It is late March in Scotland. The drive from Manchester to Dundee through the magical Lake District of England, onto unfolding green landscape dotted with grazing sheep and horses in barns, soothes me. As our car begins to leave all that behind and the beautiful, expansive river Tay carrying molten snow appears alongside, my friend, Gautam Rajkhowa tells me that we have almost reached.
The river bends slightly, goes under an ancient railway bridge, and runs a little distance further before merging with the North Sea. “There,’’ says Gautam, “the ship docked alongside the quay is the Discovery; the one Captain Robert Falcon Scott had taken to the South Pole.’’ I get goose bumps as the maritime adventures of a bygone era come alive in my mind. We continue to drive along. Soon a row of river-facing, stone-clad, estate houses appear. “Those,’’ explains Gautam, “are the remnants of the jute industry. Once upon a time, ship loads of jute from India were brought to Dundee, which was the jute capital of the world. The houses here are all that is left to remind people of Dundee’s once thriving economy and global claim to fame.’’
My mind drifts to the city of Gothenburg in Sweden where, the previous summer, I was visiting to deliver a talk at a top-management meeting of Volvo executives. Very few people know that the seafaring nation of the Swedes once had its own East India Company, and brought spices and gems and other merchandise that were sold in other European nations. By the last century, the seafaring trade dwindled. Seeing that coming, the Swedes turned their core competence to ship building. The nation became a global player in the ship-building industry for a while until other nations soon soon caught up and took that space away. The nation moved on to building great engineering companies like Volvo that makes trucks, submarines and aircraft engines that ensures Gothenburg is not lost in time. In Gothenburg, alongside the waterfront today, you see a huge ship anchored. Reminiscent of the past, today it is no longer used for its original purpose; the city has converted it into a car-park.
From Dundee to Gothenburg, from jute to shipping. I am thinking of how economies of nations get created. And destroyed. Why is it that way? Quite simply, we all fail to realise the interesting truth that, by nature, all value is migratory. The moment something becomes of any value, value moves from one place to another. That is why textile, ship building, steel and the automobile industry have all gone from one place to another. Now, will it be the turn of the services business? Following the line of thought, what will happen to Pune and Hyderabad and Gurgaon and Bangalore in 10 years? Will a visitor in 2020 be shown ghost buildings? Will today’s satellite dishes be used for something like rainwater harvesting in 2020? It is such a scary thought. Yet, individuals, industries, cities and nations must move from one kind of value leadership to another, destroying the past from within, before value migration begins at the behest of someone else.
That challenge becomes even greater considering shrinking cycles of value migration today. With services, value can migrate as effortlessly as a fund manager moving a portfolio of investments from the National Stock Exchange in Mumbai to the Nasdaq in New York to the London Stock Exchange; it’s all in a day’s work. Looking at the vestiges of the jute industry in Dundee, I realise how little the subject engages the minds of leaders back home. Where would the world be, and relative to that, how would our cities ensure that they create unusual new value to remain in the centre of global consideration in 2020 ? It is not enough to build a winning set of industries and create cities around them, we have to make them future-proof.
Appreciating this aspect of business is not just an industry issue, it is about sustainable competitiveness of Indian cities that would soon have half the country’s population living in them. Sometimes, the competitive value is inherent to the industry but many times, it is in the eco-system itself. Just as industries must reinvent themselves, so must cities. When people come to do business, they are actually looking to buy-in to the total package.
My mind would have strayed some more but Gautam switches off the engine to announce that we have reached home. Getting out of the car, as I struggle in with my carry-on bags, I cannot miss the small poster in his study. It reads, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you have to keep moving.’’ Signed, Albert Einstein.
-Subroto Bagchi- Mind Tree