C2 Montréal’s theme for 2016 centers on how the few became the many. We came upon this theme after rounds of lengthy – and sometimes painful – internal discussions. This is not always our process; last year, the right word to describe our overall direction came easily, as if whispered by the wind. Not this time.
This time, tracing a line in the sand around the issues that felt most relevant required implication by the many. This ironic turn of events only became clear to me after the fact: the process itself had become our theme. We collaborated, we debated, we drew inspiration from unlikely sources and ultimately we found our answer.
At its heart was a shared intuition that the business world is increasingly fragmented and decentralized; that this mutation represents a well of opportunities; and that we are at a tipping point towards a more collective approach.
The age of the Many heralds a time where the person at the top does not hold all the cards; where small can become big in a matter of days; and where everyone has a voice. This will affect how we communicate, how we learn, how we work, how we build and how we collaborate.
How we communicate
YouTube stars have a bigger audience than prime time TV shows. Cara Delevingne reaches 22 million people on Instagram each day, which is exactly 22 times the readership of the New York Times. How do we define what it means to be a media, when everyone can be one?
In the era of interruption content, it might be tempting to rush to apps, six-second videos and Snapchat stories. But niche paper magazines continue to thrive, and even Lena Dunham, paragon of 29-year-old-cool, sends newsletters via email.
In this atomized media reality, how will you reach and engage your scattered audience?
How we learn
Our lives are no longer divided into watertight divisions between the time for learning (school), the time for work (employment) and the time for leisure (retirement). The authority on learning no longer resides solely within prestigious universities; not when the world’s most famous billionaires are college dropouts.
Organizations need to adapt in order to allow for continuous learning to become an intrinsic part of the work experience, not an afterthought that is squeezed in at lunchtime on Tuesdays.
How might we learn to be lifelong apprentices? How will we reach mastery? Who will we teach, and who will we learn from?
How we work
Your future employees won’t keep turning up on your doorstep at 24, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, keen for lifetime employment and a game of climb-the-corporate-ladder. The end of glorious retirement funds has affected the younger generation’s willingness to sign up for life, or even for a decade. Why should they, when instead they can hop from one job to the next, accumulating knowledge, experience and valuable contacts along the way?
Our very definition of workforce needs to evolve, and become more flexible. “Freelancer” is on its way to becoming the most common job description in North America. Meanwhile, we’re witnessing a unique demographic shift in the history of our species, as the first generation of elderly-on-paper-yet-still-young-and-healthy hits the market, both as an unprecedented consumer base and an unconventional workforce.
We need to figure out how to make space for unconventional workers, whether they be the artist who works to pay the bills but wants a day a week to finish his next masterpiece or the semi-retired finance genius who’d like to spend three months in Malaysia this winter. This means embracing the gig economy, rather than resisting it. It means restructuring our organizations around the many, rather than expecting them to fit in to accommodate the few.
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence add a layer of complexity to the topic. Will machines soon do some of the working, even some of the learning, on your behalf? How will we redefine our workforce when it includes drones? How can AI free up humans to do more, rather than take over from them?
How we build and how we make
The proliferation of 3D printers, fab labs, programming classes and hardware libraries is placing manufacturing power in the hands of the many. Prototypes can easily be produced outside of corporate R&D departments, and tech literacy is and should be growing among the population. This significantly reduces the entry cost to entrepreneurship, and is spawning a new generation of innovators.
The business model itself is being rewired, or at least its basic sequence is. Today, you might build an audience first, then wonder which service to create in order to monetize it. Or you might get financing on the basis of an idea alone (and a kickass video) before you’ve even designed your product. And why should you bother with costly market research, when you can simply punch out 100 prototypes in the nearest fab lab, start selling, and see how you go?
While R&D still happens within large organizations, it increasingly takes place outside of them too. When a company like Google invests in an incubator, it’s buying itself a first look at a lot of technology innovations, while minimizing costs and risk. It’s taking a gamble on the many, while selecting the few.
Where are you shopping for your R&D?
How we collaborate
Remember Napster? That was 2004.
When the digital revolution hit the music industry, we could barely imagine the film industry being next, back when HD streaming seemed such a far-fetched possibility. Only the most visionary of us could have imagined a straight line to the recent disruptions in the hospitality and taxi industries, and the ensuing uberization of, well, just about everything.
The sharing economy is disrupting each industry, one after the other; if yours hasn’t been impacted yet, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Rather than resist this change, might you be the one to drive it?
Selling stuff at garage sales, couch surfing, giving someone a lift, selling arts and crafts at local fairs, going door-to-door with chocolate bars to finance a school trip: these are age-old collaborative behaviors. Digital platforms like Ebay, Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, Etsy and Kickstarter have simply breathed a new life, and given a global scope, to behaviors intrinsic to our very nature.
Human beings collaborate. We are pack animals. We watch and we learn from each other. We pool our resources to become stronger. We lean on each other in times of need. We come together to build and grow.
The collaborative ethos of the sharing economy should inspire you to shift your thinking from top-down to bottom-up. Can you flatten your organization’s hierarchy, so that your employees have a real say? Can you truly open your doors to your customers, so that you build your product together? Can you loop in your competitors, so that they become your greatest allies?
If you do, you might gain access to that rare and powerful thing: a many-to-many platform. An ecosystem where many hands and many minds join forces to do the important creative work that will drive our business world forward.
Writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, a few days before COP 21 and as the migrant crisis continues to swell, I cannot but find hope in the growing collaborative spirit of our business community. More and more organizations accept idealism as a worthy corporate value; more and more join movements such as B Corp, B Team or Conscious Capitalism, and work with an understanding that social good and environmental concern will ultimately lead to more business success.
When crowdsourcing first became a thing, we understood it as a way of getting lots of ideas from lots of people; then it became a way of getting lots of funding from lots of people; it’s increasingly becoming a way of doing just about anything, from producing content to designing objects to solving intricate medical challenges through online collaborative games.
Welcome to the age of The Many. I hope you like it here.