Does geography still matter? On this issue the panellists universally agreed: Yes. And no. An interconnected world has brought greater diversity; people still flock to cities for work; and in some fields, like the phosphate mining carried out by Mostafa Terrab’s OCP Group in Morocco, both geography and geology remain central to business. Technological developments have changed the world and made it richer and more complex than ever before.
But if geography didn’t matter, people would no longer move to live in cities. Instead, they migrate towards urban centers, which offer them possibilities. “It’s accelerating, not slowing down,” said John Hagel, Co-Chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. “People intuitively know that cities accelerate talent development.” London and New York retain their appeal because they are centers of learning – if not university learning, then learning about business and finance. “They have the attraction of smart people,” said Jerry Webman, Chief Economist of Oppenheimer Funds. “There are other smart people there with whom they can have a conversation.”
While investors may seek international markets, client services have to be local, and knowledge of particular markets, with their cultural specificity, must still be connected with place. The politics of a region are just one thing that can hinder or damage a business, Donna Milrod, Deputy CEO Deutsche Bank of Americas, pointed out.
The speakers repeatedly returned to the role of place and geography in our apparently rootless world. Hans-Paul Buerkner, the President and CEO of the Boston Consulting Group, observed that firms can now optimize global supply chains and penetrate markets which they could never have reached before; at the same time, an event like a volcanic ash cloud in Iceland or Chile, wreaking havoc on the aviation system, is a reminder of the complications inherent in travel and transport. “It’s a never-ending story,” Buerkner said. “The answer will never be flat or spiky.”
The arrival of the internet and the political changes of recent years have, however, made the world more interesting. Human capital remains one of the most important aspects of a business, and the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of new markets have created a more diverse picture than ever before.
Webman noted that while international communication has increased, it has not led to homogenization. “Just because we can figure out ways to talk to teach other doesn’t mean we’re saying the same thing.” This diversity itself presents challenges, though, and to negotiate the new terrain, Terrab suggested, we must put a premium on tolerance and on empathy.
As the panel ended, Milrod left immediately to catch a ferry, and Hagel to catch a plane – final proof of just how much geography matters.