• Phil Roos

Global Meets Local – The Sweet Spot for Innovation

In the past several blog posts, I have been exploring the role of “higher purpose” in driving business success as well as personal fulfillment. Purpose was the first of five dynamics that I believe are shaping our world and creating new “rules of the road” for businesses and other organizations. The other four are:

  1. The marriage of global and local in all that is good

  2. The central role the environment, health and wellness play in everyday life and in our future

  3. The role of technology in driving accelerated opportunity and human evolution

  4. The emergence of a new breed of humans (aka consumers)

In this post, I will try to at least scratch the surface on the incredibly complex topic of “global meets local.”

In the past couple of decades, the world has become more homogenized – with chain restaurants, retail stores, and global brands dominating the landscape of cities and suburban areas around the world – and at the same time a celebration of everything local. Farm-to-table restaurants that celebrate locally-grown ingredients, ethnic food made familiar through an explosion of international travel, and technology-enabled access to “local” music and cultural icons from distant locales help to offset the top-down, massive scale and omnipresence of global brands and experiences. At times, the global and local experiences seem as polarized as our current U.S. political landscape (which is apropos considering how much that polarization is itself driven by the perceived clash of global and local issues).

However, global and local represent a loose continuum rather than two opposite poles, and each has the opportunity to lend its merits to the other. This truth resonates through so many spheres – business, politics, pop culture, and the environment. It’s impossible to tackle the enormity of this topic and its implications by myself, let alone in a single blog post. So today I will mostly limit my exploration to business. The global, without drawing on and reflecting local variation and authenticity, lacks inspiration. Local without at least some of the scale advantages of global may lack viability and sustainability. I believe there is opportunity that lies in better connecting these two spheres, and access to information and the ability to connect with others through technology help make that possible.

This is a topic that has fascinated me for much of my life. As a child, I spent summer vacations traveling by car with the family to see America and had been to all fifty states by the time I was in my early twenties. At that point in time, our country was just beginning its rapid homogenization process. Local and regional cultural differences were more pronounced, dialects were distinct, and food also often had a more specific regional flair. And I loved it! Trips as a teenager to Mexico and Europe expanded my horizons further. I wanted to bring back local treasures that, at least at the time, I thought were authentic and shareable, so that friends could get a taste of what I had experienced.

In 2001, as the founder and CEO of a consulting firm, Arbor Strategy Group, I had a rare opportunity to tap into that sense of discovery again by acquiring an incredible resource now called NewProductWorks (still in Ann Arbor, but currently owned by GfK, a global market research company that ultimately acquired our firm). NewProductWorks is the world’s largest physical collection of “new and once new” consumer products from around the world, covering over 300 product categories from 100+ countries. We had a network of shoppers around the world who were charged with collecting products deemed innovative on different dimensions. But, part of our culture was to have each of us, when traveling internationally on business, scour the local markets for new treasures that we would bring back to add to the product collection. Just like my childhood experiences, but with an expanded geographic scope! Working with the collection, we discovered repeatable patterns in terms of how markets evolve and what type of innovation will be successful at various stages in a market’s evolution.

Working with such a unique and valuable resource continues to shape our approach and insights although the physical collection itself has transferred to new hands. The familiarity with patterns at local and global scales through the collections translated into an ability to predict what types of innovations were most likely to be successful in a given category or geography, and within a given time period in the future. We carry that knowledge and perspective with us. We also became connoisseurs of local innovation from all corners of the world. The way we see markets, products, consumers, and the whole shopping experience has changed – for the better.

Now at Great Lakes GrowthWorks, as a team of classically-trained brand marketers and general managers, we are often called upon by “Big CPG (consumer packaged goods)” companies to help them innovate and drive growth in their businesses, using the most cutting-edge “tools of the trade". But, we have a passion for and dedication toward helping emerging companies who often currently operate on a local or regional basis. We have built a particular expertise and experience base with the new wave of consumer products and services that fall under the banners of craft / gourmet / healthy / sustainable / local / natural / organic / etc. – with the common thread being a focus on authenticity, connection, quality, and a bringing a human scale (i.e. not “big company”) to innovation. These products and services are part of the new economy that, I believe, will be a major force as we move toward a post-carbon, healthier, more sustainable planet. So we find ourselves in a position to act as a powerful bridge between big and small, global and local.

So, how do these worlds connect (or collide?). The fastest-growth segments of CPG fall within the “new wave” categories listed above, so Big CPG is looking for ways to bring local inspiration and even local customization (and business systems, including sourcing) to their model. Meanwhile, many of the craft/local enterprises flounder without a way to create enough scale to make them economically viable and sustainable. Some of these products and services address universal needs, and could benefit from (and provide benefit to the world through) a broader geographic presence. Larger companies can help provide that geographic access, as well as access to distribution. Some companies can remain viable on a local basis, but still can benefit from learning and systems used by larger organizations.

While the idea that the global and the local are part of the same spectrum is not new, I think it has the potential to powerfully transform the way that we understand these concepts and the nature of their interaction. There is no such thing as purely global or purely local. Everything has global and local qualities. They shape and reflect each other, inspiring (or provoking) a never-ending cycle of reaction and adaptation. The intersection of the global and the local is a site of continual negotiation and hybridization. It's where the action is. That's the kind of innovative power we're trying to tap into and guide.

Clearly, there are perils to either entirely top-down, globally homogenous brands, products, services, and systems OR to innovation that is so micro in scope that it can never survive and prosper to the point where it has real impact for the community it is trying to serve. In our company, we will be looking for ways to bridge the global-local chasm, and honestly we have a great team to tackle that challenge. We are at once deeply rooted in our local community and yet maintain far flung global networks of family and friends developed through years of personal, academic, and professional experience abroad. This is more than an idea to us, it is a reflection of who we are and the realities we inhabit as new consumers and producers in a globalized era.

Another source of inspiration may come from the natural world. My wife Kate shared a recent radio piece on biomimicry (an approach to innovation inspired by patterns found in nature), that reminds us that natural organisms (outside of our monoculture agricultural system), even at the micro level, have support systems with a high degree of autonomy – yet they are also connected to other autonomous organisms that make up a much larger ecosystem – and it is that interconnectedness that breeds even greater innovation and sustainability. I look forward to finding new ways, inspired by the nature and other sources, to foster local innovation and authenticity that has connections beyond its point-of-origin, allowing it to have real impact in solving some of society’s biggest problems and making the world a happier place.