Curiosity is a critical skill for the future of work

Alfons Cornella is the Founder of the Institute of Next and of Infonomia, an innovation services company since 2000. He has published 33 books on business, technology, and innovation. He is a consultant to some of Spain’s largest companies and he also conveys his ideas and experiences through his conferences and seminars on innovation.

How would you describe yourself?

I would describe myself as someone who is curious and restless. I love exploring and learning new things so my interests have evolved over time. Of course, when you are younger curiosity comes more naturally than when you get older. That’s why I have to make a conscious effort through self-discipline to always remain curious. I remind myself that I will reap the rewards of my labour. Just like dolphins hunting for fish, I am excited at the anticipation of the reward. I dread those days when nothing happens, that tedious feeling, and am uplifted when I go to bed having earned that rest.

As your main areas of interest have evolved over time, what have been your key innovation learnings?

I have come to learn that innovation needs to be inextricably linked to systems thinking. There is often a confusion between innovation and creativity. Many people don’t think of themselves as creatives and hence sabotage their own innovation potential. However, we know systems innovation creates value. There is also the critical issue of how to reward contribution towards innovation. Innovation is typically developed by an innovator but is often blocked by those who need to implement it. We need to be realistic and understand that there is no incentive to implement unless there is an associated reward. Hence, all actors in the innovation process need to be involved and incentivised. What we find is that some key actors are afraid of change, or rather, to lose out as a result of the change. So more focus needs to be placed on a fair and transparent distribution of rewards for innovation to thrive.

Tell us about your key areas of concern/forward-thinking trends that you are currently working on?

I am currently focused on the fascinating subject of curiosity, which is a necessary element that needs to be promoted before any innovation occurs. Curiosity is also a critical foundation for mental and physical health. In this vein, I will be launching next year a digital platform, a sort of sandbox to spur curiosity and innovation, aimed mainly at innovation officers within organisations.

In addition, I am focused on redefining the meaning of progress. I am reflecting on how best to reassess the traditional notion of growth and shift to new formulas of growth whereby society at large thrives.


Curiosity is a necessary element that needs to be promoted before any innovation occurs.

How do you think the pandemic has impacted us as individuals, workers and collectively as citizens?

People have become savvier. People have self-organised and done things without following command and control instructions. Many people have asked themselves new compelling and powerful questions. On a negative note, I have also sensed an increase of social apathy. People have responded to the pandemic disruption from a place of fear and powerlessness. This situation has given way to a feeling of fragility which has focused people’s minds on more personal agendas like cultivating hobbies (2021 has been a record year for book sales) and online training. I see therefore a sense of vulnerability that cohabits with a certain inward-looking serenity. There is an enhanced awareness that life is increasingly unpredictable and beyond our control.

Do we need to re-assess the meaning of society's well-being, progress and growth?

From a philosophical standpoint, incessant growth and exploitation of planetary resources is no longer acceptable. We now need to strive for balance.

From a more technical point of view, the economy needs to factor in considerations regarding the value of nature. Natural capital needs to be accounted for. Investors need to understand nature and social impacts represent a cost on a par with other raw materials. Europe faces a great opportunity to shape this new global framework. A new long-term European agenda needs to emerge, one which is not impeded by short term political interests, that mobilises civil society and stimulates young citizens out of their current social apathy.

Can we identify best practices by countries/cultures/sectors/generations in the way they are addressing current challenges and transitioning to the new environment?

I think we need to focus on cities rather than on countries in order to find those inspiring best practices. Cities have more mobilisation capacity and are more agile and operational than countries. For instance, in some US cities vast free spaces around airports are being used for solar panels. Likewise, In many Nordic cities, a new wealth and value creation model is emerging based on intellectual capital.

We need to transition towards a new organisational model which bridges the gap between the city level and the supranational level. Nation-states have become a problem as they are hijacked by the elites. China, for instance, is an autocratic state, however, cities (some with a metropolitan extended area OF over 100 million inhabitants) are autonomous to a large extent and compete against each other for resources. 

We also need to transition towards a new political system to overcome the current dire institutional trust crisis. New organisational models around smaller groups are emerging. In this regard, we have the citizen assemblies in France whose members are selected randomly from the electoral register. They are charged with agreeing on common good agendas like the environmental strategy for their city.

We need to transition towards a new organisational model which bridges the gap between the city level and the supranational level.

Can you describe an ideal future-ready organisation which creates sustainable and positive impacts for all its stakeholders?

I don’t believe in big corporations’ sustainability claims as it is mostly marketing-led greenwashing. Corporates carry a very heavy legacy which stops them from being disruptive. I do have more faith in start-ups that emerge in traditional sectors to help  provide more sustainable solutions to the industry challenges. Start-ups like Honext in the construction sector, are born with the aim to address a well defined problem and bring a circular economy innovation solution to the market. I believe that in the next 10 years the big multinational model will run its course. The model whereby a few concentrate most of the wealth will be contested through a wave of populism which sooner or later will reach a breaking point. By 2040 the old model will be replaced with new corporate models and solutions with environmental and social equality at its core. “Dignity” will be a key concept in this mix. A new balance will be struck between the current expectations of freedom (without dignity) in the West and the current standards of dignity (without freedom) in Asia. This new organisational model will be ushered in by the cities. 

I don't believe in big corporations’ sustainability claims as it is mostly marketing-led greenwashing.

Can you describe an actual company which is trailblazing organisational innovation?

I like Haier,  a Chinese home appliances and consumer electronics company which is leading innovation by responding in a very agile manner to market needs. They foster intrapreneurship and a zero-distance-to-the-market culture. The Rendanheyi model, whereby employees realise their own value through creating value for users, is being exported worldwide. This model affords dignity to employees who earn a living by becoming an involved agent and generating value to themselves, the users and the company. 

What skills should a company promote and reward to adapt to a new work environment and what is the best way to achieve that goal?

First of all, companies should foster curiosity so that employees constantly scour the environment the companies operate in, their clients and competition.

Secondly, employees should embrace tech as a tool, as a driver which can make or break a business. Thirdly, focus on people empowerment as opposed to command and control. Fourthly, join new ecosystems to find companies that can multiply your capabilities to make innovative products and services. (e.g. Ikea and Amazon).

What are the new challenges/opportunities for organisations/public authorities in this new emerging environment?

Both public and private organisations need to become more technocratic and put at their helm intelligent and well trained individuals. The world is very complex so cannot be led by amateurs. Additionally, we need to select people who display active curiosity and this should be included in the job description. Very few new universities are founded these days but there is a very interesting one in the UK called ​​NMite which has disrupted the admission process for new students favouring attitude vs academic qualifications. This is the way to go.

What gives you more cause for concern and for hope as you observe these trends?

On a negative note, I find that time goes by and the same problems remain. There is a marked trend towards less democracy while the gap between social classes is becoming larger and larger. Governments need to take action to avoid social unrest and the collapse of democracy. On the positive side of the coin, I believe the tipping point will happen in the next few years as more people show commitment and take individual responsibility towards social equality and the natural world. Never in history have we seen such a well-trained and smart workforce. The pandemic has led many people to ponder existential questions and the use of their own work driving many to make life choices in favour of the common good. These people will start their own business and leverage their experience and sense of purpose to become a key part of the solution. This gives me great cause for hope.

I believe the tipping point will happen in the next few years as more people show commitment and take individual responsibility towards social equality and the natural world.

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