Using technology to overcome the ‘place’ problem

Just finished Richard Florida’s book, Who’s Your City. When I saw the title, it sounded familiar to me. Early in the book Florida gushes over his appearance on the Stephen Colbert show. It just clicked that Who’s Your City is a loose parady of Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!). Now we are getting our economic development direction from comedians. Who’s going to get the last laugh?

Anyway, while Florida’s book lacks in rigorous substance, it does provide some interesting areas for consideration. His assertion that physical place matters (clustering) makes some intuitive sense but his rejection of technology as a means to achieve this (the linking of less physically close areas) lacks creativity.

Take my wife for example. She Skypes her parents in Brazil 2-3 times a week and talks for at least 30 minutes. Normally, she will go to Brazil for 4-6 weeks most years and her parents and other family members will come here for a month. In short, she has way more face time with her family that most people do when their family is located in the same city.

We need to be more deliberate about this in our economic development efforts. FaceBook, Skype, etc. should be commonplace but more important we should be more deliberate about linking up to other markets where it makes sense.

Take sister city relationships. Moncton will twin with Galway, Ireland for example and the mayor’s will shake hands and exchange keys. And that will be it. How about a FaceBook group? How about a large scale student exchange program? How about a business incubator here for businesses from there and vice versa? How about being far more deliberate about business linkages (chamber of commerce activities, etc.)? How about a direct flight from Galway to Moncton? How about a section in the local newspaper on each side about the other? Of course, these efforts would need to be tied to economic and social goals but places like New Brunswick should be leaders in finding innovative ways to overcome this very real need for physical, social interaction.

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0 Responses to Using technology to overcome the ‘place’ problem

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, David, but I really thought that you would know better. Based on your experience with Brazil, you should know that face-to-face socialization is the most important tool when it comes to developing business opportunities in markets outside North America. First, you need to develop a certain level of friendship, and only after that you can expect business deals to start materializing. It works for your wife and her family and friends because those relationships have already been cultivated for years and years. In this case, Skype and Facebook are only a tool to maintain those links.

    I have lived and worked in large and small cities in four continents and I can tell you – without any doubt – that physical proximity is pivotal for knowledge transfer and labour productivity. If you are in, say, Toronto, Calgary, or Montreal – or even Halifax! -, and you have a sudden technical problem to solve, it usually doesn’t take you more than two or three hours to get the knowledge tools in place to solve it. However, if you are in, say, Shippagan or Edmundston, chances are that the same exercise will take you at least two or three days. Now, add up the time lost throughout the year and you get an idea of why small and isolated places keep falling behind. And, once again, this comment is based on my own experience, not on hearsay or mere speculation. Oh, and I have to say that I am talking about 21st-century, knowledge-intensive economic activities.

    Also, you should have heard about tacit knowledge. From Wikipedia: “By definition, tacit knowledge is knowledge that people carry in their minds and is, therefore, difficult to access. Often, people are not aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Tacit knowledge is considered more valuable because it provides context for people, places, ideas, and experiences. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact and trust.” What else can I say?

    One last thing: I don’t like Richard Florida but I do agree with the fundamental concepts of his first books – I haven’t read the last one and I am hesitant about doing so. I do believe that New Brunswick needs to concentrate efforts on the development of one, not more than two, poles of development rather than pulverizing the limited resources across the province. Instead of developing one – or two – first-class pole of development, we are ending up with a bunch of below average “urban” centers.

  2. David Campbell says:

    Don’t limit yourself to unidimensional thinking. I have argued strenously that New Brunswick needs to build strong urban centres. I am a fan of growth pole models and I think New Brunswick’s single biggest problem in a 100 year perspective is the lack of at least one major urban centre. But, that doesn’t preclude New Brunswick doing more to virtually reach out and try to leverage technology.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree with the idea that we should not limit ourselves to unidimensional thinking. However, based on my 8+ years living in New Brunswick, I am afraid that promoting the embrace of technologies to bridge distances will only convince our decision-makers that this is the holy solution to all our problems.

