The world is a neighborhoodWritten by Dan Johnson | | email@example.com
DUBAI — Perhaps Walt Disney said it best with his popular Disney World song, “It’s a Small World.” Children growing up around the world know the tune and its lyrics. As young parents in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we sang along with our kids even though the world we knew at that time felt like a very large place.
In recent years, however, we have become increasingly accustomed to the idea of a smaller world. It feels smaller in terms of our daily interactions. People are traveling more; we think little or nothing about placing a long distance or international telephone call, and for the past decade or so, we have had the powerful communications tool of the Internet. All these developments have made the world more accessible to nearly everyone, particularly those of us living in open societies. We use phrases such as the “international community” and “global village,” to convey this sense that distance is less important today as a factor in our communications and interactions.
I was reminded of the shrinking size of our planet by the recent World Economic Forum held in Dubai. The forum was opened by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rahshid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, with the words, “We live in a global village.” He went on to say that “Global economies are one unit.” We have no better illustration of this than the current financial crisis that has crossed international borders and time zones as though they never existed.
Our recent travels and experiences in Asia, Europe and the Middle East have not only confirmed for us the increasing intimacy of the world’s populations but have also suggested that our metaphor for the shrinking size of the planet may need to be changed once again from “community” and “village” to something more like a “neighborhood.” Even the smallness and intimacy of a village may be outdated as a metaphor in the face of rapid changes, growing interconnectedness and speed of communications that characterize our world today.
During the presidential election, I was fascinated by the intimacy many people, including Emirati nationals, feel toward the United States and the knowledge they have of our country. Many clearly understood the electoral college system and the characteristics that accounted for “red” and “blue” states as they were portrayed on CNN and a host of other national and international television networks. They were following the election closely and understood the politics and leaders in many of our states. Scores of people talked to me about the politics of Ohio and wondered if the polls were going to be an accurate predictor of the election outcome in our state. I’ve met people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi who contributed to the political campaigns as though they were U.S. citizens.
The shrinking of our world from this large, unknown place to something more akin to a global “neighborhood” where nearly everyone knows the business of everyone else has profound implications for the United States as well as for our states and individual cities like Toledo. I might be wrong, but my sense is that the other countries of the world know us a lot better than we know them. If that is true, it puts us as Americans at a great disadvantage in many respects. For example, our lack of knowledge of other countries puts us at a significant disadvantage in international business. Knowing how to conduct business transactions in other cultures is almost a prerequisite for business success today. The marketplace is truly transnational and for many businesses, our customers may be in Africa, Asia, the Middle East or Europe. Being a good neighbor is just good business. Being a good neighbor, however, means taking the time to know and understand those living next door or just around the corner.
Yesterday, Elaine and I were at one of the scores of super malls in Dubai. We stopped at one of the kiosks in the corridor to find attractive, well-packaged cookies under the label of “Famous Amos.” A few years ago, we met the founder and owner of the Famous Amos company at a mutual friend’s home in Toledo. I was delighted and excited to see this local product on the shelves in one of the largest malls in the world. To put this product on the shelf in Dubai, however, takes knowledge of international marketing and knowledge of business operations here. More importantly, it first takes the vision and determination to understand and make contact with our neighbors in this new global neighborhood.
Seeing Famous Amos cookies here in Dubai made us feel closer to home. The truth is, we are close to home. We are right in the “neighborhood.”
Dan Johnson is president emeritus of the University of Toledo and is currently serving as provost and chief operations officer of Zayed University in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He can be contacted at Dan.firstname.lastname@example.org.