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, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Character of Place

The character of place

I’m thinking a lot about terrior these days. It’s a French concept. It developed out of centuries of winemaking.

Terrior is based on the observation that wines from the same grape but different regions, vineyards or even parts of the same vineyard can be so different from each other.

What makes the difference? Wine is obviously the product of humidity, soil composition, days of sunlight, etc, etc. These variables in combination, composition, and compilation create substance. Together, the minute and indefinite create something definite and enduring.

But, of course, it’s more than mere pieces. It is about wholes too.

Wine is not the simple math of its parts – it is the product of the whole. It’s an odd temporal concept – innovation and brilliance comes from the today’s whole rather than the incremental addition of parts in times past.

More than wine

This applies to more than wine. Sports cars from Italy are consistently finer than those from America. Almost any pub in the UK is better than the best pub here in Edmonton. The highly ranked Indian whiskey I’m sipping right now is bewilderingly subdued against the raft of bottles I’ve got from Scotland.

In some things the impact of place is so distinct and so pervasive, it creates stereotypes. In food: Champagne, Cognac, Scotch, and Maple syrup. In clothes: Italian leather, Parisian scarves, Brazilian bikinis. In business: American finance, Israeli technology, and Indian strategy.

What about place makes things different? What do we know of this “character” of place? How deliberately to we acknowledge its role in what we do?

Place as lead actor

David Koepp is best known as a film writer. He worked on Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Spider-Man and (the upcoming) Angels & Demons. He also directed Ghost Town – a very funny movie.

The DVD for Ghost Town includes the usual Director/Actor interview. I don’t usually watch the interviews but, for some reason, I watched Koepp’s.

In the interview, Koepp explains why he made the movie. If you’ve seen the other movies listed above, it’s a clear switch from his usual fare. Though he gives several reasons, Koepp says one was his interest in shooting a film where place was a character. He had two leads: Gervais and New York.

Koepp knows there’s a substance to place. A grit and nuance that a movie set never mimics quite well enough.

Why is there nowhere like New York?

How place creates moments

There was a lovely time in my life when I was often in Paris. I’d fly through the night for an early AM landing in France.

As in most long-haul international travel, jet-lag was a menace. To get straightened out, we’d stay up the whole day and dribble into bed late in the Parisian PM.

The mornings were the worst. We’d land right when our bodies thought it was time for bed. To stay awake we’d grab a croissant and hit the museums/galleries. By the time we were through the museum we were back into the early AM hours back home. The rest was easy.

On one of those trips, this time in April, I went to the Rhodin Museum.

I’ve never been anywhere like Musee Rodin. It’s hardly right to even call it a museum. It’s a garden. The museum’s tossed in, like an after-thought. The place is absolutely brilliant – especially in April.

In the gardens there’s a cafeteria half-way down the western wall. When I got there, it was barely 9AM. I grabbed an espresso.

I was tempted to stay on the patio but other people were already milling about. I wanted some quiet and fled, looking for a more secluded spot. I ended up near the base of the garden, just shy of the southern wall.

There, centered in a grove of tall trees, stands Rhodin’s monument to Victor Hugo. It’s a sculpture; a reposing, nearly nude Hugo lies on a huge rock. He is flanked by three Muses (Les Orientales, Les Chatiments, and Meditation) who, leaning forward, seem to call, almost beg, for something the man refuses to give.

There I sat. French espresso steamed in a gleaming white cup. French wind whispered in French-grown trees. Around me, Paris half-heartedly shuffled its way into a new day.

There, at the foot of Hugo, for no reason I could name, the world silently stopped. It was like some movie’s special effect. It felt like everything just – quietly, simply – stood still.

The noise disappeared. Sunlight spilt into the clearing. The espresso’s delicately curling steam caught the light. A bird’s liquid song sprang into the air.

One of the most beautiful moments of my life wandered in, effervescent as a toddler’s delight, and scattered off into time.

Leveraging place to stack odds

What are the ingredients of place? Why might that matter? When there’s two options on the table – does place factor in?

Today we finished a major project that answers these questions. All told, we hired nine PhDs, three MBAs, two economists and two consultants. The team reviewed more than 300 academic articles in competitive intelligence, ecology, emergent industry theory, open innovation and regional economics.

There’s nothing new. There never is. The work is based on timeless principles not trends.

The project aggregates elements already in use by the Kauffman Foundation, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), Tekes – the Finish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, Fundacion Chile, and Sustainable Development Technologies Canada (SDTC).

Most of these pieces are already in play with our client. This work pulled them together. Made them whole.

We evaluated how the character of place funnels options, stacks odds, and mitigates risks in certain investment decisions. We then built a tool that reconciles myriad opportunities with the relatively few things a place is best positioned to support. It runs on indicators, is modular and scales from ground-level tactical analytics to high-strategic fit.

Strategic fit, Michael Porter says, is fundamental to any advantage. The tighter the fit, the higher the probability of success. And, more importantly, as fit increases so does the sustainability of advantage.

This matters when investing. Investments are risky, particularly in times like these. If place can stack the odds, why not leverage that? Just like poker, investment success is about probability, not certainty.

If we quantify terrior, what do we learn of the best businesses to fit in specific places? Three things:

1. Real, enduring innovation is found at home. It stems from recombining existing knowledge in entirely new ways.

2. Where the capacities of firms are aligned with the character of place, the probability of success goes up.

3. Strategy must be tailor-made. Bespoke practices for specific bottlenecks for specific potentials for specific places.


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[…] In recent work for Alberta Ingenuity Fund and the Alberta Department of Advanced Education and Technology, we created a 75-indicator set of metrics and indexes to measure Jurisdictional Advantage. It’s a tool that assesses the character of place – the strengths and weaknesses of business and the regions where they exist. […]