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Thomas Friedman was wrong: The world is not flat

Fundacion_Metropoli_LogoIn 2005, New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman published what became a business best-seller: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. In it, he argued that digitally enabled globalization was “flattening” the world by reducing or eliminating both barriers to commerce and, increasingly, geographic differentiation.

While the former may be true, the latter is alive and well. Interestingly, the confluence of a region’s digital and physical spaces is helping to drive its geographic differentiation—and its competitive advantage. At Fundación Metrópoli, an international organization and Microsoft Partner focused on helping cities build a sustainable future, we are finding this phenomenon emerging around the world in city clusters that we call diamonds.

New urban structures

Fundacion_Metropoli_urban_structuresWe use the diamond as a metaphor to describe polycentric, urban structures comprising the growing, mutually beneficial integration of multiple cities in relatively close proximity. Its points are the centers of the constituent cities with their interconnecting infrastructure as the diamond’s edges. In-between landscapes make up its facets.

Examples can be seen around the world. On Latin America’s northern coast, where Colombia acts as a portal to the Caribbean, nine cities—from Cartagena to Bucaramanga—form the points of a diamond. In China, among many emerging diamonds is the West Triangle Economic Zone, composed of Xi’an, Xianyang, Chongqing, and Chengdu. In Europe four diamonds are emerging as illustrated in the map below:


  1. Portuguese Diamond: Lisbon and Porto
  2. Mediterranean Diamond: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Zaragoza
  3. Midi Diamond: Marseille, Nice, Cote d’Azur, and Lyon
  4. Diamond of Italy-North: Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Venice

Intelligent Landscapes

Along with the emergence of diamond city clusters is a characteristic of the most innovative ones or the most innovative cities within a diamond we call the Intelligent Landscape. To achieve an Intelligent Landscape, diamonds or their cities must be able to strike a balance among economic competitiveness, social cohesion and development, and environmental and cultural sustainability.

In contrast to Friedman’s world-is-flat thesis, Intelligent Landscapes are place-specific—differentiated by their geographies, landmarks, histories, ethnicities, cultures, and even cuisines.

Certain cities are not only attractive because of their existing and historical conditions, but more so because they reach a consensus on a clear vision for the future. Intelligent Landscapes develop urbanism that enables them to create cooperative, competitive advantages based on contextual strengths, and practices. And their ability to attract international companies is unprecedented.

For example, Singapore has traditionally been a hub for port, airport, and financial services, and today acts as a hub of excellence in biotechnology. Kuala Lumpur aims to establish itself as a center of excellence in multimedia technologies with its Multimedia Super Corridor project.

In the US, Boston has enabled significant development of the creative economy as a university hub. Miami has become such a gateway between the US and Latin America that it’s sometimes referred to as the continent’s capital. And the San Francisco Bay Area provides a prime illustration of an Intelligent Landscape, with the City of San Francisco to the north, Silicon Valley to the south, and Berkeley and Oakland to the east – all contributing to its competitive advantage as ground zero for technology innovation.

Technology’s role

Digital technology has had a driving role in these cities’ Intelligent Landscapes. Until recently, the lines between housing, the workplace, and schools were clearly marked, but the proliferation of technology is transforming those demarcations. Our cities and territories are more intensively organized around interaction, and more spaces are flexible in their use, enabling cities to adapt better to changing needs.

In light of this relationship between technology and place, Intelligent Landscapes foster the integration of the physical and virtual worlds, where intricately networked collaborations support the diversity and richness of human interaction, and become resources for attracting people, talent, and creativity.

It is well understood that city planners, administrators, and designers consider architecture, landscapes, the power grid, and other physical urban elements when contemplating the cities of the future. The digital fabric of a city is an equally important design consideration.

Enabling a city’s voice

In many ways, technology transforms a city into a living object that has a “voice,” a voice it uses to engage in conversations with its citizens. These conversations often center on helping its people complete tasks, find information, or seek assistance. Even more, citizens can use the same digital infrastructure to “speak” with the city via innovative, participatory services.

These conversations are enabled by a number of transformative trends in technology, including the proliferation of mobile devices, social networks, natural user interfaces as well as the increased adoption of a highly cost-effective computing model called cloud computing. With the cloud, technology users can access software as a service, paying only for the computing capacity that they need at any given time.

Cloud computing offers the smallest organization or city government agency access to the same computing power as a large multinational company or national government ministry without having to invest in their own servers and large technology staffs. And with access to basically unlimited computing resources at low cost, organizations can collect, mine, and process huge amounts of data to gain competitive advantages and large-scale efficiencies.

As the data and insights they produce enable more elaborate and more ubiquitous conversations between citizens and the urban environment, cities that enable communication through a well-designed digital layer will have a distinct competitive advantage in attracting and keeping the global talent needed to build and grow knowledge economies.

Fundación Metrópoli is a Microsoft CityNext partner that won the Innovative Idea Award at Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. Visit Fundación Metrópoli for updates and follow Microsoft CityNext on Twitter for news, trends, and smart city solutions.

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