From the outset, people have been predicting that the internet would become a decentralizing force for cities. That is, technology would allow us to spread out and work from anywhere — perhaps from a small mountain town in the BC interior. While working from home (WFH) and working from anywhere (WFA) does appear to be on the rise, it hasn’t made cities irrelevant. (US Census data from 2018 estimates that only about 5.2% of Americans work entirely from home.) In fact, the “new economy” seems to have made superstar cities, such as London, seemingly even more important. It has concentrated economic activity; so much so that we’re searching for ways to spread out income and wealth more evenly.
But could it be that the technology simply wasn’t there yet? Fred Wilson posited on his blog today that right now might be video conferencing’s moment. Between not wanting to travel (coronavirus, carbon footprint, time, etc…) and advancements in the actual technology, companies such as Zoom are changing the way people and companies engage over long distances. It is happening in our offices. And come to think of it, there are probably a bunch of meetings that I could and should switch over to Zoom. I’m not yet convinced that it will become a decentralizing force for cities. But it does seem to be empowering less travel and more flexibility.
Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash
Video conferencing might have it’s moment right now, but I think a lot of millennials (myself included) are seeing the push/pull between working with boomers who sort-of understand technology. In some ways, technology is allowing certain groups of people connect more efficiently, so that cities serve other purposes than a main hub to seek work. Cities for a growing group of millennials serves as the backdrop to a YouTube vlog or Instagram photos, so people choose to work for themselves through social media.
However, in Detroit, most people are commuting from the suburbs. I do purely because of car insurance, and that’s not going to change even with a significant income boost. Blame it on inertia. However, I spent 20 mins yesterday trying to convince a subcontractor that video conferencing into our meeting from Firefox with wasn’t going to work even if they wanted it to work…the most work I get done in a day is when I meet with folks in person (have them drive into the city). Cities will evolve and certainly lose their footing once or twice along the way, but I doubt they’ll become irrelevant. I think we’ll see city-type amenities pop up in suburbs once the younger millennials start to have families – but if it it was Starbucks and craft beer for our parents, who knows what we’ll need.
I saw a comment recently to the effect of “You work from home. Why are you moving from one high-priced city to another?” “While I may work from home I go to art shows, meet friends at cafes and bars, and live my life in the city.”
The point being that we do more than just work, and that’s why small town northern BC will never have widespread appeal. I’m more willing to bet that better videoconferencing will mean more telecommuting than I am to bet that people will move out of the big city-regions. In Toronto, for example, improvements to the GO network make it more feasible to live a walkable life in Guelph and commute occasionally to the city for special events and meetings.
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