Some of you may have read my recent piece Silicon Valley: The Next Decade in which I discuss the evolution of Silicon Valley toward a place that has a spirit that is more in tune with the liberal, performing, and visual arts, a sharper focus on human-centric computing, and a vision for a new renaissance that fuses ideas from information technology with those from the arts. The piece was earlier published on my blog and triggered many interesting discussions, both online and offline, one of which happened in France over a lovely lunch at a small village called La Garde-Adhémar in Drôme during one of our trips to Provence.
These discussions and our recent travels have given me reason to revisit the subject, although with a slightly different perspective. While I have focused on Silicon Valley's next renaissance, coming at it from the technology side and seeking an infusion of the arts into the region, it may be just as reasonable to seek an infusion of technology into robust, thriving arts and culture communities, especially in Europe.
Why especially in Europe?
In my experience, Europe preserves, packages, and markets culture better than any other place in the world. And the French may be the best at this, including from a policy point of view. To give you an example, last week we were at a small village called Grignan that just finished its annual letter-writing festival:
The fame of Grignan is of a literary nature; this Provençal village cannot be disassociated from her, who made it famous through her correspondence, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné.
"The prettiest girl in France marries, not only the most handsome boy, but the most honest man in the kingdom." When Françoise Marguerite married the Count of Grignan in 1671, she went to live with him in Grignan. It was the start of a long series of correspondence between the mother, who stayed in Paris, and the daughter. The letters of the marquise de Sévigné are a masterpiece of literature, known by all schoolchildren in France. (Avignon-et-Provence.com)
In honor of the marquise and her letters, Grignan hosts its Festival de la correspondence each year. The post office mails all hand-written letters free.
Charming, isn't it?
In Avignon, as we visited the magnificent Palais des Papes where Pope Clement V moved the seat of the papacy from Rome in 1309, we saw posters for the annual arts festival everywhere. What a celebration of the performing arts it is!
The Festival d'Avignon is an annual arts festival founded in 1947 by the actor and director Jean Vilar, it is the oldest extant festival in France and one of the world's greatest. In 2008, some 950 shows were performed during three weeks.
Since 1980, the festival has been organized by a nonprofit organization, which is administered by a board of trustees composed of the French state, the city of Avignon, the Département du Vaucluse, the Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, and seven public figures competent in the field of theater. Among other places, the shows are performed in the Cour d'Honneur - the honor courtyard - of thePalais des Papes, the place of residence of the Avignon papacy during most of the 14th century. [Wikipedia]
And on our last night, in Orange, we listened to a spellbinding performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Roman theater as part of the famous music festival that also takes place every year and is largely focused on opera. In 1869, the theater was restored, and it has been the site of a music festival for many years.
This is just a representative sample of what happens in Europe during the summer. Many more major and minor celebrations of the arts and culture take place all over Europe, every day.
In London, for instance, theater is still a way of life. Industry research indicates that in recent years theater attendance has been very strong even though film has come to dominate over the past several decades. On this trip, we saw one of the best plays we have ever seen (although I say that with care, having seen a few other equally spectacular plays in London over the years). "War Horse" was simply magical. Not only was it a beautiful story of a boy's beloved horse that had been sold to the cavalry during the First World War, it is also a show of great innovation. Life-size horses charge on stage. They gallop, snort, and buck. But they are puppets strong enough for the actors to ride.
Today, Europe is in trouble economically. Chronic debt crises, stagnating GDPs, staggering unemployment - all point to a bleak future. The future belongs to the Chinese, the Indians, and the Latin Americans.
But does it, really? Isn't there an innate intelligence and resilience in the European way of life?
Europe cares greatly about keeping farmers in their villages, fostering a decentralized policy that encourages, through farming subsidies, a healthy, natural way of life that is rooted in sustainability and quality of life, not rampant and mindless urbanization.
As a result, if you go to the farmer's markets at small Provençal villages like Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, Nyons, and Grignan, they are full of both small producers and customers. You will find there great fruits, vegetables, cheese, fish, and meat - most of it local or at least regional. And the farmers are actively engaged at these markets.
