Features & Columns

C2-MTL conference

A Montreal conference stresses the power of imagination—
from street mimes to Steve Jobs' yacht
Philippe Starck PROFESSIONAL DREAMER: Philippe Starck told the audience about the routes to creativity and a much-younger wife. Photograph by Allen McEachern

Under the tagline of Commerce and Creativity (C2), the second annual C2-MTL conference unfolded last week in Montreal. Quite a few notable speakers attended the first affair last year—Francis Ford Coppola, Arianna Huffington and Michael Eisner to name but a few—and this year's three-day circus likewise drew a variety of celebs and CEOs waxing poetic on the necessity of creativity at all levels of business.

The anti-man-about-town flew out from Silicon Valley and observed the muse meeting the business plan firsthand.

This was not a normal business conference. The Montreal joie de vivre fortified everything, so instead of year-old Bigelow tea bags, horrible coffee and generic convention-center hors d'oeuvres, the food included grilled octopus, braised oxtail and linguini with cuttlefish ink.

Folks cracked open bottles of champagne at lunch. Since Montreal is one of the UNESCO Cities of Design, a pop-up shop offered wares from local designers. And Montreal's creative subcultures are part of how it brands itself as a city. Gee, what a concept.

Fred Dust of IDEO took the stage first, opening the show with a humble yet provocative philosophy of looking at the world and human systems from a designer's perspective. Design is everything, he said. It impacts all that we do.

Be brave in your designs, he stressed, and learn empathy for those you're designing for. This can apply to designing products, neighborhoods, economics, business models or even art.

An example: The mayor of Bogota, Colombia, didn't know how to deal with rampant traffic offenses, so he designed a team to replace traffic cops with mimes. Knowing that Colombians value their pride above all else, it was an experiment. The mimes publicly ridiculed those who committed traffic offenses, and as a result, the offenses decreased dramatically. That, says Dust, was a brave and creative idea.

Such was the attitude of the entire conference. C2-MTL head honcho Jean-Franois Bouchard explained that creativity is at the root of everything we know. Everything starts with a creative thought. The shoes you're wearing, the seat you're sitting on, the films you watch, the home you live in, the drugs that cure you, the bicycle you ride—they all started with a creative idea somewhere.

Everything is the product of human imagination. Innovation is neither a fad nor a mere "division" in your company. Nowadays, it must be the main function of your organization. Creativity involves everybody. Even the bean counters.

Many presenters reiterated that sentiment, usually in the context of his or her own work. World-renowned designer Philppe Starck characterized his 40-year career with several buzzwords, including honesty, ethics, subversion and invisibility, all as examples of creativity.

In a thick French accent, Starck also felt the need to tell everyone that his latest wife is 33 years younger than he is. He facetiously declared himself a genius and said he was onstage to impress her, since she was in the audience. "I am not a businessman," he said. "I am a professional dreamer."

When it came to his own work, Starck provided several examples. He deliberately taps into everyone's collective memory bank when designing shapes and motifs. He takes obsolete designs and gives them new spirit.

Starck also famously designed Steve Jobs' multimillion-dollar minimalistic yacht, articulating Starck's concept of dematerialization.

With that, the anti-man-about-town felt proud to be from Silicon Valley. One night, he parties with Nolan Bushnell, who originally employed Steve Jobs 41 years ago, and then five days later, he flies to French Canada and lurks around Starck, who designed Jobs' yacht. Everything seemed connected via creativity and the writing of this column.

But I digress. So much imagination went down at C2-MTL, it was impossible to keep track. Neri Oxman of the MIT Media Lab explained how measuring silkworm activity could be mapped onto textile fabrication and architecture. If we want to learn the future of electronics, Oxman said, we need to study biology. Other presenters included Diane von Furstenberg and Richard Branson. In Montreal, they say parfait ("perfect") after every other sentence. I found myself repeating the same thing.