So there I was, sitting on someone’s idea of industrial outdoor seating – a massive, austere concrete bench laced with steel bands every three feet to either keep enterprising skaters from shredding nosegrinds off it or discourage daring homeless peddlers from using it as a bed – having tea with Anne Asensio, Dassault Systemes’ Vice-President of Design Experience. We had half an hour to chat about technology, digital transformation, and the future of virtualization across a breadth of industries, and Anne had suggested that we go outside to enjoy a little sunshine, a little fresh air, and a break from the business of the conference.
She probably didn’t realize it, but we had already begun our conversation inside. I had spent the better part of thirty minutes listening to her address a roundtable of influencers and journalists. She was smart, witty, opinionated, courageous, blunt, knowledgeable, eminently competent – obviously a creative, but not ostensibly so. Her unequivocal French accent and easy, natural fashion sense reminded me of home. I hadn’t said much during that roundtable session. I didn’t have to. She had plenty to say, and with more energy than everyone else at that table combined. Judging from the spark in her eye, the enthusiasm with which she talked about how she had come to work at Dassault Systemes and what she did there, and how she insisted on doing it, it was clear that she could have talked about design for hours – and no one within earshot would have been bored. At any rate, the roundtable ended, we were introduced, and we ended up outside with our cups of tea, sitting on what I imagine park benches were like behind the iron curtain at the height of the Cold War. It occurred to me that the one great thing about concrete benches is that no one will ever chop them up and burn them to try and stay warm.
As we started, I was kind of expecting our chat to veer towards some kind of tangential discussion of new 3DS virtualization products, or futurist musings about augmented retail experience design, or even a conversation about the role that virtual modeling software might soon play in every facet of business management. That isn’t where our conversation went at all. Instead, we spent half an hour talking about the role of imagination in business, the unsung courage of design-focused leaders, and the critical role that creators – human creators – will continue to play even as machines begin to automate non-creative tasks and business functions.
Sitting down with executives to ask them questions isn’t hard: You do a little research, you write down a list of questions, rearrange them in order of importance, and the rest boils down to having basic social skills and a modicum of professional tact as you listen to their answers and record them for later use. As Anne and I sat there chatting over tea, apart from the rest of the event, it occurred to me that my entire questionnaire had become irrelevant the moment we set foot outside. This wasn’t going to be a typical interview. It couldn’t be. In fact, it wasn’t going to be an interview at all. I don’t think that Anne was particularly interested in talking about technology or business. I think that she wanted to talk about creativity, and imagination, and the ultimate business asset: people.
Had you been there, you would have been quick to note that our conversation was barely a degree away from being about how to invest in human capital in an increasingly automated world, how to frame the underpinnings of Human Resources 4.0, what the Future of Work should look like, and the importance of the human, emotional, and aesthetic core of innovation.
When we indirectly discussed the gargantuan struggle of turning risk-averse business cultures into innovative, forward-thinking cultures, and how design thinking had to be a core element of that process, we were really talking about change management for a digitally-disrupted world, though never quite in such obvious terms.
When we talked about courageous millennial creatives, whether they specialize in product design, experience design, content design, or app development, we were really talking about the impact that design-literate leadership and digitally-savvy business cultures will have on recruiting, developing, and retaining tomorrow’s innovation giants.
When we discussed the visceral need by creatives and innovative thinkers to imagine, create and explore new design horizons and entirely new ideas, we were really talking about educational paths, and ecosystems of innovation, and the sorts of tools that give this particular class of individual the ability to translate dreams into a reality that we can all experience for ourselves.
There was something rather meta about our conversation: It was layered, richer in metaphors and levels than it seemed on the surface. We were just two people chatting about design over tea, but at the same time, we were talking about the fundamental underpinnings of a fast-changing world in which creators now had the tools and technologies to make just about any dream come true.
I don’t think that the term creators ever came up, but I couldn’t get it out of my head afterwards. I still can’t. I think that the term applies to a business function that is bound to become increasingly relevant as industries begin to shift towards digital automation, and innovation takes on a more central role in the day-to-day of every type of business, from retail and travel to healthcare and banking. Creators: Those creative thinkers who like to build and tweak things; the sorts of people whom companies like Tesla, Apple, Nike, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook have invested in and bet on; the sorts of people currently working on restoring mobility to victims of spinal injuries, using VR to help patients manage pain and stress, curing cancer and dementia, and designing the stress-free hospital experiences of the future; the sorts of people working on developing entirely new materials, habitats and propulsion systems to send humans to Mars and farm the ocean floor; the sorts of people developing smart cities, self-driving cars, intelligent homes, enchanted objects and device-agnostic human-like interfaces for the IoT; the sorts of people who will give the companies that hire and nurture them, or fund their projects, an undeniable advantage over the companies that don’t.
Creators aren’t necessarily the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the next few decades, mind you. Many will never see their names printed on a box or mentioned in a news headline. Most, in fact, will not, but their names will no doubt figure on countless patents without which those boxes and ads wouldn’t exist in the first place. They will all play a part in saving lives, in building a better future for people around the world, in driving us all forward in their own way. That’s an exciting thought, and a source of relief given how many challenges we face as a civilization, let alone as a species.
