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Renee Farris headshot

3 Mind-Blowing CSR Strategies from SXSW Eco


Editor’s Note: This post is part of TriplePundit’s ongoing coverage of SXSW Eco 2015. You can read all of our coverage here.

Corporate responsibility programs are on autopilot. Donate to the local nonprofit. Fill up backpacks for school kids. Assemble bicycles for Christmas gifts. Those are good deeds but … they're about as exciting as the 2-year-old PB&J sandwich you found under the seat of your car.

Sometimes your community engagement program needs a dose of the novel, exciting and adventurous. You want to shoot fireworks into the sky and let the community sit in their lawn chairs and experience beauty and awe. You want to be memorable. Inspirational. Different. You want to make giving back a rainbows and sparkles experience. In other words, you want it to be fun. When people have fun, they talk; they listen; they’re open to new ideas and are often moved to take action. Mission accomplished.

Creating a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project that makes all that magic happen is easier said than done. Often our creativity is packed away in a little box in a storage unit; we’ve moved on and forgotten we even own it. How do we pull it out, dust it off and bring it home to spend every day with us?

A great way to dust off your imagination is to see what novel ideas are out there. If you regularly expose yourself to creative approaches, you’ll soon generate your own creative ideas.

Here are three brilliant projects to jump-start your imagination. These were Art + Interaction finalists at the recent SXSW Eco Place by Design competition curated by the talented Julie Yost. Each one would be a fabulous way for a company to create social impact in an original magical way.

1. Swings that compose music

We rarely interact with strangers in public (New Yorkers, I’m looking at you). We also have a hard time agreeing and working together. Cue broken relationships, crime and war. One Canadian company, Daily tous les jours, decided to help people work together. Naturally, the first thing it did was hire an expert scientist on animal cooperation. It also hired a musician.

Then the idea went from concept to implementation. The team installed 21 musical swings in an unvisited public space in Montréal. There’s some sort of undiscovered magnetic field that draws people to swings. All ages, races and backgrounds climbed on the swings. They soon discovered that the higher you swing, the higher the musical notes. But there’s a catch. When people synchronize their movements to swing together, they create more complex melodies. It doesn’t take long before strangers start working together to morph into one giant musical instrument to compose music.

The swings were a smash hit. Every day each swing was swung about 8,500 times. Soon, the company began to receive calls from cities around the world requesting the swings. So, it created a travel kit of swings to traverse the globe and help promote cooperation in a variety of communities, including underprivileged ones, such as a refugee camp in Gaza.

The swings are becoming an international icon of peace and cooperation. If we really want to put them to the test, though, maybe we should send the swings to Congress. Better yet, let Obama, Putin, Kim Jong-un, Netanyahu and Malala Yousafzai go for a swing together.

2. The Mothership

The North End in Detroit, Michigan, has rich cultural and art heritage of funk and blues music. Sadly, that has all but disappeared. Bryce Detroit and Anya Sirota believed that they could revive the community’s rich heritage by designing an object that could be an icon for the era of funk and blues music. They went to work creating the Mothership, a mobile DJ booth decked out in Afro futuristic bling.

When the Mothership landed in the community, it was one night in an unmarked neighborhood garage. Despite not having any publicity, 700 people wearing outfits from the period showed up to celebrate and dance the night away.

The Mothership is now used to transport community artists and local living legends to various music events around the city. Every time it’s moved, it breaks down into panel pieces (think IKEA) and is rebuilt by the local community. All it takes is a wrench and a bucket of screws. When the Mothership is not at an event, people visit, take photos, and even get married in it.

This nomadic urban marker is helping the North End community tell the cultural narrative about a place that was once forgotten. The community can now once again celebrate their heritage with this beautiful cultural marker.

3. Experience butterfly vision

Conversations about protecting pollinators like bees and butterflies from pesticides are crucial. It’s equally important for people to empathize with these insects in order to be moved to action to protect them. In order to help people relate to butterflies, the exceptionally talented Jenny Kendler, an artist in residence with the Natural Resources Defense Council, gives people the magical experience of seeing in butterfly vision.

Butterflies see colors that we can’t see. They’re able to see ultraviolet colors. That means they see flowers differently. Flowers guide butterflies to them based on whether the flower is producing nectar and is ready for pollination.

In Louisville, Kentucky, you can visit Kendler’s butterfly garden and see the way butterflies see… with ultraviolet light and florescent elements. You’ll learn how important butterfly pollinators are to nature and humans. When you leave the garden, you’ll be given a postcard that you can mail to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking for pesticide regulation to protect both butterfly pollinators and your own health. So far, 144,000 postcards have been sent to the EPA.

Kendler also gave the local art and science centers some adventure kits with UV flashlights and light filtering glasses to help people experience what a butterfly sees.

“When we see through the eyes of other species it enriches our minds as well. I really hope that this project can become a model for thinking about our built environment in totally new ways. When we design for ourselves we need to leave space for the beautiful others with which we share our fragile and biodiverse earth,” Kendler said.

Your turn now

Each of these public art projects show that there are unlimited creative ways to connect with your community and give back. Novel and fun social good messages get amplified because they stand apart from the typical drone of information that people have tuned out. You’ll capture people’s interest, excite and inspire them to take action to create a better world. Let creativity and interactive art help you broadcast the message you want the world to hear and create the change you want to see. “If you build it, they will come.”

Image credits: SXSW Eco and the contestants' websites and presentation decks

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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