Corrupt civil servants, shady engineering bosses, a mayor who didn’t see anything and another who allegedly acted as a gangster, although – and this is a redeeming factor – he does not smoke crack. It seems the news coming out of Montreal these days couldn’t be any grimmer.
It is against this backdrop that opened C2-Mtl, a business conference that brings together the best in Montreal showmanship and forward thinking. So big a deal this is that Mark Carney’s last speech as Governor of the Bank of Canada, at the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, was overshadowed on Tuesday’s radio shows by the opening of this three-day event.
Quebec artists have long made Montreal shine around the world, from Arcade Fire to Céline Dion, from the Cirque du Soleil to Les 7 doigts de la main and Moment Factory. But as Jean-François Bouchard, president of ad agency Sid Lee and curator of the event, puts it, C2-Mtl is about creating a bridge between commerce and creativity – hence the conference’s name.
Business conferences are just that, a business. And to sell their high-priced tickets, many organizations such as TED or South by Southwest vie to attract the most-sought-after speakers in media and technology.
Held in a redesigned hangar in the formerly decrepit industrial district of Griffintown, C2-Mtl is no exception. It is upping the ante this year with entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Bobbi Brown, designer Philippe Starck and broadcasting mogul Barry Diller. In its first edition held last year, the event brought together Arianna Huffington, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Eisner and Google’s Patrick Pichette with his visionary colleague Robert Wong.
You would be hard pressed to find an event that has created such enthusiasm in Montreal since the world Expo 67 or the 1976 Olympics. All three levels of government, Ottawa, Quebec and Montreal, which together subsidize a fifth of the conference’s $10-million costs, want to be seen in such good company.
Jean-François Lisée, Quebec’s Minister for International Relations, the Francophonie and External Trade, likes to describe the conference as the “Davos of creativity.”
Creativity is an overused buzzword, and one could be forgiven for thinking that C2-Mtl is more show than business, with conferences by former model turned TV producer Elle Macpherson, acts by the Montreal Opera and the Cirque du Soleil, and parties hosted by world-renowned DJs.
But the conference finds its value in the experiences imparted by consultants and executives, many of whom work for or with traditional big businesses such as General Electric and Boeing.
Fred Dust is one of them. This architect and art historian by training argues that a designer’s sense of observation and insight into people’s perceptions of their environment can help businesses redesign their customer experiences.
The partner at consultancy firm Ideo has worked with Nike and is currently advising Weight Watchers International Inc. The American-based diet chain is reviewing its working model, which rests largely on a meeting where people who are unknown to each other talk about something that is deeply personal. Lost on some company executives was the fact that many people feel uncomfortable in such a setting.
Weight Watchers is now considering alternatives such as online meetings between groups of friends. “The way we consume and the way we engage as consumers is so different now that a lot of businesses are facing disruptions,” Mr. Dust says in an interview. “It is more critical than ever before for businesses to rethink their models.”
But for businesses to engage in “design thinking,” they need to observe for a long time before asking questions, and leave their preconceptions behind. It seems obvious, but it is actually much harder to do than say.
“The thing that stops most organizations is people saying: ‘We have already tried that before,’ ” Mr. Dust says. Reality is, if you tried it five years ago, then this is something new.”
It remains to be seen if the more than 2,000 people who attend the conference this year will bring any of that C2-Mtl spirit back home. But as Montreal tries to shake its Sin City reputation and rebrand itself as the creative thinking mecca of Canada, one thing is unequivocally certain. It beats watching the Charbonneau inquiry on corruption in Quebec on TV.