdom.

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