Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I would Prefer to Visit Museums, Not to Live in One

Twenty years ago, maybe even only a decade ago, if you visited Shanghai it would be like visiting -- in places -- a museum. In Puxi, in the old "French concession" for example, the architecture and infrastructure conjured-up memories of what "old China" must have been like. The same was true, of course, for so many cities in Europe where old, well-preserved locales also had a "museum-like" quality to them. Today, in 2011, if you were to visit Shanghai, there would be very little of that same "museum" ambiance; too much has changed. China has plunged head-first into the 21st century. But, the same is not exactly true for so many Western cities, that are at risk of remaining "museum-like." According to a recent Citibank report on the world of 2050, Western Europe, which accounted for 28% of global output as recently as 1970, has seen this output drop to 19% today, on its way to a predicted 7% in 2050; smaller than what is predicted for either Africa or South America. Stephen Fidler has recently asked in The Wall Street Journal: "...what happens to modern economies where growth remains sluggish for long periods? What will life be like in the museum?"

My sense is that it doesn't have to be this way, and it certainly doesn't have to be either/or. What everyone talks about, but what seems to gain little traction, is the centrality of "ideas" as the answer to the question: "how do we add value in a world where low-wage labor is so much lower than our living standards would allow?" Now, especially in Europe and North America, is when we need to really help our talent develop a facility for working with ideas. We're not going to succeed in the global marketplace unless we keep coming up with newer and better ideas; competing on the basis of stronger brawnpower is no longer a viable option. But being an Idea-Hunter is not about brainpower, either. It is about being more conscious, thoughtful and more disciplined, in developing more effective Idea-Hunting skills. There oughta be a book. :-)

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