In France, of course, food is a religion, so these markets are also religious experiences that are a touchstone of society.
Agriculture is a major force in France's economy, and almost 25% of the EU's total agricultural products are produced in that country. The government provides subsidies to the agricultural sector, and the development of this sector is likely to give export activities a further boost as a global food shortage looms. Further, as the rest of the world becomes increasingly sophisticated, the demand for products for which France is famous, such as cheese and wine, is increasing.
And then, of course, there is tourism. Apart from trade, tourism is also a big contributor to France's GDP. Indeed, France rules the tourism industry: More than 82 million tourists visit the country each year for its rich heritage and culture, which are immaculately preserved by the government and beautifully packaged and marketed to the rest of the world.
And therein lie some of the answers and opportunities for the next European renaissance.
Whether it is in Silicon Valley, China, India, or Latin America - the lure of European destinations, the sites and sounds, the classical architecture, ruins, historical monuments, and for some, the way of life that so elegantly serves up arts, culture, food, and wine - will always be a powerful draw. If today 82 million tourists visit France, in a decade, that number will rise to 150 million. If today French wine exports are just getting back to prefinancial crisis levels, in a decade, as more Chinese and Indians learn to appreciate wine, the numbers will inevitably rise.
Bottom line, the wealth that is being generated in Silicon Valley, India, and China will need to be spent, invested, and enjoyed, and Europe will continue to be a major influencer in that process.
My real question, however, is: Can Europe be more?
Remember, we started this discussion with the premise that the next renaissance will be at the confluence of technology and the arts. By "technology," I am referring primarily to information technology and computing.
As for other technologies, there are significant expertise and major industries such as automotive and aeronautics in Europe. German brands like Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Audi are market leaders. Airbus is a massive aircraft maker that leads the market alongside Boeing in America. The industrial machinery industry is also strong in both Germany and Italy.
But I am thinking primarily about the potential of IT and computing to set in motion a new renaissance, and even more specifically, the Internet and mobile computing technologies.
With that in mind, let's take a look at an example of a concept that started in France in 2001. France is arguably the capital of the fashion and luxury industries, and it is not a surprise that the notion of hosting online private sales for fashion and other luxury products was born there. The company that invented the concept was Vente-Privee.
In 2000, Jacques-Antoine Granjon and his team began to experiment with the sale of previous seasons' stock through limited-time sales events on the Internet. The principle was to fulfill supplier's needs to quickly sell old stock without harming the brand or competing with other distribution channels, while generating maximum revenue from the sales.
Over the past decade, more than 30 other websites built on this concept have emerged in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the United States. Some regular e-business websites have moved to the private sales as part of their offers (e.g., cdiscount.com and rueducommerce.com).
In the United States, Gilt Groupe has emerged as the leader in private sales. It has more than $500 million in revenue, compared with$1.5 billion for Vente-Privee. Other players in the sector include Rue La La,Ideeli, One Kings Lane, HauteLook, as well as more traditional retailers like Saks, and online players like Blue Nile. Everyone is now offering private sales and daily deals to create excitement and bring traffic to their sites.
For consumers, scouting for deals on fashion and luxury products has become infinitely easier, and even designers now have additional and efficient channels through which to connect to them. For the fashion industry as a whole, this innovation has been a large step forward using human-centric computing.
What is interesting about this particular trend is that it was born in France, not in Silicon Valley, and even its American replication has happened in New York, not in Silicon Valley.
Why is that relevant?
Well, New York and Paris are centers of fashion where a deeper understanding of how that industry works is readily available. The technology, in this case, is relatively simple, but the innovation comes at the cusp of that deeper understanding of the fashion business and the possibilities of electronic commerce.
Another example of a business born out of an amateur photographer's love for high-quality photo books is Blurb. Eileen Gittins founded the company because she was unable to get any printer to print high-quality, limited runs of books based on her photography. This business is based in Silicon Valley, but again, the technology itself is relatively less complex than what Silicon Valley specializes in.
