Saturday, February 16, 2008

Geographic Dichotomies: Flat Versus Spiky

The geography of globalization is, without a doubt, uneven. But the striking examples of the concentration of innovation don't necessarily mean that the world isn't flat:

It's a mantra of the age of globalization that place doesn't matter. Technology has leveled the global playing field--the world is flat. "When the world is flat," says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "you can innovate without having to emigrate."

It's a compelling notion--but it's wrong. Today's global economy is spiky. What's more, the tallest spikes, the cities and regions that drive the world economy, are growing ever higher while the valleys, with little economic activity, recede still further.

I understand the allure of setting yourself in opposition to a popular book, but I find the debate to be disingenuous. Friedman is describing the flows across international borders ("emigrate") and Richard Florida is touting the value of density ("spiky"). I don't think the geographic unit of analysis is the same, a case of apples and oranges.

Both Friedman and Florida could be the author of the following paragraph:

The main difference between now and a couple of decades ago is that the economic and social distance between the peaks has gotten smaller. People in spiky places are often more connected to one another, even from half a world away, than they are to people in their own backyards. This peak-to-peak connectivity is accelerated by the highly mobile, global creative class, about 150 million people, who migrate freely among the world's leading cities--places such as London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Someone living in the United States doesn't need to emigrate to Japan in order to tap Tokyo innovation. Instead, they move to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. "Peak-to-peak connectivity" and "distance between the peaks has gotten smaller" aptly portray Friedman's flat world. Furthermore, a flatter world is what helps new places of global innovation emerge (e.g. Dublin and Seoul).

There is a geography of the flat world and it is spiky.

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