    I totally agree with you in that technology has a role to play in reducing distances. But I don’t think that technology alone can do the work of more urbanization. And by urban centers I mean Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton. Period. There is a reason why, in nature, mothers let the sick cubs die so that the healthy ones can grow strong and ensure the preservation of the species.

  4. mikel says:

    There are LOTS of different types of technology and lots of different business models. Personal experience counts for a lot, but not everything. A business deal has a lot of different ‘layers’, as those in sales will tell you.

    Anybody trying to tell you ‘cold calling’ NEVER works is simply crazy. Technology (the phone) has worked wonders. Being able to have a website works wonders. At a macro level a corporation can have blogs (see FatKat’s MANY blogs) or video, etc., that provides the ‘face value’ that is missing from a phone call-and one person can only build so many ‘face to face’ contacts-which is why vacuum cleaner companies stopped sending people door to door. It’s very true that deals are built on relationships, but relationships are often built on technology-that’s pretty much established. To use the Fatkat analogy some more, if you read their blogs the people have so much detail that you can inherently ‘trust’ them with NO ‘face to face’ contact.

    Technology, like David says, can be used to MAINTAIN contacts. How many times has a salesman (or even anybody) gotten an email from somebody ‘only when they want something’.

    Technology builds relationships, its a global world and you are crazy to simply hop on a plane and fly to Korea with no ideas or contacts. Ask any company, in particular smaller ones, who manufacture. When the web became big tons of companies were talking about how their sales quadrupled. Take a look at Lee Valley, a catolgue company which is now international all thanks to the web.

    Technology can overcome almost ANY ‘place’ problem (almost). I’ve often mentioned to my wife that I’d pay money to access a webcam site of the town where our families cottage is. The one in NB I haven’t seen for years, the one in ontario we see once a year. Both are places we’d like to live if it were at all possible but even to have a glimpse of them would be nice in january.

    At a bigger level I’ve mentioned before about a provincial television station. There are media buyers whose job is simply to look for quality shows. That’s how SCTV got picked up in the US, that’s how Kids in the Hall and Codco managed it. They were SEEN. If you have the technology-a television station showing tons of programming, then that counts for more than ‘face time’. In entertainment, what counts is the product, there were TWO youtube video shows picked up by national networks last year.

    And that’s a MASSIVE industry, just go to Youtube and type in New Brunswick and look at what is there. They even call them ‘stations’, but of course on youtube you’re still lucky to get 1/100th the audience available on television-and we know what Rogers and the CBC are like for building provincial content-Acadieman and thats it. Contacts are only PART of a business deal, the ‘make or break’ part is always money and the product.

    And that doesn’t even get into the technology that IS the product. Again, in one year kids can be taught to program a flash game and be on their way. It’s not ‘that’ hard, but all this is overlooked as the government goes from neglect to crisis and back to neglect on virtually every file.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mikel, like I said before, from the marketing and sales perspective, face-to-face SOCIALIZATION is the most important tool when it comes to developing business opportunities in markets OUTSIDE NORTH AMERICA. Just talk to anyone WITH EXPERIENCE in sales outside North America and you will get the same opinion. By the way, I would suggest that you travel a little more – and, most important, socialize with the locals – before making some of the comments that I have read in this blog. Having a lot of foreign friends in Canada doesn’t count as international experience. Even if it’s not evident to many of us, all immigrants change their behavior when they arrive here (some more than others, of course) to try to fit in their new home country.

    One more time, I am not denying the important role that ICT plays in economic development (by the way, your comments where about sales and marketing, not about economic development). It would be ludicrous to do it. Just look at what is happening in Africa, for example, since cell phones where introduced.

    However, when it comes down to what really matters, i.e. TECHNOLOGICAL CATCH-UP and INNOVATION, urbanization levels are crucial. The “face value” that webcams, Facebook and blogs provide will never replace the physical interaction required for the transfer of tacit knowledge.

