Digital Game Changers Hail the Web's Transformative Potential

In recent years, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has been broadcasting selected performances in high-definition video to theaters throughout the U.S. and world. Viewers in Wichita, Kansas, and Warsaw, Poland are able enjoy an experience that is not that far off from sitting inside the Met.

The Met's "Live in HD" broadcasts exemplify the ways in which digital technologies can change the game. They have expanded the audience and altered the economics of opera, both for the Met but also regional companies whose patrons may ultimately decide that high-definition broadcast of world-class performances are good enough and skip the next live local performance of Rigoletto.

This morning, The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) hosted a breakfast at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on the transformative potential of digital technologies, with an august cast of panelists: Marc Benioff, the founder of; Matt Brittin, vice president of northern and central Europe for Google; Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post; Steve Mollenkopf, president of Qualcomm; and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.

These organizations have also changed the game. Google and Wikipedia have shaped, catalogued, and made sense of the explosion of information wrought by the Internet. The Huffington Post has mastered the art of online content development, aggregation, and amplification, while has demonstrated the power of cloud computing to distribute knowledge within and across companies and customers. Qualcomm is a behind-the-scenes player in the development of wireless devices that will bring nearly half the world's population online by 2016

The panelists discussed how to use technology in the context of the overarching theme of this year's meeting in Davos: resilient dynamism. Google's Brittin talked about how the Internet is helping to drive global growth. The "Internet economy" is growing by 8 percent annually in mature countries and 18 percent in emerging countries -- far faster than the underlying economies in these markets. Brittin noted that small- and medium-sized companies that embrace the Internet grow between four and eight times faster than those that do not.

For governments facing tough choices about where to devote limited resources, investments in broadband infrastructure and universal connectivity provide meaningful economic and societal benefits. Governments also have a positive role to play in fostering a climate of innovation and entrepreneurship. That often means resisting the urge to control and regulate.

Connectivity is helping to generate economic dynamism. The next generation of mobile will become a "dashboard" of people's lives, Salesforce's Benioff said at the breakfast. In emerging markets, financial institutions have used mobile technologies to bring banking services to the unbanked. Qualcomm's Mollenkopf talked about how the growth of the "Internet of things" and embedded sensors are starting to enable smart devices to suggest purchases to consumers in real time.

The "social enterprise," enabled by cloud computing and social media, is also creating more dynamic and fluid interactions both within and across organizations. Benioff explained how leading companies are starting to deploy cloud technologies to tighten their ties with customers. At Burberry's flagship store in London, for example, articles of clothing carry RFID tags that allow customers to view multimedia displays of related content, such as how the product is made and will look with other articles of clothing, on in-store displays.

Resilience is the other half of the Davos agenda. Connectivity has allowed citizens to bend the future of their home countries toward openness and freedom. While the uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa are the most notable example, Huffington discussed how citizen journalism is playing a positive role in society. Wales noted Wikipedia's vision is to "give everyone on the planet access to all the knowledge in the world," a goal that can help to increase transparency and opportunity. Interestingly, Wales said, the reading habits of the mature and emerging worlds are remarkably similar.

The digital world is not Panglossian. Big Data can enable innovation but also disrupt privacy -- which is one of the reasons that BCG and WEF have been jointly developing principles on the use of personal data.

Still, technology has the potential to generate growth and reshape the nature of work, collaboration, and economic activity. But it takes people with the vision to challenge the status quo, envision the future, and go for it. If technology can fundamentally transform opera, an art form that traces to the close of the 16th century, it can play a similar role in far younger companies and organizations with less in the way of legacy.


Paul Zwillenberg is a partner in The Boston Consulting Group's Technology, Media & Telecommunications practice.