Gilles Babinet is an entrepreneur. He represents France at the European Commission as a “Digital Champion”. He published The Digital era, a new age of humanity, 5 changes that will turn our lives upside down (Le Passeur, 2014). His credo? Go far from ideologies, experiment, discuss, fail, and try again!
This article is an excerpt of the book Open models published in French in 2014 and translated in 2016
Your book is filled with open and collaborative approaches which you describe as “evolutions inherent to the digital economy.” At the same time, you make a clear observation about the difficulty of certain players to assume openness and collaboration. How do we promote and strengthen these open approaches? What tools do you plan on using ?
It is true that some institutional economic players have major difficulties taking into account the changes driven by digital solutions. Some disruptive initiatives, in education for example, have not yet found their way to sustainability. It is certainly experimentation that reinforces these open and collaborative approaches. In many areas, one would benefit from getting out of the ideology and getting closer to science: build hypotheses, test them, analyze the results, and repeat until you find a model that works.
In education in particular, the United States has followed this path. They started off with an experiment in Florida and analyzed the results. Today they are trying to expand nationally. In France, we tend to remain stuck on ideological positions, we oppose them, and feed a debate that generates too few experimental initiatives that would enable us to better understand and define paths to follow. Effective dialogue can also be leveraged. The Internet helps people think about an issue together. It is through dialogue, by bringing together start-ups and large groups as well as politicians and citizens that we will improve our understanding of these phenomena and these paths to follow. In this way, we will together be able to define experiments to carry out.
The typical digital way is to try. Try and fail. The great plans and great strategies driven by ideology are inconclusive.
In your book, two types of actors occupy prominent places: the innovators and the digital giants. However, old corporates are virtually absent from your thoughts. Does it mean that they have no role to play in this new era, have they already lost the fight ?
On the contrary, they have a big role to play. Together with Nicolas Colin I wrote an article about the difficulties groups listed on the CAC 40 face with regard to digital solutions. Following this article, I had the opportunity to meet with many CEOs and I must admit that the crushing majority of them do not fully understand what is happening. What I describe in my book applies to institutional actors and policy makers as well as to leaders of big groups. This is not surprising in that they have similar education and as a result make the same mistakes.
Do you have an example ?
Yes, a story illustrates this misconception perfectly. I met with the manager of a hotel group. He talked to me for an hour about the repositioning of his brand and his marketing strategy. After this long speech, I questioned his views on the changes occurring in his sector and the place digital intermediates occupy today, highlighting that they hold 25% of the market in terms of value. He replied that he does nothing and that there’s nothing to do about it. He adds that some of his competitors contacted him to suggest jointly driven actions but that he declined. It’s a triple mistake. Thinking we can do nothing, doing nothing and staying alone. I do not always feel that there is the necessary awareness from these big and established groups. However, digital players increasingly attack them. They act relatively little and experiment even less. They are taking a big risk.
Is this problem specific to France ?
No, this is not a French peculiarity. We find this attitude in other countries, even in the United States. However, some groups like General Electric stand out, groups who led several significant initiatives in terms of the mobilizing the masses (crowdfunding, partnership with Quirky…). Some actors have understood the move towards “corporate platforms”.
“I had the opportunity to meet with many CEOs and I must admit that the crushing majority of them do not fully understand what is happening.”
They are few. It’s also a conditioned reflex from the ones whose positions are threatened. They devote most of their efforts defending the model that allowed their domination and little of their efforts – or none at all – are devoted to making their model evolve.
With this new digital era, we can see two possible scenarios: emancipation of the individual and domination by platforms. What will bring us more towards one or the other of these extremes ?
Regulation has a determining role to play and is twofold: promote initiatives that contribute to emancipation and regulate dominant positions. Regarding the first role, the state may establish regulations favoring crowdfunding, for instance, and more generally favoring the sharing economy. It can also give incentives to companies implementing open APIs. Finally, it can provide a framework to the contribution principles in place at Wikipedia for example. Regarding the second, it concerns the mandate of competition authorities in Europe and in the United States. The problem is that dominant firms are legally heavily armed and that authorities sometimes struggle to follow. This is a critical issue as we must avoid creating dominations leading to disproportionate income, which is particularly effective in network economies. It seems normal that innovation outweighs the established order, but it is less normal when those who have deep pockets win because they have more available resources and can suck others dry via dumping. More generally – and it is the topic of a section of the book – upcoming regulatory changes are enormous. It is very likely that we are about to see a significant regulatory cycle.
In which areas ?
Labor law, the workplace, intellectual property rights and taxation. The principles that guide us today emerged from the Second Industrial Revolution. They had already disrupted those of the first Industrial Revolution. There is little doubt that they will again be redefined during this new digital era.
The book ends with an observation: the lack of utopias. Where to find them ?
To be a little bit provocative, I will mention some of my friends, who have been involved for many years in the Larzac communities. These communities have very structured operating rules and particularly interesting exchange rules. These rules are not only based on ideology, they also embody a utopia. Whether or not one adheres to it, whether one agrees or not with its assumptions, this utopia is useful to public debate. One would benefit from involving the leaders of this utopia in public debate, especially as those who drive and follow a dream are rare and option have the ability to debate and argue differently. We all have to learn from dreamers.
Interview by Louis-David Benyayer
Translation by Céline Conrardy with the help of George Husni