Rethinking the revolution

We need both the left and the right side of our brains to fight for needed radical change

David McCourt,  author of Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. Photograph:  Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

David McCourt, author of Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. Photograph: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

 

Revolutionaries from the past tend to morph into romantic icons; think Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Robespierre. From the safety of history, it’s possible to admire their determination and dedication without condoning their often destructive and violent tactics.

Yet living revolutionaries are not always so popular beyond their immediate following. They threaten the status quo and, for many, a comfortable way of life. So why have I subtitled my recently-published book, “Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries”?

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable,” said John F Kennedy. And I believe that peaceful upheaval is essential if we are to cope with the challenges the rest of the century is bound to throw at us. As Kennedy implied, the alternative could be even worse.

It’s a cliche, but also a fact, that technology is progressing too fast for us to keep up - and it would be so easy to get left behind. I always think of those old steam trains still in use in India. They chug along, passengers packed in so tightly they can hardly breathe and with even more people grabbing onto the sides and roof for dear life. Now India’s prime minister has commissioned the country’s first high-speed railway from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. The new trains will travel up to 200 miles and hour, so no more sitting on the roof. All those who can’t afford a ticket will be able to do is stand back and watch as the future shoots by.

This could be our fate as well, unless we can rise to the occasion and find a way to jump onboard, taking all those also waiting at the station with us too. Just consider the huge bullet trains driving through our business landscape; Amazon upending the world of retail (now with a market cap of $765bn), Spotify ($28bn market cap) disrupting the entire music business, Netflix ($142bn market cap - worth more than Ford and GE and “creeping up on Disney”) and Irish based Stripe (now valued at over $9bn), playing similar havoc in the world of online payments.

Today’s technology goes beyond previous linear approaches, with algorithms sorting through billions of pieces of data to find patterns and connections unrecognisable to humans. In the same way, we must stop thinking in straight lines, for example about major world problems such as rich and poor, science and art, policy making and regulation, left and right wing, business and public service. We need leaders and entrepreneurs with duality, who can think and act using both sides of their brain. It’s no longer enough to say, “well, I’m a creative type” and ignore technology, math and science or “I’m a physicist or a chemist” and not consider how the arts impact the world. As Einstein said: “Logic will get you from A to B, imagination will get you everywhere.” Now more than ever we need people to dig deep and develop both skillsets.

For this reason, I believe the word “entrepreneur” should be used loosely. A revolutionary entrepreneur is, in fact anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. After all, change isn’t confined to business. Today’s healthcare is being transformed by advances such as 3D printing, remote diagnoses and electronic health trackers, education is being rebuilt by e-learning and video classrooms.

But, I’m not just talking about technological change. There are so many structures in our lives that need reinventing - and I mean total rebuilding; the political system, diplomacy, taxation, wealth distribution, the refugee crisis, to name but a few. As a Catholic, I also include the church in this list.

It wasn’t so long ago that the secret of success was incremental change - a tweak to the way a service was delivered, a tightening of overhead, a slight adjustment to pricing – historically all adding up to a substantial improvement to the bottom line. But, we’ve gone beyond this now. Like the disruptive businesses mentioned earlier, we need to rethink the model, be creative, take a risk and ruffle the surface.

I believe this applies even to the most serious of arenas; the way we fight against those who terrorise others. Whatever we have been doing for the past few decades has just not worked. The Western method of making war failed in Vietnam and it has failed in the Middle East. But still we continue to do the same things, wasting money and energy, destroying lives and infrastructure and breeding more enmity and hatred for the future.

What technology is also doing is cutting out the middle man. Crowdsourcing is taking the place of bank managers, Airbnb, Expedia and Booking.com replacing the travel agent, Ryanair has pioneered the self check-in on smartphones and journalists look to Twitter to monitor public opinion. However, this transfer of influence is only part of the current power shift. The combination of technology, social media and the way people now absorb information, particularly the younger generations, means that the top-down centralised way we have been running the world for the last couple of centuries is no longer a viable model to follow.

We have before us a time of enormous opportunities. However, these could easily slip through our fingers due to the greed and conservatism of the establishments that dominate the economy. There is always, of course, the danger that the wrong people will emerge to take advantage of these opportunities and use them for destructive purposes. ISIS has already showed us how a small organisation can create an illusion of themselves through social media.

Critics will say that revolution could give a voice to those whose plan it is to harm others and who have agendas that push civilisation backward rather than forward. But these are the minority - and it is the majority that is winning the battle and will shift the power over all.

I may not sound like a natural revolutionary; a successful Irish-American business person who has founded or bought 20 companies in nine countries over the last 30 years, winning an Emmy on the way, but I became an entrepreneur for the joy of doing things differently, to rethink the model and to change things in ways that would eventually bring benefits to everyone. And you can’t get a much more radical manifesto than that.

  • David McCourt is the author of Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries
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