One of the points Parag Khanna brought up in “Connectography” is that mobility
is a key to keeping influential cities thriving. The pointed example he pitches
(around page 122) is that of the city of Detroit (a city I love) which, at one
time, was the wealthiest city in America. As the automobile industry slackened,
the talent largely stayed put hoping that patriotic sentiment (“BUY AMERICAN”)
or trade protectionism would restore their coffers and their civic trajectory.
That, of course, did not happen. Hondas and Toyotas were bought by the boatful
and the future for Detroit diminished with each bill of lading.
But is there a lesson for us that we can take from this error? Let’s take a
look at the systems they had built in the early 80’s in Detroit:
- early robotics-based industrial work
- industrial development practices expertise
- labor facilitation expertise
In 2016 all of those skills are valuable expertise that are, in essence, locked
in an old industry and which will share the fate of it (lest they find a way to
But what might have history looked like if the experts had realized that their
host incubator was not necessary to their success earlier?
- …WHAT IF those engineers who built the assembly lines had encoded better logistics systems in software (to rival Germany’s SAP)
- …WHAT IF those engineers who built auto-assembly robotics had roboticized the port of SF, the port of Oakland (there might be dock work in SF), been influential in the upgrades to the Panama Canal, Corpus Christ’s port, the Nicaragua canal?
- …WHAT IF….that expertise had allowed the first generation of port (re-)builders to win contracts in central America in the late 90’s instead of Chinese competitors in the 2010’s?
If that were the case I could imagine many snowy Monday mornings in Detroit
leading to direct flights to Managua, Corpus, or linking to a hop to Shanghai.
And the reverse could be true as well: Detroit could have become the home of
process optimization, industrial flow analysis and the flights (and capital,
and residents) would be flowing in to offset the decline in automotive
Based on my reading of Khanna there are two principal institutional changes
that could have helped and one cultural change. Ease of mobility, ease of spot
education, and the unwinding of American exceptionalism. I’ll start with the
last first, after the jump.