Digitick, KisskissBankBank, Bureaux à partager: these are just three of the many start-ups given a kick-start by Fabernovel, an international innovation agency founded by 41-year-old Stéphane Distinguin. A graduate of Paris business school ESCP, this multi-talented entrepreneur is considered one of the most influential members of Paris’ digital ecosystem. Also a member of France’s National Digital Council and chairman of Cap Digital, Distinguin works tirelessly to introduce digital technology into organisations, in France but also overseas (Fabernovel has offices in San Francisco, New York, Moscow and Lisbon). Who better, then, to talk about the reality of introducing digital in companies?
“Digital: my generation’s revolution”
When summing up the digital movement, Distinguin quotes speculative fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
He expands on this, stressing the importance of giving as many people as possible access to the transformational potential of digital:
“You have to get the most out of it and distribute it widely. At first, digital was just a passion for me, then as I got into design, inventing objects and going into business it led be directly back to it. Now it’s still a passion, but I have a responsibility: when you’re lucky enough to work in a field that recruits and is changing the world and opening up lots of new possibilities, you have a duty to help other people understand this and share it with them. Digital isn’t just a technical and technological phenomenon but a social one too: it’s not just our clients that we have to give access to digital technology.”
My wife says…
Without claiming to know the secret to bringing digital to all organisations, this self-styled “digital militant” has very strong beliefs on the subject:
“Think of Mrs Colombo, the wife of the famous detective: he often quotes her, almost as an authority on certain matters, which shows the importance of relying on external expertise and insights. And when you look at companies, it’s often the managers’ children or nieces or nephews who ask questions that shake things up and help them move forward. Bosses’ first ideas come from young people. Digital technology is surprising, it challenges the hierarchy in companies: you can be young and be right – just like in the rock or pop world.”
But Distinguin is also realistic: he knows there are legions of new-generation digital makers emerging (“I’m practically a veteran!”), and is also acutely aware of the realities of the market: he takes the example of Google, who met with a great deal of scepticism at the time of the IPO back in 2004… and look at them now.
“I use the example of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon, who are widely acknowledged as digital giants, to show how fast things can move with digital, and companies generally understand pretty quickly what I mean.”
“Startups have reinvented design and development models, even for larger organisations”
Provided they are open-minded, that they listen to young companies who “have completely changed – in a positive way – the way projects are run.” A company director therefore needs to be a digital ambassador:
“He has to provide the right working conditions to allow people to take risks, stimulate this spirit of experimentation, of learning and progressing more quickly. He should also be a visionary. In this fast-paced world, you have to set a course and stick to it, attract and recruit talent. It’s also vital to change the corporate culture in terms of risk-taking and value the employees, as if they too have set up their own company or are going to. It’s no use just rewarding success.”
Distinguin doesn’t, however, rule out the possibility of failure in the democratisation of digital:
“Failure is due to mistakes in methods and partnerships. It’s important to be agile, to be quick and keep pace with changing projects. There’s always a power dynamic, but you have to handle this in a practical, regular way. In any major revolution, industrial and economic factors have repercussions on democracy. When some Californian companies have well over 90% market share, there’s a serious threat to net neutrality. Digital mustn’t create yet another divide, it shouldn’t exclude people. It’s difficult for the law to adapt to these changes and enforce rules and systems that keep pace with change.”
“Digital must live up to its promises”
In terms of keeping pace with change, France is something of a trailblazer in Europe: in a recent UN report on digital governance, France ranked top in terms of human resources, investments in telecom infrastructures and online public services. Whilst Distinguin acknowledges that the US – particularly California – Israel, Scandinavia and China are “major digital powers,” he also stresses that France is also a digital force to be reckoned with:
“Voyagesscnf.com* is a leading e-commerce site, with a committed digital policy. Vélib’, Autolib’ (bike and car hire services in Paris and other major cities) and Blablacar (an online carpooling service) are fantastic digital projects, which make people’s everyday lives much easier. They may not immediately seem overtly digital – but all the infrastructure supporting them – the kiosks, customer accounts, etc. are digitals services.”
*The French national railways’ online booking service”.
Where digital is concerned, you have to strike while the iron is hot, and go from being reactive to proactive:
“If you look at the penetration rate of digital equipment, particularly with people in our company, everything is already there. What we need to do now is take the plunge, by sharing this technology with companies. There are obvious inequalities: people who have progressed more quickly than others, certain industries that have overtaken others. Digital should facilitate the sharing of digital. Where “Digital for All, Now” is concerned, “Now”, means being aware of the responsibility we have and the importance of speeding up this trend: it’s now, not later.”
Photo : Innovation, photo by Boargh, licence CC BY-SA 2.0