Globalisation, nations, and cities

Posted in aviation, brands, economics, politics by thenextwavefutures on 8 September, 2017

With my Kantar Futures hat on I was asked to write a short piece for WPP’s house magazine, The Wire, on whether globalisation was over. Here’s the article. 

The long globalising wave of the later 20th century is over. Global trade is barely growing, compared to overall economic output. Cross-border bank lending is down, as are international capital flows. Hostility to migrants is one of the defining features of the present political moment. Everywhere, businesses, even transnational businesses, are thinking and acting less globally and more locally. National and regional champions are growing at the expense of multi-national competitors.

This should not be a surprise.

As Stein’s Law has it, something that can’t go on for ever won’t go on for ever. Globalisation created winners, but it also created losers. Twenty years ago Hirst and Thompson observed that the globalisation wave from 1870-1913—if anything more extensive than the more recent one—collapsed into nationalism after it had over-stretched itself. More than a decade ago, before the financial crisis, John Ralston Saul noted that globalisation was losing momentum and national ideas were reasserting themselves.

We have, in short, moved from the world of the 1990s in which credible politicians spoke only for those who supported globalisation, and the language of competitiveness and market reform that went with it, to a world where in many markets globalisation has no obvious advocates. One notable casualty, certainly in Europe, has been the parties of the social democratic left. Those which continued to talk the language of markets after the financial crisis have been outflanked and decimated.

But it is easy to see right-wing populist movements and think that this is the only political change that is happening. In fact that is just part of wider shift towards a place-based politics. The diagram, developed from some earlier work by Ian Christie, suggests that this politics of place still divides along the lines of “rights” versus “authority”, a traditional split since the French Revolution.

This, in turn, has implications for brands. Election results across a broad number of countries suggest that the markers of this left-right divide are younger vs older, better educated vs worse, and core cities vs towns and country. One of the paradoxes of the digital world is that just when it is possible to live and work anywhere, attachment to place has become stronger (opens pdf). If economics has produced a place-based political response, technology has produced an emotional response, in which values have re-surfaced.

And in a world which is more than 50% urbanised, the cities are where the money is. Part of the business response to the end of globalisation has to become more national. GE, for example, is focusing on regional centres in a response to protectionism. The head of the investment group, Blackrock, told staff earlier this year, “We need to be German in Germany, Japanese in Japan and Mexican in Mexico.”

But the other implication is more interesting. If cities are becoming centres of radicalism and diversity, and that’s where the money is, businesses have to follow. After a century in which business has been associated with conservative values, it is suddenly becoming imperative to be identified as progressive. This was seen, perhaps in extremis, in the way American corporations responded to the Muslim travel ban. And truth be told, many business leaders now hold beliefs that are closer to this more progressive, diverse, urban politics than to conservative populism.

The result: the purpose of business is suddenly central to reputation, among customers, suppliers, and staff. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of Kantar Futures‘ recent work has been about helping clients think through their brand and position in terms of developing a sharp and coherent view of brand purpose. This is a deep shift, driven by long-run fundamentals, that isn’t going to go away.

The image at the top of this post, of Maersk container ships parked up in Loch Striven, is by James T M Towill, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.


Heathrow as cargo cult

Posted in aviation, transport by thenextwavefutures on 27 October, 2016
Empty promise

Empty promise

A long time ago, in an article I can no longer find, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole developed the idea of “cargo cults” as the objects of politics. Heathrow and its expansion has long been such a cargo cult in British politics. To save non-anthropologist readers among you from having to google it, a cargo cult refers originally to the belief among Melanesian islanders that material wealth can be achieved through the ritual worship of an object. Pleasingly, some of the Melanesian cargo cults involved building models of runways and planes. You couldn’t make this stuff up.


Flying blind

Posted in aviation, economics, politics by thenextwavefutures on 10 October, 2012

20121006-111524.jpgThe economic case for Heathrow’s Third Runway doesn’t add up.

John Maynard Keynes said, famously, that ‘practical men’ were usually ‘slaves to some defunct economist’. Something similar is true in futures work. There are some views of the world that are so embedded that no amount of good futures analysis can dislodge them from the minds of their adherents. Indeed, the futurist Jamais Cascio has coined a term for this, “legacy futures“, which describes futures that are trapped in a moment that has already passed, a “now” that is already history.

