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The Power of Art for Social Change

Adam Kahane
March, 2011


In this article I make the case for presencing as a vital tool in addressing our most complex issues. I discuss nature solos as a starting point for presencing but argue that art is an alternative route for reaching states of presencing with groups. I discuss the role of art in social change more broadly and suggest the huge potential of art as a means of people connecting with their own creativity, as well as connecting to purpose and highest future possibilities for our communities and the planet.

The U-process for addressing complex challenges

In designing processes for diverse groups to innovate on complex issues, one of the many processes we turn to is the U-Process. The U-Process provides a framework for helping groups think and act creatively on the important social challenges they want to change. Groups embark on a journey to try to address a problem in a new and unconventional way, as opposed to a more linear, problem-solving approach. At the beginning of the process, participants don’t have a clear, shared idea of how to make major shifts to systemic trends. By the end, they have increased shared focus and clarity as to the ideas they have passion for and believe in. Inspired, embodied solutions become the new way of tackling the issue at stake.
In 1999, economist and polymath Brian Arthur first articulated the foundations of the U-Process in an interview on leadership. This dialogue was one of a remarkable series conducted by Joseph Jaworski and Otto Scharmer. In discussing creativity, Arthur sketched out the three phases to reaching profound thought and creativity: an observation phase (observe), a personal reflection phase (reflect), and an action phase (act). In the U-Process, these phases are sensing—observing the problem intimately; presencing—connecting to your purpose and inner wisdom; and realizing or co-creating—putting this knowledge into meaningful action and form. Before we can move into action and create new realities, in the U-Process we engage in presencing. But what is presencing and how do we understand it?

The Challenge of Presencing

Presencing is difficult to describe because it’s deep, personal, and largely non-verbal. It is also different for everyone, just like dreaming. We all experience dreams, but our dreams are unique and mysterious. The term presencing comes from the German Philosopher Martin Heidegger who was looking at the relationship between parts and wholes[1]. “If the whole becomes present within the parts, then a part is a place for the “presencing” of the whole.”[2]

In this way presencing is a way of overcoming boundaries and becoming receptive to larger patterns and structures of meaning both within us and within others. Presencing involves connecting with the heart and who we are and critically, who we want to be. Otto Scharmer describes presencing as “the ability to sense and bring into the present one’s highest future potential—as an individual and as a group.”

The orthodox approach to presencing as a practice, outlined for example in Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, is the nature solo, that is, time in nature.

I have found that people who are new to the U-Process can find presencing difficult to grasp or off-putting. In contrast sensing (observing) and creating (putting ideas into action) are more common in our daily lives. In our education and work, we are trained in forms of these practices. We often get to know problems and information through engaging our senses (sensing), although usually this takes an analytical form, rather than sensing emotionally or in the first person. We also act to change or make things better (creating). Action is common in both our work places and personal lives. We are continually taking steps to change or rectify a situation, big or small.

Presencing, however, can feel a bit further from home. We don’t learn to connect to and follow the heart in our formal educations. A visit to a career counselor to learn about who we ought to become hardly qualifies as connecting to our deepest and highest ambitions. I recall one visit I had at school. On the plus side, they told me I could specialize in any number of subjects. On the not so helpful side, that meant they had no idea what I ought to do. There is no “how to” with matters of the heart, and following inner intuition is not always encouraged in our workplaces or organizations, particularly in Western cultures. To the extent that we believe in expertise before we believe our own hearts. Being able to listen to the heart above the chatter of our rational minds is difficult. Our critical and pragmatic capacities often take precedent.

Physicist and Philosopher of Science Henri Bortoft argues that it is possible to learn presencing in the sense of learning how to become sensitive to the whole. He cites research from developmental psychology that shows that there are two organizational modes of consciousness in human beings: the action mode and the receptive mode. As children we are characterized by the receptive mode, we play and touch, and wonder, but as we grow and learn our mode of consciousness becomes characterized by action as we learn to draw boundaries and manipulate objects in the environment. The action mode is verbal, analytical, sequential and logical, (things that we are well versed in from work and school, my “things to do” list springs to mind) and the receptive mode is one of sensory, perceptual, non-linear and intuitive (things that most children find very natural). Bortoft suggests:

“If we were re-educated in the receptive mode of consciousness, our encounter with wholeness would be considerably different and we would see many new things about our world[3].”

While some of us individually may be familiar with presencing practices on a personal basis, all of us follow our hearts in some way or form and some of us are naturally receptive. However, presencing in a group is much more difficult. For a group to sense the whole, and grasp its own purpose for being is really hard. In the world of work, presencing with a group of individuals who are very different from us, it is something we rarely have the opportunity to do.

Why do we need presencing in groups, particularly ones that are diverse?

In order to address some of our difficult challenges we need to work together, across disciplines, sectors and organizations. In doing so we encounter difference, in ethnicity, religion, class, ideology, gender, in organizational stripe and political persuasion. Whilst these differences are important, sometimes they present a barrier to us achieving real change in reducing carbon dioxide from transport systems, pursuing renewable energy, providing food security and tackling HIV and AIDS. We need presencing in order to break down the barriers between people. In many ways, presencing strips us of our differences and exposes our common humanity. We’re all people before we’re from a particular country, or from business, or from an organization.