    My last comment: I think that the intellectual elite of New Brunswick (David included) needs to have a candid discussion about this issue – urbanization. All I have seen so far is attempts to accommodate diverging opinions and look for temporary solutions (like ICT) that do not address the real causes of the problem. But I sympathize with David. That would ruffle too many feathers and he needs to earn his living in his home province.

  6. mikel says:

    Nobody said face to face wasn’t important, the point is that EVERYTHING is important-and everything is relative. Face to face socialization CAN be a problem-particularly when you are trying to deal with a company that doesn’t speak your language and has a radically different way of doing business.

    Again, personal experience means something, but on the web this blog is often populated by guys who come online and say “I KNOW THIS FROM EXPERIENCE”. Trying to put down other people’s experience when they contradict you doesn’t make a person right. If you have a specific criticism about something I’ve said you think is wrong by all means challenge it, that’s what blogs are all about. Telling people to get out more and then they are free to talk isn’t exactly helpful. Online there is little respect for people who claim to have some higher knowledge, particularly when they post anonymously-verification is the bottom line here.

    David’s point is using technology to OVERCOME the place problem. NB obviously does not have salespeople in every part of the world. Anybody want to argue that somebody looking to expand internationally and comes across a website by the NB government (in Korean is the latest news) DOESN”T help ‘overcome the place problem’? Go ahead, I’d like to see it.

    Explain exactly how that DOESN”T work? Yes, its too bad NB doesn’t have 10,000 salespeople in Korea talking to every single business thinking about expanding-that WOULD be the ‘most important thing’, unfortunately THAT isn’t an option.

    In many cases technology can be BETTER than the physical-even when it comes to ‘tacit knowledge’. Online time is money, how much time is often wasted by companies that have meetings that drag on forever just because everybody is in the same area. Even teleconferencing is becoming so cheap that lots of companies waste tons of times in board meetings. Inside ‘tacit knowledge’ is a WHOLE lot of bullshit that is of no interest to anybody but the person talking about it.

    The ‘face value’ though has ZERO to do with ‘innovation’. Do I need to sit down and talk to Dave for a six hour interview in order to find out something innovative? The internet has made virtually EVERY innovation readily available. I can find out more about a medical problem I may have than in thirty minutes with a doctor.

    International contacts are available, international sourcing is available, virtually every commercial idea in the world is available with the click of a button and the right web search tools.

    Most companies will still send buyers/sellers to different areas to source contacts and materials of course, because online its tough to verify anything-that’s a separate issue though.

    David’s point is about using technology to build relationships. I agree with him, virtually every city has a ‘sister city’ with a sign somewhere stating what it is. But when you ask what else that means, there is a blank look. In fact in Guelph, which is sister city to a city (or region, Turino I think) in Italy they just ‘opened their eyes’ to this. There was a big write up last year about how somebody finally asked ‘does anybody know anything about Italy?’ Now they announced more ‘technological’ links through their website, and eventually that will mean some of the ‘face time’ that is mentioned above. (though I know of phone and web deals that have brought about more sales than these ‘trade junkets’).

    I didn’t understand the point about urbanization, but what the ‘intellectual elites’ talk about in NB is pretty irrelevant as they don’t make policy-and WHO are they anyway? Apart from Savoie there is virtually NO academic that gets regular media attention.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Oh for heaven’s sake, how much nonsense! Mikel, I am sorry, but your last post – like the previous one – had only a lot of ranting but absolutely no rational thinking about economic development. You went as far as saying that tacit knowledge is bull****! Seriously, you have to do better than that. It’s very easy to have an opinion about everything, but you need to be aware (and have humility to recognize) that there are experts in specific fields who read this blog at least once in a while. There are many people who post anonymously here because that is the only way to express their opinions without risking ruffling the wrong feathers (remember, this is a small province!). That doesn’t make their comments less worthy of respect. And, as far as I am concerned, theoretical knowledge combined with experience is still far better than just theoretical knowledge.