These thoughts are prompted by the latest wave of lobbying by British business interests for a third runway at Heathrow. I get weary writing about this: I went through the relevant trends at length a couple of years ago and found that in terms of air transport in the richer world almost all the trends were headwinds. More recently Chris Goodall at Carbon Commentary has noted that demand for business air travel from the UK was declining for some years before the crisis. (Since then he has returned to the subject, most recently using Civil Aviation Authority data to lay into the misleading numbers deployed by the campaigns that promote the expansion of Heathrow.) It’s worth noting that all that stuff about flights to China, trotted out again by the CBI in the past month, is more or less just plain wrong. It disregards the huge number of flights to Hong Kong from Heathrow, compared to the negligible numbers from other European hubs, which expansionist advocates contrive to overlook.


Notes on the volcano

Posted in aviation, emerging issues, environment, sustainability, transport by thenextwavefutures on 23 April, 2010

By slowing business down, just for a moment, the volcano has allowed us to imagine how we might live differently

As the ashcloud settles, at least for the moment, it’s worth reflecting quickly on some of the things we’ve learnt in the last ten days. There’s huge amounts of commentary all over the internet, so I’ll pick up three points which seem less well covered:

  • The aviation industry is all but doomed – it’s only a matter of time
  • Moments of disruption allow us to imagine change
  • And if it’s nature against humankind, nature will win. (more…)

The end of the cheap airline boom years

Posted in aviation, business, strategy by thenextwavefutures on 21 December, 2009

Regular readers will know that I’m sceptical (see previous posts about Heathrow’s third runway here and here) about the long-term predictions that aviation demand will keep on growing – most of the main trends are pointing the wrong way (oil prices, restrictions on carbon emissions, competing technologies, government need for tax revenues from undertaxed sectors, along with changes in social values). So far, certainly in the UK, public policy hasn’t caught up with this. But with the news that Ryanair has noisily cancelled its order from Boeing for 200 planes, perhaps the industry has.


The noise of a past future

Posted in aviation, future, technology by thenextwavefutures on 29 May, 2009


When I was a kid in the late 1960s, the hovercraft and Concorde were trumpeted as the great British technological innovations – the result, perhaps, of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s modernising meme about “the white heat of technology“. I even seem to recall, although heaven knows I may have imagined this, a set of British stamps which featured both.

This thought was prompted by a few days spent last weekend in the Isle of Wight over the (English) Bank Holiday. The island often seems, well, quite old-fashioned, and the longest running commercial hovercraft services in the UK plies noisily from Portsmouth to Ryde, across a stretch of water also served by a car ferry and a passenger catamaran.

Concorde, which has been out of service now for more than half a decade, was also as famous, or as controversial, for its noise as its speed. The two technologies raise interesting questions aboout how, and when, particular ideas about the future stop being useful.


Runways as white elephants (part 2)

Posted in aviation, emerging issues, politics, trends by thenextwavefutures on 15 January, 2009

I blogged earlier this week about the lack of a futures perspective in the 20-30 year decision about whether or not to build the third runway at Heathrow – and looked at energy, economics and climate change trends which all suggested that demand for air travel was more likely to fall than rise. In this second part I’m looking at some of the social trends which also seem to point in the same direction, and also trying to understand why the idea of aviation has so captured policy makers.


Runways as white elephants (part 1)

Posted in aviation, business, politics, sustainability, trends by thenextwavefutures on 13 January, 2009

The Institute of Public Policy Research has attracted quite a lot of coverage for its argument that the proposed third runway at Heathrow will become a white elephant unless aviation can be made greener – and the industry agrees to tough conditions on emissions. While this is alright as far as it goes, if you look at the planned expansion of Heathrow through a futures lens – which obviously goes beyond climate change – it’s likely to become a white elephant no matter what the aviation industry does. The lack so far of a futures perspective on a twenty-to-thirty-year decision has been striking.


The health costs of noise

Posted in aviation, business, cars, emerging issues, environment, sustainability, transport by thenextwavefutures on 2 September, 2007

Despite some regulation, noise has been something of a Cinderella of environmental pollution, perhaps because it is often regarded as annoying rather than life threatening. A new (if preliminary) study from the World Health Organisation has quantified the health costs of noise in Europe. They are strikingly high.


Airlines, collusion, and carbon

Posted in aviation, business, climate change, emerging issues, energy, environment, transport by thenextwavefutures on 3 August, 2007

Obviously, I’m as opposed to companies colluding so as to gouge the customers at least as much as the next person. Equally obviously, it’s a bad thing if airlines gang up to pretend they’re competing when they’re not, really. And, therefore, it’s A Good Thing when British Airways is fined £270m for running a cosy little deal with Virgin to keep their prices up (even if it’s also a bit of a mystery even on close readings of the story as to why Virgin escaped unscathed.) But buried in all of this is an idea about how to reduce the volume of air travel while not destroying the aviation business in the process. Competition economics is not, typically, good for the long-term health of the planet.