We’re supposed to be good at being ‘local’

2010 Update: I made the decision to bring Say “Alaka‘i” here to Talking Story in late May of 2010 when the Honolulu Advertiser, where the blog previously appeared, was merged with the Star Bulletin (Read more at Say “Alaka‘i” is Returning to the Mothership).

Therefore, the post appearing below is a copy of the one which had originally appeared there on January 15, 2009, so we will be able to reference it in the future when the original url it had been published on is no more…


We’re supposed to be good at being ‘local’

You know how some people get song lyrics stuck in their head? That happens to me with particularly pithy quotes, and when words get strung together in ways I hadn’t quite connected with them before. Sometimes those words and phrases can really stick, and I find I can’t shake them until I filter them through some kind of sorting out.

Lucky you; that’s what you get to do with me today. You are hereby warned that this post is one of me talking out loud, and I haven’t quite sorted this out completely. I’ve got no hidden agenda —really. However, I think this could stir one up, not sure” so I’m kinda hoping you’ll pitch in and help me think this through.


I read a line at Seth Godin’s blog which stopped me in my tracks. He wrote, “Own your Zip code. The next frontier is local.” (I’ve done the good blogger thing and linked back to it, but I will tell you that his context is slightly different from where I’m taking it.)

When you hear that phrase, and stop for a moment to think about it, what does it say to you?

“Own your Zip code. The next frontier is local.”

Frontier. At first, that conjures up “wild, wild west” for me. Uncharted, unpredictable, but also possibility and discovery rich: People struck gold in the wild, wild west!

Local. Um, the frontier? In recent years we’ve conditioned ourselves to think the exact opposite, that the next frontier was global; ignore it at your peril. We’re living the new experiences of global connectivity, and we’re getting increasingly sassy at getting the hang of it.

We say it, and we believe it: “The world gets smaller every day.” Ask someone who blogs, or who is newly enamored of social media (Twitter for example, there in the right column), or who finds they are competing for a job with someone willing to relocate halfway around the globe within the week if need be.

Security in one’s own neighborhood doesn’t really apply much anymore; a lot of the true context within “ignorance is bliss” has moved into the ignorance is careless, perhaps stupid column. You might be blissfully unconnected, but no single person a neighborhood makes, and chances are there’s some online shopping, research, or uploading for content creation which is going on at a keyboard next door, rendering the less-connected you an older dinosaur with each click.

How do you thrive when the world’s gone global?

In his book The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman wrote about localized jobs, calling a certain category of working people our 21st century “untouchables,” and I hoped he was right, for if he was, this would be good news for any desire we have with “being local.” The following quote comes from chapter six of his book if you have it, and for quick context for those who are unfamiliar with it, by “flat world” Friedman means one which has now gone global whether we like it or not:

“The key to thriving, as an individual in a flat world, is figuring out how to make yourself an ‘untouchable.’ That’s right. When the world goes flat, the caste system gets turned upside down” ‘untouchables’ in my lexicon, are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced, digitized, or automated.

People who are really ‘localized’ and ‘anchored’ [fall into this category of] untouchable because their jobs must be done in a specific location, either because they involve some specific local knowledge or because they require face-to-face, personalized contact or interaction with a customer, client, patient, colleague or audience. All these people are untouchables because they are anchored: my barber, the waitress at lunch, the chefs in the kitchen, the plumber, nurses, my dentist, lounge singers, masseurs, retail sales clerks, repairmen, electricians, nannies, gardeners, cleaning ladies, and divorce lawyers [are anchored, and possibly can remain untouchable].”

I hoped Friedman was right, because I understood that if my kitchen sink was leaking I would need a plumber, and the only thing my computer would help me do in that moment of need was Google a plumber’s phone number in my zip code. However, I also understood that if I was so inclined to learn plumbing I could, and when time wasn’t of the essence, I could very likely Google the information needed to fix my sink myself —and my zip code was now irrelevant.