Presencing can powerfully remind us of this fact and in doing so, bind groups together because the process takes us into situations where our differences pale. Sometimes this is because we’re reminded of our higher purposes and sometimes this is simply because we’re all cold and hungry together.

Presencing can thus be an effective way for a group to discover their purpose and highest potential. To achieve a coherent sense of team, or wholeness, no amount of sitting around a boardroom table and talking will ever be as effective as entering into the wilderness. Imagine if the United Nations Framework on Climate Change process involved country representatives all going to the Artic to presence on the true nature of climate change and their own responsibility as world leaders to act? Would we see more progress?

What if presencing was the vital piece that the world forgot?

To address the most difficult issues of our time: energy, climate change, HIV and AIDS, poverty, food security, economic development, or violence toward women, we need to have the courage to turn towards approaches that may seem strange or unfamiliar, such as presencing. Why though do we need to go so far from what we’re familiar with? Because presencing can lead to a sea change in how groups perform. They reach a shared understanding of the problem, they can create innovative solutions more easily, they learn how to relate to each other from a basis of trust and mutual understanding. These are all the foundation of an extraordinary team. This is both the promise and aspiration of presencing.

An example of a diverse team that underwent the U-Process is the Sustainable Food Lab, a coalition of members large food companies such as, Unilever, Kellogg’s, SYSCO and Carrefour, NGOs: Oxfam, WWF and The Rainforest Alliance, government agencies and universities. This group began as disconnected actors. By going through a U-Process, including a three-night nature solo, they became more of a team with a shared commitment to accelerating the shift towards sustainability in the global food system. By creating this multi-stakeholder platform, key players are exposed to multiple ways of knowing and thinking about the food system itself and how it can be made more sustainable.

In our work, to have the opportunity to engage in presencing without the demands of everyday life and work, groups are often taken to camp in an area of natural beauty in the wilderness. The Food Lab solo took place in the high-deserts of Arizona. Participants are encouraged to reflect on their life and their purpose, while retaining a focus on the issue at hand. This is called a solo or vision quest; an ancient method for initiation, or problem solving, that derives from various indigenous and Native traditions and cosmologies across the world.

Such sabbaticals or retreats are common in many cultures, although less so in the modern world. As areas of wilderness are decreasing, the pressures of families, jobs, and other commitments mean that often our sabbaticals are reduced to short holidays and time in nature alone is extremely difficult to achieve.

Personally, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in nature. I’ve gained many meaningful lessons from embarking on nature solos in places such as the Cornish coast, the foothills of the Alaska Range and the Annapurna range in Nepal.


Nature is an incredible arena for opening up the heart and looking for answers to tough questions. However, camping alone in nature does not work for everyone; as a colleague from a well-known Environmental NGO put it, “Why run barefoot in the mud?” Embarking on a solo in nature understandably requires a lot from groups, clients, and organizers. Organising solos can be challenging in contexts with restricted resources of time and finances (true for almost all of the groups we work with). In general, it's a big ask. Because presencing is such a critical element of the work, I believe it’s imperative to find other techniques that will help groups to presence. What other routes to presencing could be followed?

Social Sculpture for Personal Transformation

“Great art picks up where nature ends.” —Marc Chagall

Six months ago, I met a passionate artist called Deborah Ravetz. Deborah created a “social sculpture” project entitled The Deep Self. Social sculpture is a term coined by the late conceptual artist and political activist Joseph Beuys. Beuys viewed social sculpture as an example of how art can be used to shape society, politics, and economics.

“Social sculpture is the extension of art beyond the museum and art world into the realm of shaping social reality. It is an art form in which everyone creatively participates to shape our shared social reality together.” - Jeff Barnum, 2010

Beuy’s most famous example of social sculpture is “7,000 Oaks”, a city forestation and sculpture project in Kassel, Germany, designed to heal the deep psychic scars of the Third Reich and help renew German, European, and Western culture over hundreds of years.[4]

Deborah’s piece is a series of black and white banners of photographs and text that each tells stories of a wide range of individuals, both living and dead, well-known and lesser-known, who at some point reached into their hearts, connected to what they really wanted and believed in, and underwent personal transformation. They began to live in tune with their own sense of purpose and made difficult departures from their former lives.

Sophie SchollOne of the stories that moved me in The Deep Self is that of Sophie Scholl (9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943). Scholl was a German student who was active within the White Rose non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. With her brother, Hans, and her friend Christoph Probst, distributed anti-war leaflets at the University in Munich. She was caught and her, her brother and Probst were all convicted of high treason against the Nazi regime. As a result, they were executed by guillotine. Scholl was recorded as saying, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just do not dare express themselves as we did.”[5] Sophie showed great courage in acting based on her inner sense of doing the right thing, even if it cost her life.

