During the Aalto Ventures Program study trip to Paris, we had the unique opportunity to attend Improbable: An Art Thinking workshop at ESCP. Led by Professor Sylvain Bureau, the workshop was a transformative experience that expanded our understanding of entrepreneurship through the lens of art.
Professor Bureau introduced us to Art Thinking, a groundbreaking methodology designed to “create improbable with certainty.” This approach blends art and entrepreneurship, focusing on three main phases—doing, criticizing, and exhibiting—and six practices: donating, diverting, destroying, drifting, dialogue, and disposition. The aim is to open up new possibilities for individuals and organizations.
The power of networks: successful people accelerate each other
One of the most impactful lessons from the workshop was the principle that successful people accelerate each other. This concept is deeply ingrained in both art and entrepreneurship, as the examples below showcase, and it aligns perfectly with the Art Thinking methodology.
In the realm of art, the Bauhaus collective serves as a prime example of how a network of talented individuals can accelerate each other’s success. The collaborative spirit within this collective led to groundbreaking innovations that shaped modern art and design. This aligns perfectly with the Art Thinking practices of donation, dialogue, and disposition, where the collective efforts of individuals open up new avenues of creativity and success.
The PayPal Mafia
In the business world, the concept of successful people accelerating each other is epitomized by the PayPal Mafia. This group of former PayPal employees and founders went on to create or scale companies like Tesla, LinkedIn, and Palantir. Their success is a testament to the power of a strong network. Each member’s success accelerated the others’, creating a ripple effect of achievement and innovation.
Station F: A Hub of Innovation
During our trip, we also visited Station F, the world’s largest startup campus in Paris. The campus houses 1,000 startups and offers more than 30 programs. Station F is a melting pot of talent, attracting world-class venture capital firms like Accel, Balderton, and Benchmark. The sheer concentration of talent and resources makes it an ideal place for entrepreneurs to accelerate each other’s success.
Entrepreneur First: A Talent Magnet
Although we couldn’t browse the Entrepreneur First website, it’s known for attracting individuals by emphasizing that they attract talented individuals striving for success. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of success, where gifted individuals attract more talent.
Roofscapes: MIT’s Stamp of Success
We also learned about Roofscapes (roofscapes.studio), a startup founded by MIT alumni. Roofscapes focuses on urban resilience by transforming city roofs into green and communal spaces. Two of the three founders we met, Tim Cousin and Olivier Faber, were intelligent and driven. These characteristics and their MIT background, which in its bare minimum serves as a “stamp of success,” will certainly help them attract more success.
Collaboration, contribution, and connections
Both art and entrepreneurship inherently involve our surrounding communities. Some artists may identify as entrepreneurs, just as entrepreneurs embody artistic practices involving creativity and outside-the-box thinking. While many entrepreneurs and artists aim to craft a career path that encompasses their individual interests and values, this process rarely happens in complete solitude. Innovation in a vacuum isn’t an ordinary occurrence; instead, the communal elements within the scene serve a vital purpose in creating an impact.
In the Improbable workshop, we delved into a world of exploring and creating art while interlinking our learnings with entrepreneurial thinking. During three days, we transformed from a group of five strangers into collaborative artists. For my perfectionistic soul, concretizing a concept into a tangible piece of art within a restricted timeframe and limited resources signified stepping outside my comfort zone. In retrospect, this experience brought about a fundamental mindset shift within me. Without the hackathon-like schedule, we would probably still be in Paris, stuck in an endless loop of polishing our piece to perfection.
In the first phase of the Art Thinking method, we participated in donation: the act of being involved, sharing, and giving without an expectation of reciprocation. Donation can also be described as gift-giving, as it is done altruistically and freely, as opposed to a transaction.
Shortly after forming our groups for the workshop, we explored donation in practice by stepping outside the classroom with the mission of trading up — inspired by the famous series of exchanges by Kyle MacDonald, who went from one red paperclip to a house. Through serendipitous encounters with strangers, from a flower shop owner to a gallerist to a wine specialist, we bartered our way from a mere piece of paper (an invitation to our art exhibition opening happening two days later) to a bottle of rosé. Along the way, we received a bouquet of roses, a golf ball, handmade bracelets, and butterfly pasta before gifting them to others. This hour-long carousel of exchanges delighted us with the kindness of strangers, resulting in numerous smiles and pleasant conversations as a byproduct.
We learned that only a small percentage of entrepreneurs operate alone. The same goes for artists.
Mierle Ukeles (born in 1939), a New York City-based artist, has highlighted civic and domestic maintenance in her feminist and service-oriented artwork. We were introduced to her works and interpreted them through the Art Thinking perspective, especially in the realms of donation and deviation. In one of her earliest projects, “Touch Sanitation” (1979-1980), Ukeles engaged in pioneering performance art by meeting with over 8500 New York Sanitation Department workers. She expressed her gratitude by shaking hands with each of them, accompanied by the words: “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” She documented the journey, thus pushing the boundaries of creating art. By spotlighting the individuals upkeeping the city’s cleanliness, she challenged norms and brought recognition to something once perceived as invisible labor.
Even the most extraordinary individuals couldn’t thrive without the recognition of their peers within their social landscape. The term “scenius,” or communal genius, refers to the collective intelligence emerging among a group of people working within the same scene. Brian Eno, a musician and producer who first introduced the term, suggests communal genius is embedded in the scene rather than in genes. Essentially, the geography of scenius involves mutual appreciation, sharing tools and techniques, celebrating one another’s success, and accommodating nonconformity. This notion of fellowship can be found in varying contexts and scales.
While exploring art and entrepreneurship, we repeatedly encountered the importance of collaboration, contribution, and connections. With an emphasis on human fit and complementary skills in founding teams, we learned that only a small percentage of entrepreneurs operate alone. The same goes for artists. Collaboration and donation take place in both scenes. Whether said donation is materialized in physical form or through sharing one’s time and knowledge, these acts can be witnessed in creative collectives as well as in entrepreneurial networks. With the possibility of learning from one another, we were encouraged to navigate the world with openness and curiosity. Working with diverse perspectives and backgrounds is an art form to be celebrated in itself.
This post was witten by Iivo Angerpuro and Eli Saaresto, who participated in the workshop as a part of Aurora Paris, a study trip by AVP. Iivo is the co-founder of assari.ai and master’s student in International Design Business Management. Eli is a marketing and design student at Aalto University and co-founder of wednesday., a project aiming to increase diversity and inclusion within the startup ecosystem.