Monday, February 11, 2013

The Permanence of Geography

I ran into an interesting article on the magic twitter machine from the Sustainable Cities Collective entitled "The End of Geography". Russel's thesis is that geography, specifically economic geography, no longer matters because,"People develop, not place." His evidence for this is the rise of developing countries, including Turkey and the BRIC nations, and the seeming reverse of their relations with traditional, dominant developed countries like Spain, Germany, or even the US. The reversed flows of people and remittances from the core to the periphery heralds the end of geography and speaks to the dominance of global talent.

This argument selectively picks from a wide range of urban geographical and planning theories, most notably from the global cities work of Saskia Sassen that speaks to the transformed nature of global economic relations from being primarily dominated and directed by nation-states to a collection of powerful city-regions that go into the organization and control of a global economy around the interests of global corporate actors. Within the global city framework we also come to the question of international "talent".  This human capital focus is largely influenced by the likes of scholars like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida that preach the importance of attracting and retaining such talent. This class of professionals are the technically skilled workforce that man the corporate towers of the regional control centers of capital. They are managers, research scientists, human resource specialists, accountants, legal specialists etc that all are focused on better managing the increasing complexity of the global economic system and to manage incredibly complex, deep supply chains that span the globe. This group is different from the vaunted "young creatives" that American urbanism is so enamored with but the two groups are not entirely distinct. The only difference between the global city manager and the "creative professional" is that the "creative professional" couldn't land that big job at Goldman Sachs out of school.

Where Russel moves away from Sassen and from most geographers and planning theorists is in claiming that the reversal of economic fortunes between the developed and developing world signals the end of geography-- the death of space and place. On this I could not more vehemently disagree. We can again turn to Sassen here. While she notes the similarity of many global cities in how they are organized, look, and the social relations that seem to predominate she is adamant in the position that this serves as a "re-territorialization" of global economic relations, not the obliteration of the importance of such territories. The nation-state may play a less central role (the degree to which this is the case, if at all, is still a lively area of debate) in these relations but that does not negate the importance of space or place.

Moving a little beyond Sassen a bit, the thesis that geography no longer matters in light of global talent migration entirely ignores the reason for this global talent demand--the management of a globalized production system that takes advantage of cost and political differences of different places. The existence of global supply chains speaks to the centrality of geography in corporate decision making and strategy. The massive global manufacturing complexes in developing countries until very recently were producing a variety of goods, both finished and intermediate, designed for developed nations' consumption. For example, the dominance of southeast Asian textile production was not simply due to cost differential but the conscious decisions of firms from Western countries to re-locate their production facilities in an attempt to capture cost-reductions and to better control local political conditions in light of labor intransigence and falling profits back home. This shift was only helped by the increased sophistication of transportation and communications technology.

So, while this shift may have signalled the ever-diminishing importance of distance (and with increasing carbon emission concern we may see distance become a more key variable) it actually increased the importance, or better illustrated the yawning difference, between different places. Thus we see the kind of increasing uneven development that is evident between rich and poor countries that is reflected in our own city regions by increases ethnic and income inequality and segregation.

The current rise or durability of the economies of the Global South do not signal that economic geography does not matter, but that current investment has simply shifted. This reversal of fortunes speaks to the incredible opportunism and adaptability of capitalism in light of ongoing crisis. In fact, the observation that there is a difference in economic outcomes that is largely spatially defined speaks to the inherent absurdity of declaring an "end to geography".

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