This story is from the 2019 Access FYI: FedEx Young Innovators List. Explore more from this issue
Para Khanna posing for photo

Parag Khanna: Rethinking Geographic Connections

A geopolitical futurist and best-selling author shares his perspective on “functional geography” and the future of connectivity.

Para Khanna posing for photo

Three years ago, Parag Khanna delivered a TED Talk predicting a world where megacities, supply chains and technologies would connect the world in ways we’ve never seen. At that time, he shared that humankind would build more infrastructure in the next 40 years than it had in the last 4,000. Since then, the Singapore-based geopolitical futurist and global strategy adviser has written four best-selling books, including Connectography: Mapping the Future of Civilization, which came out in 2017, and The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century, just released earlier this year. Both provide roadmaps for how he believes we will connect in the future — and how infrastructure and supply chains will become increasingly important for the world. Access recently spoke with Khanna to learn more about his perspectives.

Parag Khanna speaking about geopolitics in front of audienceParag Khanna, geopolitical futurist, global strategy adviser and author

How does the idea of “connectography” get at how you see people connecting in the future?

Connectography, to me, is the singular word that defines the arc of human history. More than any other ideology, religion, philosophy, principles or school of thought, connectivity is what the human species does. They cluster into cities and they build connections between those cities. Political boundaries are only encrypted for a couple of hundred years in a formal sense.

So, there’s this shift from political to functional geography. But it’s not a shift so much as an overlap. You started out as a world with just natural geography — humans on the earth. Then came, over time, political geography — dividing our tribes by territories. And now comes functional geography, which is connecting cities and people and nations through infrastructure. And that’s the next phase of history. It’s functional geography overlapping over both political geography and natural geography.

You’ve said functional geography is a result of humankind’s quantum leap in innovation the last few decades. How so?

It’s a confluence of a lot of factors and dimensions. Look at the advancements in transportation in the 20th century. Or communication — you go from telegraph cables in the 19th century to telephones in the 20th century to fiberoptic internet cables and satellites in the 21st century. Then there’s a quantum leap in terms of urbanization, which again is a 20th century story that’s accelerating in the 21st century. More people moving to more cities faster. So that’s another dimension of the quantum leap. Put those leaps together and you get this intensification of human activity through connectivity.

Paint a picture of how infrastructure ties into that intensification.

Other than two people being able to physically speak to each other within earshot, every single form of human connectivity demands some kind of infrastructure. And that could be a road that allows them to walk to each other. It could be a telephone, the internet, Skype. Every kind of connection. Even if I go to sell on a marketplace like Amazon or Alibaba and you buy it, there’s infrastructure involved.

Other than two people being able to physically speak to each other within earshot, every single form of human connectivity demands some kind of infrastructure.

—Parag Khanna

I often use this example with respect to China. I say Alibaba is a $400 billion company. How much would it be worth if China hadn’t spent the last 40 years building highways and railways? And airports so that they can deliver anything within China in 24 to 48 hours? So, you don’t have a digital economy without the quantum leaps in roads and services and so forth. You don’t get to that $400 billion company that’s digital and ethereal and on the internet without the road. So all of these connectivities significantly overlap and reinforce each other.

You make the point that it occurs across borders, too. What’s an example?

Take Africa. Its connectivity was largely as a second player or third player to colonial Europe for centuries. But now you have a world where Africa trades in all directions. And it’s connected to Latin America, to North America and Asia. Now over the last 20 years, what you’ve seen is that demand for commodities from Asia has been the primary cause of African economic growth. So by getting connected across the Indian Ocean, Africa has really carved out a new role for itself in the world economy. Not as a colony but as a resource provider based on free-trade agreements. It’s a much more sovereign and confident way. And it’s not only trading and exporting but receiving investments from China, India and others.

So then let me bring you to North America, where there’s a functional geography that is really binding North American countries together into what I call the North American union — from a fundamental geological and demographic and supply chain industrial standpoint, no matter our present politics. So I think that is something that is deep and fundamental, rather than short-term and narrow. The U.S. is buying more and more water from Canada. The Northeast of the U.S. is getting more electricity from Canada. In the future, with drought in the Southwest, we are going to have to draw more water from Canada. You can see the climate change in food production, too — Canada is becoming an ever-larger food producer. You can also see it in the economic relationships with the supply chains between Chicago and Toronto and Seattle and Vancouver that are pretty highly interconnected. And American companies are investing ever more in Mexico’s oil and gas and electricity sectors.

This interconnectivity is fueling growth, too, right? Tell us where you’re seeing that.

The fastest-growing geographies in the world are not just cities but cities on borders. So the ultimate irony of the transition from the political to the functional world is that the places where you see the most people gathering are borders. And they are doing so because they see the business opportunity across those borders. It’s a fact that you see playing out on borders around the world.

Parag Khanna speaking in front of audienceParag Khanna, geopolitical futurist, global strategy adviser and author

Your new book takes a look at the importance of Asia through the connectography lens. Give us an example of why it’s important.

When you look at energy markets, for example, America is the largest oil and gas exporter in the world. And we send a lot of it to Asia because they need it. So we are deeply, deeply, deeply tied to Asia in more ways than ever before. And that part of connectography is also part of what is driving the Asian story. And it’s also what benefits America in terms of being so connected to Asia. I think that there’s a lot of lopsidedness for America because Asia itself hasn’t reached its potential. And if Asia ever reaches its potential, then there are plenty of benefits and reasons for America to be part of that story.

No matter where in the world we live, though, you’ve identified sustainable urbanization as a common challenge. Explain what you mean.

Sustainable urbanization is mankind’s No. 1 collective priority. There’s absolutely no doubt that the one thing almost every society in the world has in common is that both individually and collectively we’re headed for collapse if we don’t get this right. If you don’t have cities where people can breathe the air, if we don’t have an energy transition in cities to reduce our collective pollution, if we don’t have affordable housing and affordable transportation in cities, we will have political upheaval because of inequality. So, affordable housing, affordable transportation, services jobs rather than industry, all of these are urban issues. And they all relate to the city of sustainable urbanization.

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