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08TH February 2010

Business Tricks - Culture - Explorer

Who moved my Fromage! … Creative destruction and what’s around the next corner.


.. and one day they quit comingI was in a town called Dinan recently. Someone stole their cheese. I thought that was quite like today’s technology marketplace that I work in. Seems a bit of a stretch, but follow along.

This photos, admittedly no gem, was taken from the ramparts (big walls that surround a castle- of which there are none in America) of a city called Dinan. Back in the day, Dinan was a trading centre of an independent duchy called Brittany (no duchies in America either). It’s kinda like Iowa for farming with a seacoast like Maine. Anyways, Dinan was actually in the heart of the countryside, but connected by a handy little tidal river to the coast, making it quite a handy place for farmers to offload their production by wheel, for further transport by boat to St. Malo and other destinations. That’s where things get interesting.

In this shot, you can make out the river below, and the cobbled pathway up to the city walls. Warehouses and shops line the route. Farmers had no where to store their wares, and no means to transport them downriver, so it was a forced sale outside the city walls. Relieved of their burdens, and flush with cash, they often made there way up the cobbled street (lined with bars)and then to the city centre (lined with Breton gals I am informed). Dinan prospered on the spread prices between the river and the city centre, or the warehouses and the coast. Actually, it became one of the richest towns in medieval Brittany. The cathedrals, shops, buildings and winding streets are medieval classics on par with any in France. Life was good.

The one day, no one came up the street.

Farmers got old, and partied out perhaps. New roads allowed for quicker transport to the coast than the river would ever allow. Protection was set up along the way to ensure a safe passage. Lorries of the day (horse drawn but running on better, more protected roads) passed right by. And prices in St. Malo were much more favorable than could be had in the countryside. So not only did the farmers bolt, the shop keepers and the street entertainment soon headed downriver as well. It was an economic death spiral that has lasted 500 years, only lately abated somewhat by a bit of curious tourists.

Dinan was frozen in time.

On the one hand, it is very cool to experience a place that, at a glance, takes you right back. The construction was particularly amazing, with tight streets crammed with shops that expanded like an upside down pear at the upper floors: the reason was taxes were based on the ground floor plan, so upper floors were larger. The food was sublime. And the ancient clock tower, still standing from the 1200’s, was superb. But on the other hand… the bell that was ringing in my head was something much more 21st century.

It’s called “Creative destruction” and it is a natural in market economies that hasn’t changed much in 500 years. Ask Alan Greenspan, or better yet read his book. Buyers will seek out the best value for price. The most effective tools. The easiest way to accomplish more, and realize more, with less effort. Creating products and services that deliver high leverage based on market needs will get a trial: those that adapt with the market can generally survive if not prosper. I think Dinan got left behind on that one. Unfortunately, in technology and start ups, you can’t dress up in medieval costume, play the lute and hope for the tourists to bail you out. At least I don’t think so.

If you go
» Dinan
» Age of Turbulence

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