The Honeybee Effect
Like the paperless office, we once imagined that technology would obviate the need for travel. If anything, the opposite seems true. We travel more than ever - although, perhaps because of technology, its nature and purpose is changing. In my own journeys I increasingly meet a new kind of traveller. Urbane, connected, and possessed of an almost romantically optimistic mindset about global opportunity. Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, once described his target market as ‘global metropolitan adults’. But I think its more than that. There is a new generation of ‘Borderless’ executives, whose nomadicism is less a case of carbon insensitive escapism, but rather - like honey bees - a crucial component in the pollination of global innovation.
You have met the Borderless before. They manage the key customer relationships for an emerging market, they are the creative directors of an edgy youth consumer brand, they are entrepreneurs launching a global technology start-up, freelance graphic designers with an international client base, trend scouts for an upscale fashion retailer, and the odd rapacious private equity cowboy. For the Borderless, residency is a tax rather than a lifestyle question. Multiple passports, offshore banking, and an intimate understanding of the hubs and spokes of international connections - the Borderless are like packets of data hurtling through the global network. Their creed is best expressed by Ryan Bingham in ‘Up In The Air’, when he declared: “The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living”. So now you know who they are, the real question is what motivates a lifestyle of perpetual motion?
The original value of travel was knowledge. It is easy to forget that several hundred years ago - the only way you could reliably learn about the world was to see it yourself. As popularised by Lord Byron, the fashionable rite of passage for young men of means in the 17th century was ‘The Grand Tour’ - a leisurely jaunt through the remains of Renaissance Europe that was, despite the presence of a tutor - inevitably more libidinous than educational. But now in an age of information abundance, anyone with a Web browser has access to the trends, history, current news and culture of just about any country on earth. We no longer travel simply to know, but we do travel to discover. Or more specifically, to build context and networks.
Context is the tactical awareness, through direct lived experience, of what global trends and innovations are relevant and translate-able to other markets. For example, you can argue that much of the current mobile ecosystem was inspired by trends from Japan - but woe betide the entrepreneur who tries to bring the entire Japanese experience, Hello Kitty branded phones and all - to other markets. The diffusion of innovation is a subtle process. I have been giving speeches lately about the Age of Divergence, in which new ideas and consumer patterns are incubated in fast growth markets where the conditions are more favourable to disruptive innovation. The Borderless understand this intuitively and seek to leverage consumer behaviour in different cultural greenhouses as sources of inspiration.
The second value of perpetual motion for the modern nomad is the power of networks. Rather than technological, these networks are human - finding the people based connections in specific markets necessary for getting things done. If you want to find a hot new Chinese graphic designer for the local launch of your running shoe, or the right person to talk to at a Turkish mobile operator for a content deal, or the inside word on the best place to situate a luxury retail store in Jakarta - forget turning to Google. The only people that can answer your questions are those with the kind of granular, local networks nurtured through persistent exposure and on the ground exploration.
So will we see a new war for talent for these unusual migratory workers? If you believe the author Richard Florida, there is a new creative class of knowledge professionals whom cities will compete to attract. But to me, that assumes a dangerous tendency toward inertia. The very concept of residency and statehood is becoming increasingly old fashioned. But it does raise some interesting questions. What defines where we live? Certainly not a mailing address or a phone number. If anything, we may end up defining geographic allegiance in more interesting terms like social fabric. Persistent travel is not for everyone, but the ability to span markets and see the underlying patterns that signify emergent opportunity will be a potent attribute for the 21st century.
What do you think? Could you imagine living as one of the Borderless? Please comment.
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