Next month, designer Kim Wooster is moving from New York City to the Koh Samui Islands off the coast of Thailand. She's not simply another stressed-out New Yorker ditching it all for a simpler life; as a sought-after book-jacket designer, she will continue to produce lovely, elegant and witty designs for works of fiction sold in downtown bookshops. She'll just do it from 10,000 miles away.
Kim is a manifestation of our rapidly dematerializing economy, one in which design, creativity and entertainment, rather than production and manufacturing, play a starring role. And, just like Kim, as the world's creative workforce begins to realize that it can work from anywhere, it will increasingly situate itself as close to the Edens of the world as possible. In the process, it will remake those places, and our own.
That's what's happening in Wellington, New Zealand, where The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed. It wasn't long after their project got started that Peter Jackson and the films' producers realized that, rather than rely on Hollywood, they could just as easily build a cutting-edge studio right on site. Banks of computers used to render the film's special effects could equally well reside on the back streets of Bangalore as they could in northern California. The elite talent used to envision the films, however, drew from across the globe by the chance to work with each other and in paradise.
New Zealand was transformed from a tiny country known for having more sheep than people to a global creative powerhouse. Place names from the Rings trilogy dot the national map, so you can pop over to Middle Earth on your way back from the regional center of Christchurch.
In industry after industry, a similar story has been playing out, and it has very deep roots. At the beginning of the 20th century, our economy was driven largely by the production and distribution of very tangible commodities, such as steel, coal and electricity. In the first half of the 20th century, we moved rapidly into a product-driven economy, inventing literally thousands of new categories of consumer goods. In the second half of the century, we shifted to a largely service-based economy. Now, at the beginning of this century, we find ourselves on the verge of another shift to an economy defined by creative output. Our economy has become increasingly intangible, and workers less connected to specific places. Global creatives, who're at the vanguard of this trend, are more mobile, and increasingly denationalized.
At each new phase of our economy, we found elements of the preceding arrangement outsourced. It was when, and because, other nations (such as Venezuela and Mexico) began to produce commodities in quantity that we entered the product economy. It was when, and because, others (such as China and Korea) began to manufacture products in quantity that we entered the service economy. That we're now concerned with the outsourcing of low-end service jobs to Indian call centers is evidence, not of calamity, but that the economy is shifting again.
The next economic phase will impact every part of our lives, from the kinds of work we do (and want to do) to the way in which we educate our citizens and train our workers. Unfortunately, our educational system still largely prepares children to live and work in a commodity- or product-driven economy that hasn't existed for half a century. Working on an assembly line 80 years ago, creativity might have been a liability; in tomorrow's economy, invention and innovation will be paragon skills. Most of us won't know, or care, how to do long division. That's what Google is for.
It's also quite likely that we'll see more rural urbanites creative workers who choose to live in far-flung locales, or who temporarily cluster into creative nodes and then disperse a few weeks or months later. Communities of all sorts will need to figure out how to speak to, attract and retain their share of this high-margin global talent pool one that comes from around the world, not just from within the U.S. And they'll be competing not just with other communities down the road, but with islands off the coast of Thailand, cafs in the bohemian quarters of Prague, and the lands of Middle Earth.