I remember the feeling the first time I arrived somewhere, looked out from the plane window, and nothing was familiar. Not an airline brand, not a word, not even a letter I could recognise. I was scared and excited.
I haven’t been in a place that challenges my awareness and feeds my curiosity at this highest potential since I was 12 years old, when I visited Europe for the first time and only spoke Spanish. Most recently, I had that experience when I was in Japan, and it was pure magic.
I recently arrived in Helsinki, Finland, to study its circular economy policies in three aspects: the academic, private, and public sectors. It took me two days to travel here from Colombia, and I only had one day to do some touristy activities. Since a couple of museums I wanted to visit were closed, I decided to walk an area called the Design District.
I have a background in industrial design, and I admire Finnish and Scandinavian design. Names like Alvar Aalto and brands like Iittala and Marimekko were familiar to me, and I always wondered what was in their land that nurtures that kind of wonderful sensitivity and aesthetics.
My walk was as I expected. I visited beautiful small boutiques with smart and delicate pieces from local designers and artists. I was enjoying my day, even with snow in May. I thought about how wonderful it was to visit a place and see objects with identity. I was definitely in Helsinki.
That made me think of a concept by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist, called “non-place.” Wikipedia explains that he uses it “to refer to anthropological spaces of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as ‘places.’”
If I think about the United States, New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and New Orleans are interesting cities, but what about the suburbs? Same highway, same traffic signal to exit, same street name, same architecture. And if I push the concept, the same market, same coffee place, same restaurant.
Functional? Very. But aren’t we losing something?
Back in Finland, I kept walking until I brought myself into a busier street and — surprise, surprise — a Starbucks! And please don’t get me wrong: I used to live in Seattle, and I loved my time with its coffee all around the USA, but it doesn’t look that great in Paris, Vienna, Prague … and Helsinki.
What does this have to do with media?
When was the last time you picked up a foreign newspaper, and it blew your mind? Even if you don’t speak the language, you are perfectly capable of identifying every title, section, sub-section — every single element.
For the last five months, I have asked my team to put the main covers of the print and Web editions of national and international media companies I think we all must monitor and study in our editor’s WhatsApp chat, because we may be surprised and learn something.
Well, that was supposed to be a very interesting exercise, but became just an OK activity because all around the globe we all —and I mean all — are doing similar things. Of course, there are some that are much better, some slightly better, and some worse, but our products are quite similar.
As a consequence, I can’t help but wonder: Are we becoming non-newspapers?
I am a big fan of globalisation and the Internet, but are we choosing to be a part of it without elements of identity? As a consequence, are we ignoring our local potential? Are we missing opportunities to connect with our very own communities and engage them with great media ideas?
What makes us different is exactly what makes it so hard for foreign digital brands to understand our specific regions of the world. It is a competitive advantage that we mustn’t abandon, especially because there are other non-media companies doing it when we are the ones called to do it.