Media companies turning to events for brand positioning—and a much-needed boost in revenue streams—is nothing new, but it has garnered some attention in the past weeks. The latest to do so is Quartz, Atlantic Media Co.’s online business-news site “for businesspeople in the new global economy,” only 13 months old and already surpassing The Economist in U.S. Web traffic.
With “The Next Billion: A Forum About the Connected World” being the first major event for Quartz, it begs the question: How does the businessperson in this new global economy perceive the next 2.4 billion people coming online in the next five years? For Quartz, this question of the “next (2.4) billion” is an example of the many “knotty questions of seismic importance to business professionals” that drive the site’s editorial coverage.
For one thing, it’s about data. A chart showing where and how fast the next billion people are coming online loomed over the first session, on leapfrogging. This is a phenomenon where innovation from emerging markets is developing faster—leapfrogging—than in developed countries, and it’s made no less worrisome by the continuing “digital divide” in the U.S. Another chart interlude, fronted that afternoon by Senior Editor Zach Seward, offered a presentation on digital finance.
This was a marked homage to the site’s digital interface, as a quick scroll through the Quartz site guarantees that a reader will see similar charts and graphics in the signature scheme of clean gray scale and fluorescent pink and purple, all created with an in-house tool called Chart Builder. The fact that they have a team of journalist-developers (called “Quartz Things Team“) to create these kinds of tools stresses that data is core in how they report on the global economy.
Quartz’s deliberate mission and full display of a sharp brand identity were not lost on the forum’s attendants. Smartly dressed, business-savvy people, mostly in their 30s and 40s, are perhaps the face of the new global economy’s businessperson, who carries around a smartphone or tablet, as well as a tactile version of the site’s daily 6 a.m. email newsletter, The Quartz Daily Brief, printed on nice paper stock. The crowd spent all day in New York’s ornate Bohemian National Hall, as a female emcee announced each panelist and session in a distinct British accent.
With the data-driven new global economy as the backdrop, what conversations about the next billion emerged? With panelists ranging from economists and cybersecurity experts to Silicon Valley investors and innovators from some of the Internet’s biggest corporations, just about everything, it seems.
“What often happens at conferences like this is that there’s some discussions about the wonderful, amazing things that this technology is going to do, and there’s some discussions about all the terrifying things that it’s going to do,” said Gideon Lichfield, Quartz’s global news editor. “There’s always this utopian aspect and dystopian aspect of technology. And that’s true with any technology that comes along.
“But I think there’s one difference about the Internet,” he continued. “The Internet creates problems, it disrupts things. It grows things out of balance and forces things to come up with new solutions. The Internet is also the source of those solutions. And it allows people to come up with creative ways to right it, or at least tackle all the issues that the Internet created.”
This narrative bias of “the next billion” seems to be a phenomenon not limited to these conferences, as Christopher Schroeder, author of “Startup Rising,” noted. “There’s the idea [from the West] that this is happening at such scale in emerging markets generally,” he said. “And we in the West have one narrative about what’s going on. Then you can’t get your minds around what it really means: that places that we [see on CNN], putting instability and complexity [into the world], are building things. … We always tend to look for the bright, new, shiny things of innovation.”
And with the next generation of Internet companies predicted to be hugely reliant on emerging markets for their revenue in the next two to five years, there was varied discussion on what an emerging-market strategy could be. (There was definite agreement on what it isn’t—for example, “Apple releasing a $300 iPhone,” as Schroeder joked.)
Even Pascal Lamy, ex-director-general of the World Trade Organization, made a surprise appearance, explaining the need for a new generation of global leadership. “We are very pessimistic about the way that global issues have been handled so far. … The existing, traditional, nation-state-based sovereignty systems cannot cope,” he said.
Even though Lamy used terminology that one would hear at the United Nations, the WTO and other high-level policy conferences, it didn’t seem to faze the new global economy audience members. After all, there was a whole 86-page report from the Oxford Martin School that they could download on their tablets.
The day ended with a return to data-driven arguments. Clay Shirky, an expert on the social and economic effects of the Internet, put another, this time time-dynamic, spin on the next billion. “I think this is the last easy billion [of people coming online],” he said, drawing an S-curve in the air. “I think the billion after this billion is not going to come faster, but that’s where we will start seeing the slowdown.”
But, in the end, the audience was left with something that doesn’t need data or world experts to understand. “This is the first time that for someone who just gets connected can know something more than 30 yards away, because that is the range of human sight and vision,” Shirky said. “That is not like you and I getting an upgrade on our phones.”