So what is my plumber’s best strategy? Getting me to understand and experience that buying his version of “local” will always be my best option. Always.

It’s advertising, yes, perhaps branding, but only in getting me to dial his number in the first place.

Then it’s service, for the experience I will have with him.

It’s product, for the value I place in him and his work.

When that plumber succeeds with me, it’s living and working ‘local’ that works in the best possible way for both of us, a true win-win.

In his book, Friedman offers three other options with being an untouchable. He says you can also be special (one of the examples he gives, is that there is only one Michael Jordan), you can be highly specialized (meaning you can’t be digitized, automated, duplicated or outsourced) or you can be adaptable (which he goes on to encourage in his book, but which also can result in a new middle class of mediocrity).

Being local, and being good at it, is sounding better and better, isn’t it.

How do you thrive when the world’s gone local?

Let’s go back to my plumber story for a moment. So far, we could be talking about what’s local to Dallas, Boise, or Paris, couldn’t we. Let’s bring the discussion directly to our home turf; to Honolulu, Lihue, Honoka‘a or Kihei.

To be frank, we in Hawai‘i can be a bit high maka maka about being local (that’s local slang for ‘uppity’ if you’re still training wheels Hawai‘i-local”). We wear local like a badge of honor, or some secret pass in an insider’s rite of passage. Being ‘local’ in Hawai‘i is part of that “Sense of Place competence” that we spoke of here two days ago. Quick and easy contemplating this within the neighborhood community sense, but how about on the job? And how about for the job at hand, and especially in this recession we’re in?

We’re supposed to be good at being local; we pride ourselves on it. But are we?

As I sat here to write this I was quite pleased with myself, for instead of being at Starbucks or The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, I made my own café latte at home with Teshima’s Estate Kona Coffee, grown in Honalo, near Kona, and the “Island Fresh” Mountain Apple Brand ® 2% milk which KTA Superstores packages for me from Hilo’s Excelsior Dairy, which came from some contented cow grazing in a Big Island pasture. KTA even pumps me up right on the side of their milk carton, for it reads:

Why you should drink “Big Island Fresh” Milk”

  • It is produced right here on the Island of Hawai‘i
  • It assures you are consuming a fresher product that doesn’t travel 3,000 miles from the mainland
  • You are supporting Hawai‘i’s economy. The money stays here, assuring a continuous supply of locally produced products.
  • It perpetuates Hawai‘i’s agriculture industry, keeping pastures green and preserving this land we call home.

Do I want all those things? You bet I do.

(By the way, I also recommend you read their web page: The story of KTA’s Mountain Apple Brand ®)

I’d say we’ve started some things, but what comes next?

We’ve made some strides with branding, and with our buying habits as local consumers, but these words still nag at me. They tell me that we can’t pat ourselves on the back yet; we’ve only scratched the surface. “Own your Zip code. The next frontier is local.”

We do not own our zip codes when it comes to being Hawai‘i-flavored, aloha-spirited, ride ‘em Paniolo local on our own home turf. We don’t yet build our island communities —or even our nighborhood communities, around optimizing the local flavor of the work we do. We have much more work to do on our values. It is one thing to say you’re special, or specialized, but it’s quite another to BE special.

Said again, it is one thing to say you’re local, but it’s quite another to BE local.

Oh my, Godin was right; local is a frontier, even for us here in Hawai‘i. Maybe especially for us in Hawai‘i, for we talk a lot about wanting to get back that self-sustaining island lifestyle which makes us feel better about our Sense of Place. So what do we do next? What can we do with business, and with jobs, since we’re already understanding we need to reinvent anyway?

Hey, I told you I don’t have the answers. But I am starting with shaping the questions, and trying to ask them. I do believe that discussions like these are the way we grow into the Alaka‘i-valued leadership we aspire to.

What do you think? Be brave and speak up, for I can’t hear what you’re thinking.