As a category, or even a term, “local” can mean many things. It can mean something is locally made, locally sourced, locally sold. There’s local produce, local talent and local businesses. The word has become so overused that in many ways it’s lost its definition.
That ambiguity creates a problem for companies operating in the “local” space. A lack of clarity around the term will hamper their ability to articulate a long-term strategic vision and limit investor interest. As a new generation of local technology companies approach the public markets, it’s critical for us to agree on what “local” actually means today — and how that differs from the its definition a decade ago.
Local is no longer about near and far
Local’s murky meaning reflects how fundamentally our relationship with geography has changed in recent years. The local that tends to emphasize proximity and closeness — the one commonly used today — was forged amid the globalism of the 70s , 80s, and 90s. That “local” was framed within the debate between near and far, between local businesses and global brands, between American jobs and outsourced ones. As our own communities became increasingly dependent on distant ones, “local” became a way to differentiate the two.
But what many people overlook — and what causes so much of the confusion around the term — is how much our relationship with geography, as a concept, has changed in the years since. People in their 20’s — millennials like me – have grown up in a world where “place” was in many ways an option. We grew up in a world split between two realities; in one, space and time, proximity and geography defined our interactions; in the other, virtual world our interactions were in bits, links and likes.
The growth of that virtual world has come as a detriment to many local economies, but it has also inspired us to rethink them. The ability to understand a world unrestrained by the constraints of geography is now allowing us to explore ways to apply connectivity beyond the virtual world into the physical one. It allows us to imagine locality as a single, seamless system rather than a mosaic of disconnected communities or markets — one where we can keep scrolling on a Google map and never reach an edge; a system that doesn’t manage the world’s information, but brings together information about our world into a single global network.
A connected local economy
Behind every place, there is a system that manages and measures the way people move through it. A salon may keep a schedule with appointments; a bakery has hours of operations; a retailer keeps a record of purchases in order to determine when to order more of which ingredients; a taxi service has a dispatcher who tells cabs where to go; city streets have signs and stoplights to make sure cars do not collide.
All of these local systems inevitably manage information — and while bricks cannot yet become bits, the systems that manage the way we move through them surely can. A change in the algorithm that tells a street light to go from green to red will affect traffic patterns; the digitalization of a taxi’s dispatch may mean we no longer hail a cab on the street; the improvement of search data could mean that fewer people go to stores to find that the product they want is out of stock.
By changing the way we move, these new systems will inevitably change the way local economies operate. The lattice of industries that allow for us to buy and sell goods and services in the real world — the local economy — has been built on soon-to-be-outdated infrastructure. As these local systems — the ones that manage and measure how people move through place — move onto the web, we will see a new connected local economy emerge that will deeply alter the ways these industries operate internally and the way they intersect externally.
The mission of the local technology industry — the industry that we cover here at Street Fight — is to use connectivity to rethink and rebuild the systems that govern our interactions with places. If the highway system built during the 1950s helped us move between places faster, the connection of these systems to the web will help us move between places in a far more intelligent manner. That ability to connect all of the systems that govern our interactions with places is the defining characteristic of our modern relationship with geography.
Anyone who has stake in people moving between places has a stake in this new connected local economy. It could be a retailer who needs people to come into a store; a city that needs to better manage public transit usage; a music venue that needs to get people to come to a show — they all will need to master the art of marketing and commerce in a connected local economy.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.