Connectivity is the foundation of the new global system

(extract from the book Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, by Parag Khanna)


Connectivity is the new meta-pattern of our age. Like liberty or capitalism, it is a world-historical idea, one that gestates, spreads, and transforms over a long timescale, bringing about epochal changes. Despite the acute unpredictability afflicting our world today, we can be adequately certain of current mega-trends, such as rapid urbanization and ubiquitous technology. Every day, millions of people are switching on mobile phones, logging on to the Web, moving into cities or flying on airplanes for the first time in their lives. We go where opportunity and technology allow. Thus connectivity is more than a tool; it is an impulse.

No matter which way we connect, we do so through infrastructure. We are only in an early phase of re-engineering the planet to facilitate surging flows of people, commodities, goods, data, and capital. Indeed, the next wave of transcontinental and intercontinental mega-infrastructure is even more ambitious: an inter-oceanic highway across the Amazon from São Paulo to Peru’s Pacific port of San Juan de Marcona, bridges connecting Arabia to Africa, a tunnel from Siberia to Alaska, polar submarine cables along the Arctic seabed from London to Tokyo, and electricity grids transferring Saharan solar power under the Mediterranean to Europe. Britain’s exclave of Gibraltar will be the mouth of a tunnel under the Mediterranean to Tangier in Morocco, through which a new high-speed railway will extend down the coast to Casablanca.

None of these mega-infrastructure projects are “bridges to nowhere.” Those that already exist have added trillions of dollars in value to the world economy. During the Industrial Revolution, it was the combination of higher productivity and trade that raised Britain and America’s growth rates to 1 to 2 percent for more than a century.

Because only a quarter of world trade is conducted between bordering countries, connectivity is the sine qua non for growth both within and across countries.

The past several decades prove beyond any doubt that connectivity is how regions move from economies valued in the billions to the trillions. Furthermore, infrastructure is a foundation of social mobility and economic resilience: urban societies with ample transportation networks (such as southern China) rebounded much faster from the 2007–2008 financial crisis, with people able to move efficiently to find work.

The gap between infrastructure supply and demand has never been greater. As the world population climbs towards eight billion people, it has been living off the infrastructure stock meant for a world of three billion. But only infrastructure, and all the industries that benefit from it, can collectively create the estimated 300 million jobs needed in the coming two decades as populations grow and urbanize.

The transition from export-led growth to higher value-added services and consumption begins with infrastructure investment. The global connectivity revolution has begun. By some estimates, mankind will build more infrastructure in the next 40 years alone than in the past 4,000.

Mega-infrastructure projects overcome the hurdles of both natural and political geography, and mapping them reveals that the era of organizing the world according to political space (how we legally subdivide the globe) is giving way to its organizing according to functional space (how we actually use it). In this new era, the de jure world of political borders is giving way to the de facto world of functional connections. Borders tell us who is divided from whom by political geography. Infrastructure tells us who is connected to whom via functional geography. As the lines that connect us supersede the borders that divide us, functional geography is becoming more important than political geography.

Many of today’s existing and planned transportation corridors can be traced back to ancient passages carved by geography, climate, and culture. But whereas the ancient Silk Roads were dirt paths or rough tracks, today we have asphalt highways, iron railways, steel pipelines, and Kevlar-wrapped fiber internet cables—stronger, denser, broader, faster. These infrastructures are laying the foundation of our emerging global system. They connect whichever entities lie on either end or along the way, whether empires, city-states, or sovereign nations—all of which may come and go, while the logic of the pathway persists. For this reason, connectivity and geography are not opposites. On the contrary, they very often reinforce each other. Connectivity is thus not about detaching from geography, but making the most of it.

When countries think functionally rather than politically, they focus on how to optimize land, labor, and capital; how to spatially cluster resources and connect them to global markets. Connective infrastructure across sovereign borders acquires special properties, a life of its own, something more than just being a highway or a power line. They become common utilities that are co-governed across borders.

Connectivity is thus intensely geopolitical even as it changes the role of borders. When we map functional geography—transportation routes, energy grids, forward operating bases, financial networks, and internet servers—we are also mapping the pathways through which power is projected and leverage exercised.