We are building cathedrals again

Guest curator Estelle Métayer is the President of Competia and an Adjunct Professor at McGill University. New this year, guest curators are tasked with helping speakers push their talk further by aligning them with our 2016 theme, The Many. In short, they help ensure that minds are blown. We asked her to write this post to present her vision and approach.

Have you noticed how every business article these days begins with some version of “the rate of change is accelerating” and then goes on to complain about how technology is evolving faster than our companies and institutions? One example often cited is the technology for crowdsourcing. But is it that truly new? After all, crowdsourcing is how cathedrals were built five centuries ago.

We all intuitively feel that there’s something fundamentally different about this wave of technology innovation. So what makes it so different?

1. In the past, a single company or inventor could change the world.

A single American inventor in a lab invented the lightbulb, a man named Ford democratized the automobile, and it was just a small team that worked on developing uranium to produce nuclear power. Their inventions, both products and process, were so revolutionary that, for a while, those companies and technologies spread rapidly and owned the world. This is no longer true. Today, innovation, or to use the old word, invention, is much more widespread. Hot springs everywhere are sprouting up to melt the icy status quo. Kids in Nigeria are reinventing how finance can be in the hands of all; a Canadian entrepreneur in the U.S. is able to singlehandedly reinvent the car industry and possibly space exploration; teenagers are starting their own YouTube channels and dwarfing the audience TV anchors have; at Kickstarter, 10 million backers funded over 100,000 projects. This is like building cathedrals everywhere now.

2. Consumers are enthusiastically voting with their feet.

Ironically, as electoral voting rates plunge and we see a decrease in participatory democracy, consumers by the droves are loudly voicing their preferences for the products and services they like. They participate massively in the global debates, with one billion users on Facebook every day. They try to influence the legal process adjudicating the cases of Uber or Lyft (i.e., in France with the hashtag #laissezlestravailler and in Canada vis-à-vis taxi strikes); they migrate from hotels to individually-owned homes with Airbnb. By the time you wake up in the morning, and certainly by the time regulators everywhere convene their working groups and commissions, PewDiePie , Smosh or HolaSoyGerman will have gained millions of views (and if you have not yet heard of those, you are already behind the curve).

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3. Personal synapses are blossoming into enormous global networks.

Your average preteen today interacts on an hourly basis with hundreds of friends while absorbing a massive amount of information from parallel information inputs like podcasts, video streams on YouTube and image avalanches on Instagram or Snapchat. This generation is a ticking bomb, as they will eventually join companies. The generational clash is inevitable as one can hardly expect these kids to be satisfied with email and office memos, templated (and dull) press releases, and annual performance evaluations. None of our companies are prepared for this – heck, we are barely starting the debate on diversity let alone wrapping our heads around the democratization of decision making.

4. The toolkit for inventing new ideas keeps expanding.

One can hardly keep track of the blossoming new ideas that are turning into new industries – “fintech,” wearables, robotics, genomics and new energies. Thousands of startups emerge every day, creating new tools that our companies use to innovate. Silicon Valley has ceased to be the gold standard as the likes of Champaign, Illinois (alma mater of Tesla, YouTube, PayPal or Mozilla), Lausanne, Switzerland (house of EPFL), Tallinn, Estonia (house of the e-citizen) and Nairobi, Kenya (and hopefully soon Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver) are the new hotspots.

5. Trust is being reinvented.
Strangely, as trust in traditional companies and institutions has been shattered, consumers are willing to trust companies that didn’t exist a few years ago, sometimes with their most intimate details. They download and 3D-print vaccines, or will trust the blockchain with financial transactions and the management of their health data. Everywhere, customers and the public happily (or grudgingly, but at this stage it doesn’t matter) give up privacy in exchange for personalized service or products, and simpler interfaces.

6. Meanwhile, the former age pyramid of humanity is collapsing.
At the bottom of the pyramid, which used to be stable, a new generation of largely unemployed young men and women will inevitably need to find homes, jobs and purpose as the working world morphs. Meanwhile, at the formerly narrow top where the population got smaller and smaller, today’s aging population continues to live on, buying time with 3D-printed bones and limbs, and bankrupting an already chaotic healthcare system inherited from another century. What will happen when we begin storing their brains and memories ( see here a DigitalBayond list ) ?

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This is indeed a real but silent revolution in cathedral building, bordering on cathedral smashing as customers bypass banks, green consumers refuse to see products go to waste, citizens challenge the notion of borders (anyone not tempted to hide your location to access Netflix from anywhere?) and normal people joyfully use services that have been declared illegal (as the taxi industry is rapidly learning). All of this will challenge traditional companies and industries at the core of their DNA, forcing us to rethink our governance models, the leadership skills we’ll need in the future, and the essence of our relationship with employees and stakeholders.

So if you’re willing to join the revolution, step into the world of The Many. This new cathedral opens a formidable opportunity for those who are willing to challenge (and dump) old assumptions, and start using technology at the speed it’s being invented.

As we navigate the program of C2Montreal this year, I would like you to keep your assumptions and past hypotheses at bay. As we carve those three days out of our busy schedules, let’s take the time to reflect on what our speakers and participants have to share. The insights offered may seem at times strange, or irrelevant with respect to our daily routine, but let’s open our minds and instincts to learn from them. I would like you also to stretch your imagination and build the bridge between the stories and experiences shared, and how those can apply to your company, organization and self. Jump right into the haystack and find that precious needle that will transform your life. I already have, will you follow?

Image: Screenshot from the game Minecraft
Illustrations © Caroline Lavergne 2016 All rights reserved