Fast, Blind and Dense

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Exploring the art of innovation in emerging markets.

The New Silk Road

Arriving in Kolkata, the former jewel in the crown of the British Empire and now brimming with 14 million people, I again found myself surrounded by the Great Mall of Small Commodities.


One of millions of Indian merchants selling goods from Yiwu through local “Tippers”.

Needing some sandals because it was hot and sticky, my cousin took me to the mall. I was taken aback by an unexpectedly familiar sight. Everywhere I looked were the exact goods I had seen in Yiwu, now imported by Indian “Tippers” that buy container-loads from China and resell them across India. I was amazed to see the exact same goods from Yiwu for sale throughout this mall, except now I could buy one pair of sandals for 1 USD instead of 10,000 pairs for 5,000 USD. These Tippers were building an economic bridge with China enabling cheap goods to enhance daily life for India’s citizens. My relatives told me everything plastic was made in China. They said “China is the Hare and we are the Tortoise. They are way ahead but one day we will win”. Most importantly, “They have shown us we can progress, India’s massive population can move”. China had inspired the people of India into action.

While many of the goods from Yiwu are ultimately disposable and transient in their owner’s lives, I have seen a growing desire for choice beyond color of plastic. My cousin told me how she can feel the difference between a luxury watch like a Rolex and a knockoff even if you can’t see it. And how others can too - if you are caught wearing a knockoff you are ostracized.

What will ultimately activate what could be the biggest engine of growth the world has ever seen is communication between these demographic giants. As in the Silk Road of antiquity, what begins as economic trade invariably ends in the more important trade of ideas. Ideas like gunpowder, paper, the compass and Buddhism.


Sandals for sale in Kolkata, imported from Yiwu on the New Silk Road

Having chai and chatting with my family later that evening, it snapped together. There is a New Silk Road re-connecting and re-shaping our world, and I was standing on it.

The New Silk Road doesn’t look anything like the old Silk Road. Fiber-optic cables, satellites, railways, oil pipelines, and ships the size of small cities criss-cross the globe at breathtaking speed. The Silk Road of old has become a new idea binding the future of our world to the emerging economies, and it is happening fast. The speed of this new silk road is one of its outstanding characteristics, and one of its greatest dangers.

This New Silk Road, ever expanding, is connecting China, India, the states of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and finally the West in an impenetrable web of trade driven by the desire of its people to have a better life. This manifests in entrepreneurial spirit that isn’t about making a billion dollars but making their family and country proud. It manifests in factory workers that threaten mass suicide at Foxconn supplying iPhones to the world. It shows up in Angola as freeways, hospitals, and schools built by Chinese in exchange for oil and it surrounds us as the failure of banks in the US cascade to Europe and finally to Asia.

You and I are connected on the New Silk Road, whether we like it or not. The road is fast, blind, dense and is yet to be finished. Smart companies and governments will alter its course, like a dammed river, to point the New Silk Road wherever they want it to go. We could end up in a future where China and India dominate growth, innovation and outsource its jobs to the West. Or it could enable a new global prosperity where all countries benefit from each others resources through frictionless trade.

I invite you to join me in traveling this road to discover the new world order and discover the forces at play in shaping it. It won’t be straightforward, it won’t be obvious but it will certainly be exciting.

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