Inspired by Deborah’s work, Deborah, Emily Wilkinson and I conceived and delivered a workshop to help people access their creative selves and create. In the workshop, we created supportive spaces for transformation via personal creativity to occur.

From experiencing and discussing The Deep Self, participants heard stories of personal transformation and some of the stories spoke to their own life stories and ambitions. From this experience they created initiatives based on some of their deepest creative desires. Using bricolage and the written word, participants crafted symbolic models of their new ideas.

The Power of Art for Presencing

Through facilitating this workshop, I began to realize the power of art to help groups reach states of presencing. The Deep Self project provided a route to presencing, and it occurred indoors. By observing the exhibition, engaging with the stories of strangers and speaking about how it made them feel, the group had a collective experience of presencing, of the barriers between them dropping away, of sensing the whole in the parts. Working with their hands, constructing models, becoming bricoleurs, allowed participants to create a meaningful sculpture or representation of an idea that they wanted to bring forth into the world.

Collective experiences of art and social sculpture have a huge, largely untapped potential to change our social world. They can bring a sense of intimacy and community to a group, as well as lead participants to embark on exploring their own hidden or unexpressed personal ambitions.

We have to remember that art has power beyond static pictures hanging on a gallery wall. Art can push and ask searching questions. An iconic example of this is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Guernica was Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Spanish town by the German Luftwaffe in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish government commissioned this mural and then displayed it at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. Guernica quickly became an anti-war symbol due to its graphic depiction of the tragedies of war. It had a role in generating international concern for the Spanish Civil War.  Later, when Picasso was living in Paris during the German occupation of France, the Gestapo visited Picasso’s house and picked up a postcard of Guernica that was lying around the studio. “Did you do this?” said one of the Gestapo to Picasso. “Oh no,” says Picasso, “You did, go on take one as a souvenir!”


The example of Guernica is a reminder how important the audience and the social political context of art is, as well as the art itself and the movement in the interaction. The way that art can shape the social world was the inspiration for social sculpture. Used as social sculpture, a painting, a dance or a song can become a place for dialogue and action. The group engages with the art and the art engages back, creating a dialogue between the art and the group, the artist and the group, and the participants with each other. This is what Joseph Beuys called “social architecture,” a variant of social sculpture, where the art has a “use” through its deep impact on the audience.

Presencing is important for addressing our complex social problems. I believe we can reach states of presencing through not only nature but also art. When referring to presencing, Peter Senge says, “I am the audience and they are me.”[6] I would suggest an extension of this: “I am the art and the art is me.”

What we gain from art is the role of the image and the non-verbal in helping us achieve more receptive states towards knowing and allowing knowledge to emerge. There is evidence to suggest that working with images activates a different style of consciousness than with working with rational, verbal processes. Applying Goethe’s approach towards education David Seamon found that experiments with guided imagination led to students having a more feeling, more direct contact with the phenomena they were observing, as opposed to a more detached relationship to the phenomena they were learning about that came from Positivistic science.[7] This is an approach that is akin to Phenomenology where the task is to let things show their form without us forcing our own categories upon them.

Returning to the words of the late Joseph Beuys, “We are all Artists[8]”. That means each of us has the potential to create the world we dream of, despite the struggle in doing so. This may be by whichever method or technique either comes naturally to us or to experimenting with ones that we dream of. Following the recent events in Japan, a colleague and friend Jeff Stottlemyer, shared a haiku he had written:

“In Waka Bay when

The tide covers the sand bars

The cranes fly across

To the reeds of the other

Shore, making great cries.

Swifter than hail,

Lighter than a feather,

A sorrow

Crossed my mind.”

Reading it, I gained a sense of connection, not just to him, but also to the many Japanese suffering. The nature of this connection feels very different to the connection felt while watching the news.

Engaging in new types of art forms is difficult but if we have the desire (if we secretly think “I wish I could paint, or write a song or play the cello”) then we have the possibility and its up to us to do the hard work in pursuing our deepest aspirations. I invite you to spend time on the things that make your heart sing, on enacting what you dream of creating if you are not already.

Beatles star Paul McCartney once marveled how so much resulted from what he saw as the “little thing” of scribbling lyrics on the back of an envelop and creating a few tunes with his friends. The scribbles became some of the best-loved music of the 20th century. Everyone starts somewhere.


[1] See G.J. Seidel Martin Heidegger and the Pre-Socratics.1964. Chapter 3.

[2] See H. Bortoft The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science 1996.p12.

[3] See H. Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science 1996.p16

[4] See Barnum, J. ‘Social Sculpture: Enabling Society to Change Itself’ July 2010

[5] See The White Rose: Munich, 1942-1943 by Inge Scholl. Press; Revised edition (1983)

[6] Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers. Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, 2004:102.

[7] See David Seamon, “Goethe’s Approach to the Natural World: Implications for Environmental Theory and Education,” in Humanistic Geography: Prospects and Problems, ed D. Ley and M. Samuels (Chigaco: Maaroufa, 1978). 238-250.

[8] Beuys borrowed the phrase “everyone is an artist” from the German Philosopher Novalis. See “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,", Artforum, June 1967.

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