The important point is that these are innovations in two arts-related fields - fashion and photography - and for such innovation to happen, knowledge and understanding of the arts is critical.
My hypothesis is that Europe continues to be a mecca of culture, and there is adequate technical expertise on that continent to come up with more significant concepts that may become drivers of major trends in the same way that Vente-Privee has been the starting point for such momentum in the fashion and luxury sectors.
I am, of course, extremely curious to see what some of those new trends will be.
Developing ideas and insights that create major shifts and trends, solve humanity's important problems, improve the quality of life for people around the world, lead to prosperity, and result in lasting achievements - this is our quest.
The question we are exploring is whether Europe's recognized enthusiasm for culture in its various forms - food, music, architecture, literature, and many more - and greater commitment to the preservation and promotion of such expressions of culture would offer a good platform for generating new and important ideas given that the enabling technology may not need to be quite that complex.
My sense is yes, they would.
Among other things, if innovators in Silicon Valley and elsewhere immerse themselves in the cultures in Europe, my hypothesis is that they will gain access to different perspectives and insights with which to approach their own entrepreneurship.
Their tastes will, I imagine, become more mature and sophisticated.
The resulting fusion of cultures - ethnic, interdisciplinary, cross-functional - all of it, my instinct says, will lead to exciting possibilities.Here are some ideas I would be interested in seeing explored as part of this experiment:
- French and Italian designers collaborating with Indian artisans to produce global e-commerce brands in fashion, home furnishings, furniture, and so on, thereby lifting large masses of people out of poverty. Those interested can read my book Vision India 2020, especially the following chapters: Urja, Oishi, Gagori, Palanquin, and Patami. The same concept would apply to Africa, East Asia, and Latin America.
- Innovative chefs from Europe setting up world-class restaurants in Silicon Valley to further develop the palates of the Valley's affluent. Aided by TV shows like "Top Chef," there is increasing interest in the culinary arts, and at the higher end of the market this could translate into opportunities for chefs. The question I am interested in is, What innovations await at the cusp of food and information technology? I developed one idea in this domain in Vision India 2020 called Thakur. However, I have several other ideas as well. And concepts like Yelp have already started to revolutionize the marketing of restaurants.
- Culture enthusiasts, art dealers, and entertainment industry visionaries from Europe investing in and developing a commitment to and passion for arts and culture around the world, both to develop new markets and to explore opportunities for fusion. For example, I would love to have a theater festival akin to the Avignon festival here in Silicon Valley, but for something like that to become commercially viable, the taste of the community as a whole needs to be developed. Online marketing concepts like Groupon and Facebook may well be the secret sauce in building more culture 'scenes' around the world.
- Preservation experts playing a role in restoring historical monuments, architecture, and ways of life around the world such that China doesn't bulldoze its built heritage and India doesn't just build poor-quality concrete structures in place of majestic buildings. In Vision India 2020, I have a chapter called Renaissance, and on this blog, a series called As India Builds for those interested in learning more about the subject. Already, we have seen TripAdvisor and AirB&B play a role in marketing hotels and other travel accommodations. Online travel continues to be an active category for innovation.
So, the role I see for Europe is in reaching out to the rest of the world and taking a leadership stance in developing taste. Whether it is educating the Chinese market about French and Italian wines, or packaging culture for the consumption of Silicon Valley's geeks, there is a European renaissance possible. But it will likely not be one concentrated in Paris or Florence; rather, it will be an international renaissance whereby Europe exports its strengths in culture, preservation, cuisine, and style to a world growing in wealth and sophistication.
The by-product of that kind of wide-ranging taste-making will also yield gains for Europe on its own soil. Like me, people who are seduced by the European way of life, the cobblestone streets of Toledo, the joys of discovering designers like Sarah Pacini or Alfredo Dominguez before they were well known, and the pleasure of a three-hour lunch in the Provençal village of Vinsobres, will always come to visit.
They will come to Europe to look for the real thing - the je ne sais quoi missing from their everyday lives in Shanghai or San Francisco.
[Note: This piece was written a while back, but the thoughts are still relevant.]