Every new job created post-2035 is likely to be created as a result of innovation by creators who haven’t yet entered the workforce, and every new job created post-2025 is likely to be the result of ideas brought to fruition by creators currently in the workforce today. Think about that. These jobs won’t be created by machines. They won’t be created by old men in penthouse offices, struggling to understand how email works. They won’t be created by legislation or elected officials. They will be created as a result of the imagination of creators, and the degree to which their ideas can survive the difficult and treacherous journey from the inside of their heads to the practicality of the real world. Creators are the real engines of industry. And although we never directly talked about any of that, there I was, at a Dassault Systemes event – the company with the design, virtualization, modeling, and management toolkit for creators to turn their dreams into reality – focusing on the human aspects of culture, leadership, creativity, and how to leverage them to overcome resistance to change. We didn’t need to talk about the toolkit. Everything going on inside the venue was already about that. Our conversation needed to be about the creators, the sort of leadership that recognizes their immense value, and the types of social, educational, economic, political, and corporate ecosystems that help nurture, develop and enable them in order to make everything else work.
The best digital and virtualization tools in the world wouldn’t do anyone much good if creators were to become systematically ignored, or commoditized, or undervalued, if not altogether forgotten in the daily shuffle of sales numbers, business development and corporate PR.
After we parted ways, I thought about why we had walked out the door to sit outside, a little away from the event itself. I thought about the symbolism of putting a literal wall between us and the branded signage, of making our conversation somehow stand physically apart from the product demonstrations, and the roundtables, and people in suits wearing badges and name tags. It wasn’t just about getting fresh air and a little sunshine. It was also about creating a space of its own for a conversation that needed to be about what wasn’t being explicitly discussed inside. Inside, everyone was talking about tools and specs and capabilities. It wasn’t the place to have a technology-agnostic discussion about talent, inspiration, aspirations, dreams, motives, and the human aspects of design and innovation. Anne knew, I think, that the obvious connection with what Dassault Systemes does, and what role it plays in empowering creators, would inevitably find me once I started putting my notes together.
One thing that I didn’t immediately appreciate was the cleverness of a company like Dassault Systemes having someone like Anne in a senior leadership role. It would be easy to create a leadership culture made up of marketing execs, sales managers, engineers, and senior operations people: Build, build, build, sell, sell, sell, look over the quarterly numbers, repeat. Like a lot of other companies, they could have done that. But at some point, a decision was made to broaden the perspective of the company’s leadership team – a decision to not focus solely on the obvious but also feed and nurture the more abstract and less quantifiable aspects of innovation, culture, design and invention – despite the detours and caveats it would almost certainly inject into complex discussions about direction and strategic vision. It is the sort of courageous decision that, in my experience, almost always gives businesses their greatest competitive edge. It is the very foundation of the creative genius that propels some companies to become global industry leaders. I mentioned Amazon, Apple, Google and Tesla earlier, but it’s also what gave companies like Cartier, Levi’s, Ford and Disney their edge back in the day. These companies too, understood that harnessing the genius of human imagination and inspiration was like catching lightning in a bottle. Without a mechanism to do that, and to keep doing that, a company is just an also-in enterprise with little hope of ever disrupting its own market or outpacing its competitors. I already knew that Dassault Systemes, as the 3D software company, was a key player in the Digital Transformation space, but I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which its leadership team was invested in creating the sort of internal culture and business ecosystem that would continue to propel it safely ahead of the wave of technological disruption that almost everyone else is struggling to keep up with. This particular strategic advantage has nothing to do with proprietary new technology, or an amazing new product. It is simply this: understanding the importance of nurturing and empowering dreamers, innovators, and creators.
The message I walked away with was this: hire as many creators as you can, and promote them to management and leadership roles. Infuse your company with their creative curiosity and design sensibilities. Build centers of excellence around them the same way you aim to build centers of excellence around technologies and business practices, then fuse them all together. There’s a balancing act at play here, a sort of left brain and right brain equation that has to find its own unique self-sustaining balance mechanism. That’s what sets great companies apart from merely good ones. It may seem like a small thing, but investing in creators is at least as important as investing in the right technology solutions. Maybe it doesn’t seem as important because creativity and innovation don’t necessarily show up in quarterly sales reports and P&Ls, but it is.
“Innovation” isn’t just a catch-all abstraction. It’s a system, a method. It has roots and structure. Ask Apple. Ask Tesla. Ask Alphabet. It takes work and diligence not only to build but to keep up. Fostering innovation year after year and building an entire business ecosystem around it, without ever losing track of where it comes from, is extremely difficult. It’s both a business science and a creative art form – equal parts of each. It took a cup of tea and a breath of fresh air to remind me of that, and I am smarter for it. Now, all we need to make my next outdoor meeting a little bit better is for someone with the right idea and the right tools to rethink the design of outdoor public seating.