The Grateful Dead sang, "Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right." I saw a lot of light recently while traveling in the Argentine outback, places beloved to me since my first visits there decades ago. Despite the gravity of their current economic crisis, I found that the Argentines have a lot of what people in the "first world" say they need — especially communities based on trustworthy, enduring relationships.
Many of us wonder if today's businesses can ever change enough to earn our trust. But the next generation of commerce isn't about transformation of existing businesses as much as it's about reconfiguring their pieces. The elements we need to build new communities of trust already exist around the world, but they're fragmented and scattered — like the contents of my son's toy chest thrown to every corner of the house after a long day of play — in places like Argentina. Often, the pieces are undervalued or even ignored. If we reconfigure assets, we'll unlock their potential.
Argentina's vast provincial countryside, like that of many other "developing" economies, remains imbued with the principles of an ancient community of trust. People know and value one another, and even strangers are treated with affection, grace, and generosity. Relationships come first. Respect for the land is rooted in centuries-old patterns of daily life. These archaic social norms endure far from the capital of Buenos Aires, where they're despised and ignored by power brokers and corporations. But as Internet access rapidly spreads, there's a new generation of young Argentine professionals inventing ways to translate the traditional values of reverence and trust into new relationships of service and support.
For example, a young man I met named Osvaldo concluded that standard mass tourism will destroy the countryside he loves and will fail to provide the authentic experiences that so many visitors seek. He's identifying a range of once-isolated professionals and small businesses that share his values and vision. The goal: to create an emerging community that includes relationship-oriented guides, archaeologists, travel specialists, doctors, sport-fishing experts, mountain climbers, restaurateurs, hotel owners, ecologists, and naturalists. All of them are collaborating to build a unique experience around each client's interests and requirements. Technology helps keep overhead low and prices competitive. Members of the network share profits according to their contribution. "People from the so-called developed world are craving kindness, care, and peace. If we can preserve our ancient values of trust while meeting modern needs," he told me, "we can create new ways to participate in the world economy and make money, but without losing our souls. Indeed, we hope to help our customers reconnect with their own souls."
Today, many of these entrepreneurs tend to focus on the fast-growing tourism sector of the Argentine economy. But there is little to stop them, or others like them, from turning their values and skills to other arenas. This is exactly what's now occurring in India in the growing field of "health tourism," which offers patients from other, often richer, countries a comprehensive health-care experience, combining ancient holistic practices, modern medical treatments, and individualized travel support.
The Internet taught us that if you have what people need, you can be anywhere and jump right into the fray. But you're not a global economic innovator until you get yourself aligned and reconfigured with other complementary assets.
As new communities of trust like those in Argentina or India gain critical mass, they are likely to link up with like-minded people, ideas, and capital from around the globe, forming new collaborative networks with customers. These networks will cross borders as easily as they cross old industry boundaries.
We tend to talk a lot about "reinventing" business, but that's not necessary. Much of what we crave is out there if we know where to look. Instead of the Sisyphean work of reinvention, we can make significant steps toward real change by rediscovering, resurrecting, and reconfiguring "old" components. Once you get the hang of looking at the possibilities, things don't seem nearly as hopeless as they do while waiting for the Godot of "transformation." Even those businesses most offensive to us as consumers and employees have assets that could be successfully reconfigured in new communities of trust. You probably don't have to go far to find these treasures. Just take the elevator or visit your hometown. Oh, and look for the light.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.