The tiny town of Silay on the remote Philippine island of Negros was once one of the wealthiest places in the world.
This was the birthplace of the first modern intercontinental trade network, one of the first examples of globalization. The famous Manila galleons, after collecting riches from all over Asia, departed the Philippines for Mexico. From Acapulco it set sail under heavy escort for Madrid, having added American gold that had traveled up the Andean cordillera to Cartagena. This was the trade network that fueled the Spanish empire for hundreds of years.
The island of Negros, situated in central Philippines, was the richest sugar-producing region of its era, producing countless tons of sugar for export around the world. The sugar barons of the island made Silay their home, building fabulous mansions and creating an unlikely center of culture and refinement. They paid for some of Europe's most famous singers and performers to travel halfway across the world to perform there. The local church had crystal chandeliers from Paris and ceremonial implements made of platinum, because gold was too common.
But a rapid transformation is happening in this place. For hundreds of years the economy of the island was centered on sugar, but in a few short years it has been surpassed by a much newer industry: call centers. They have sprung up in and around the neighboring provincial capital Bacolod, towering vertical office buildings in a land of two-story concrete structures. These are the customer service representatives that you and I talk to every day.
The rise of the call center industry in Bacolod has had stunning effects. It has enabled for the first time the emergence of a true middle class. Shiny new gated communities line the highway outside town. Several new shopping malls have appeared, with many of the same brands and stores we are familiar with in the U.S. Owning a car has become the new norm for many families, and a variety of relatively expensive fast-food chains are thriving. There's even a new Starbucks in town that everyone is proud of, a mark of bourgeoisie excess unthinkable just a few years ago.
The very same jobs that we deplore in the U.S. as being stressful and unrewarding, that are characterized by high turnover and low employee satisfaction, for Filipinos represent a gateway to a comfortable middle class life. Just another example of the flattening world we live in.
These changes are representative of a broader shift taking place in the Philippines, changes that have led to it being called the New Asian Tiger. This is after jumping 10 places in the 2013 Index of World Economic Freedom, to 97th place, and 17th in the Asia-Pacific region. The IMF has reported that the country's economy grew by 6.5% in 2012, handily beating its forecast of 4.8% and putting to shame the flatlining economies of the developed world. Most impressively, the Filipino stock market grew by 33% in 2012, the second-fastest growing market in the world, and opened 2013 at record highs and no sign of slowing.
Manila, the capital, is booming. On a recent trip to visit family, I stayed at a hotel in Makati, the business district of the city. Huge malls filled with high-end brands and luxury cars everywhere gave me the impression of a business class on the rise, and a sea of skyscrapers under construction provided evidence of massive Chinese investment. Even Paris Hilton and Donald Trump are opening new resorts there, a sure sign that you're already late to the party.
The new global economy taking shape is one where technology is leveling the playing field for people that have long been outside the mainstream of international business. If the companies of today want to maintain their position, they will need to become highly skilled in using some of these same digital technologies to their own advantage, or risk being left behind by ambitious, dynamic young companies from every corner of the globe.