August 24, 2020

“Ten geographers who think the world is flat will tend to reinforce each other’s errors…Only a sailor can set them straight.”
-John Ralston Saul 

The world seems bigger now. As someone that has traveled consistently around North America and the rest of the world for more than 20 years, it is hard to conceive that I can’t even cross the border into Canada. It can be difficult enough to figure out what is happening in your own city or state, so our friends and business partners in other countries seem more distant than they did when the world was “flat.” The pandemic has fractured our ability to travel, build and maintain reliable supply chains and create new personal and business partnerships. Political alliances are at best strained and distance can only make that harder to reestablish and repair.

Personally and professionally, I miss traveling internationally and doing the work we once did on the ground to meet companies and the people and families behind them. While we continue to do the work virtually, it is certainly harder to build personal ties with some of these great businesses and to understand their culture. The shared experience of traveling abroad with colleagues and other state and local leaders and learning from our global partners together is something that motivates me to do the work necessary to get through this crisis.

Speaking purely from an economics perspective, a bigger world is likely more expensive, dangerous, and less innovative. I’ve written many times about the value of foreign trade and investment and the value of engaging in the world even for the smallest communities. As our companies operate globally and adjust and adapt to new markets, they innovate and become more competitive. Competitive companies are more likely to grow, create jobs, and invest capital in our communities.

How do we flatten the world? A few thoughts for economic development leaders:

  1. Reach out to the foreign-owned businesses in your community and seek to understand their unique challenges. When possible, engage with their leadership in their home country.
  2. Seek global understanding through engagement in online global forums and virtual industry conferences. Business is still global, it is just different and changing.
  3. Engage with your cultural organizations, sister cities, and the international communities in your region. These relationships matter and must be maintained now to flourish later.

John Ralston Saul’s words above call upon us to raise our sail, reach out locally and globally, seek understanding of how global business is changing, bring people together, and close the distance between our communities and the world.

Let’s have a great week.

-Kenny McDonald