Are We Living in a Flat, Spiky or Curved World?

Boston - one of the centres of the Information Economy (courtesy of Shutterscript)

In the age of networks and social media, it seems that there are more and more gurus of globalisation emerging. Just look at the bookshops and see the number of titles touting one worldwide effect after another. Naturally, some ideas are more worthy of consideration than others.

At the recent Public Service Staff Conference organised by Singapore's Public Service Division and Civil Service College, I was introduced to three emerging megatrends about the world. It was quite intellectually inspiring, and I followed the discussions closely.

The World is Flat. This is probably the most famous of the three, and was first declared by New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman in his book. Altogether, 10 trends were cited as reasons for the "flattening" of the world. They include the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Internet, workflow software that allowed interoperability, open sourcing (or crowdsourcing), outsourcing (particularly to another foreign land), supply chain integration and the democratisation of information amongst others.

Other than the 10 trends, there are triple convergences which act on them. They are the integration between various hardware and software functions (eg email, internet, faxing, copying, scanning from one machine), horizontal linkages between companies and their partners (supply chain integration), and the opening of former closed economies to the world. According to Friedman, these trends will level the playing field and make Earth a more equitable planet.

The World is Spiky.
Created by Richard Florida, who authored the "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "Who's Your City?", the world isn't equal spread around. In fact, greater concentrations of economic, scientific and creative activities are focused on 40 mega-regions in the world. These account for only 18% of the world's population, but generates about 66% of global economic output and 85% of scientific developments and achievements.

Mega-regions include the New York-Boston-Washington corridor in the US, which is home to some 54.3 million (more than 18% of Americans), and Amsterdam-Rotterdam, Ruhr-Cologne, Brussels-Antwerp, and Lille in Europe, which produces more economic output than Canada, China or Italy.

The World is Curved
. This is the latest of the various global postulations, and is based on a book authored by financial market strategist David Smick. Focusing largely on the financial markets, Smick proclaimed that "The world is curved. We can't see over the horizon. … We are always being surprised, and that is why the world has become such a dangerous place."

According to Smick, complex financial instruments like Collateralised Debt Obligations have resulted in effects that could be felt in far flung corners of the globe. Just look how the subprime mortgage crisis in the US have affected Minibond investors in Singapore. Nobody could see what is happening, and this is similar to the concept of Black Swans by Nicholas Nassim Taleb (which I'll blog about another day).

All three authors do have their points. The world is more connected and integrated than ever before, and this will continue to grow. However, there is also a disproportionate distribution of wealth and talent, something which is very evident whenever I go on trips to the region. One must also be careful about becoming too complacent - while Google and Wikipedia can connect us to vast reservoirs of information, there is a lot more than we do not know (the unknown unknowns cited by Taleb) which can screw us up real bad.

So What Should We Do?

Here's my two cents worth of what we could do to ride these trends.

First, we should focus on developing and improving our skills, capabilities and knowledge. Whichever way you look at it, talent is going to become more critical than ever before. Seek to be employable and strengthen your usefulness not just in this present age but the future. If you can, inject learning into your every day life, and read widely.

Second, we should learn to hedge our bets as much as possible and protect ourselves. This does not mean that we should live like frogs in a well. Rather, we should ask questions and read the fine print before going into any venture, while still retaining an element of calculated risk taking. Don't just take people's words for granted, but do your own background research.

Third, we should seek to be aggregators and concentrators. Whichever world we are looking at, networks and hubs are going to rise in greater importance. Find ways to connect as widely as possible with friends, associates, and business partners. Its not only who you know, but how many.

Finally, we should exploit new opportunities and micro-niches that aren't already filled. What is our Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and point of differentiation? Is there something that you as an individual can do to make yourself different from the rest? If you are an entrepreneur (or an intrapreneur in an organisation), look for something new and innovative that hasn't already been done.

In the new flat, spiky and curved world order, the same-old me-too approaches isn't enough. One needs to be focused, talented, concentrated and original to survive.

Are there other perspectives that we are unaware of? Comments and criticisms welcome!

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