    About Donald Savoie, he may be the most popular academic in the field in New Brunswick, but he is certainly not the only one and I even hesitate to agree with those who say that he is the best in the region. He had his time and he is surely very good at saying what the Atlantic Canadian crowd wants to hear.

    And one very last thing: keep in mind that the ‘place’ issue raised by Richard Florida (with all the shortcomings that he may have) is primarily about economic development, not about sales and marketing.

    This is my last comment on this issue. I will let you rant as much as you want in your next posts.

  8. mikel says:

    Again, ANYBODY can SAY they are an expert. Anybody can say that God Himself told them that their view is right. Sitting around and calling other people idiots doesn’t make you right-and isn’t particularly valuable.

    I’ll again repeat; David certainly didn’t say it was BETTER for his wife to have to use Skype-what he said was that she talks to her relations and sees them-thanks to technology, as much as some people who live in the same city.

    My computer doesn’t work, thats a ‘sudden technical problem’. I call up technical support, which could be in India to get the knowledge to fix it. Is it plugged in? Try X, Y and Z and see if it works. One of them does-hurray, problem solved. They didn’t need to send a guy to my house to do it for me-and no special hidden knowledge was necessary. SOME technical problems aren’t like that, nobody is disputing that, but technology is making those things less and less necessary.

    I didn’t say Savoie was the only academic, I said he’s the only academic who gets regular media attention (and even that is rare). If the ‘elites’ sit around in a conference in Moncton and no media covers it, it essentially dies there. If you look at who the government has gone to for their studies then ‘intellectual elite’ is a stretch. On the educational debate I’ve read more detailed and better data from posters at blogs than Croll and Lee.

    While I didn’t say that ‘tacit knowledge’ was bullshit, like other business buzzwords it came out of philosophical discussions of knowledge, so of course has been bastardized out of all recognition-both its meaning and intent.

    When Polanyi developed it, it was mainly to discuss god and in short even recognized that tacit knowledge is PERSONAL, not knowledge that can be transferred even face to face. It was knowledge an individual possessed-not passed around, so whether contact was face to face or on the phone was irrelevant. It was not about ‘knowledge transfer’-or even knowledge ‘value’ but was part of a cognitive method.

    David’s favourite guy Kuhn then adopted it for the social sciences and built on it, but in the social sciences ‘building’ something usually means dumbing it down. By the time it gets to business theory it becomes “hey, you should listen to your employees because they are smart people” (yes, that’s facetious, but only somewhat).

    In fact, its almost completely useless in the business sense it is applied. I watched a Google interview with all the US presidential hopefuls. Google is supposedly one of the most ‘creative’ and progressive companies out there. Ralph Nader was talking to them and asked them “how many here self censor?”.

    EVERYBODY raised their hands. And thats at the most creative and progressive company around. So you certainly can’t even get at REAL data let alone ‘tacit knowledge’-which, again, in the business community has been adopted as “organizational culture”. It means ‘your employees are your best resource’, which is something consultants have been telling corporations for decades.

    Tacit knowledge is NOT bullshit, but it is in the business community. Go and read Polanyi, especially if you are interested in God and religious knowledge-although I prefer Canada’s own underrated (in Canada) Bernard Lonergan. But theories of knowledge are next to useless in the corporate world, and are certainly a far cry from day to day problem solving. In most fields people working on problems are continents away-look at science. In science you don’t need to be int the same room, what you need is a specially adapted language that makes things clear and contains relevant data-thats what scientific journals are full of.

    Finally, whew, sorry that’s so long but you won’t need to read anymore-David’s main point was not about sales and marketing OR economic development, it was about, well, reread the title. Sales and marketing are an integral part of ED, otherwise your ED is just a bunch of guys making up models in a closet that nobody will ever see.