Last week we attended the Singularity Summit. During this two day celebration of all things technologically progressive, we enjoyed the summit’s signature cocktail of research, futurism, and metaphysics. Speakers speculated on topics ranging from virtual realities, cybernetics, and what post-carbon life would be like for mankind. As we listened, we were struck that even for this group of ardent technology enthusiasts, there was an excitement and energy that came from gathering in a single room and meeting face to face.
Despite the rapid advances in telepresence and distributed working tools, people still brave traffic and go to the office. Business travel is on the rise as people congregate for meetings and conferences. Attendees pay $7,500 for tickets to TED talks when the content is all posted free of charge on their website. And 250 leaders [including John Hagel] will attend Techonomy 2012 in Tucson starting Sunday. Are we just stubborn creatures of habit who are slow to adopt a better solution? Or, is there a fundamental value to the brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-bone world that cannot be replaced?
There is nothing as compelling as direct human interaction. It strengthens trust, creates serendipity, and fosters community in an irreplaceable way. And although technology is progressing, there will always be a premium placed on meeting in person.
Face to face interactions provide us with a much richer context that helps to build deeper trust. There is a richness and depth of information that comes from physical cues, such as the firmness of a handshake or the sweatiness of someone’s palm, that are invaluable. Even subtle details, such as the state of someone’s office or how stressed their administrative assistant looks, provide context and clues that help us decide how to act, and are impossible to convey virtually.
Then there is also an authenticity that comes from the “off-camera moments” that accompany face-to-face interactions. Small talk before meetings start, coffee breaks, and running into people into the halls all provide a litany of unscripted, unorchestrated interactions that make it difficult for people to package themselves. The resulting mutual transparency inspires a confidence and trust that is much more difficult and time-consuming to develop through other means. Trust-based relationships are fundamental to effectively participating in the knowledge flows that accelerate learning and performance improvement, something that is becoming more and more essential in a world of mounting performance pressure.
When people come together in physical environments, they also shape the potential for much greater serendipity.  Sure, there’s serendipity online—we’ve all had the experience of coming across a blogger or participant in a discussion forum whom we had never met before, but who turns out to have a really interesting twist on an issue or problem we had been exploring. But most of us are not online all the time. What happens when we’re offline? How much additional serendipity can we generate in those offline hours? As we observed in a previous Techonomy post, this is one of the reasons we are accelerating our movement into densely populated cities. But it also helps to explain our growing participation in conferences and social gatherings of various types. Serendipity can be fun and rewarding on many levels, but it is also becoming increasingly critical to accelerating our learning and performance improvement. In a world of more and more uncertainty and rapid change, it is those unexpected encounters that can make the difference between success and failure.
The power of face-to-face interaction is relevant in the retail space as well. Even with increasing sales online, the brick and mortar establishments that understand the importance of bringing people together are thriving. This is part of the Apple store’s success; it boasts a higher revenue per square foot than any other retailer. In addition to well-designed floor plans and interacting with products and specialists, part of the Apple store experience is engaging with fellow Mac enthusiasts, both casually and in training programs and classes that the stores host. The result is that Apple has turned its stores into enthusiast community centers, creating experiences that incorporate human interactions into the shopping experience that can’t be replicated by online retailers.
While Apple has a particularly ardent fan base (there’s even an online dating site exclusively for Apple users called “Cupidtino”), we think there is potential for brick-and-mortar establishments of all kinds to adopt a similar model in order to bring their clientele together. The key is to use the physical space to bring people together around a shared interest to create a community. For example, camera shops could hold classes or convene groups for photography trips. We can imagine big-box electronics companies using their cavernous stores to host gaming tournaments, local DJs shows, or Sunday football parties. While it might be initially tricky to monetize such events, stores could partner with other organizations to help sponsor events, and it would potentially increase sales, brand appeal, and give even the largest chains a feeling of local community.
Sure, there are plenty of examples of online communities, but here’s an interesting observation: Participants in every online community that we have joined have ultimately tried to find opportunities to meet in physical space as well. Communities that blend interactions in virtual and physical space ultimately become much stronger and effective than those remaining in virtual space alone. Since communities are a key platform for accelerated learning and performance improvement, interactions in physical space help to amplify our ability to pursue these important quests.
Ultimately, what we value most are relationships and experiences. Call us old fashioned, but even if you could somehow perfectly replicate the subtle richness of the full sensory experience, we think people would still prefer the trust, serendipity, and strengthened community that comes from of face-to-face interactions. At least as long as we’re still carbon based, that is.
John Hagel III, director at Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. Hagel was a speaker at Techonomy 2012 in the “Heart of the City” session. Click here for a complete video archive of Techonomy 2012.