New World Same Humans #59

How the remote work revolution will transform cities, education, innovation, and nation states.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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Sorry that this instalment arrives late! Sometimes real life and the newsletter life collide. Yesterday that took the form of a wife feeling unwell, and two seven-year-old boys determined to shoot a feature-length adventure movie on an iPad. I was cameraman and props assistant. Normal service is now resumed.

As lockdown eases here in the UK, a transition is on the horizon. We’re about to find out what the new normal looks like when it comes to work.

The picture is still unclear. Last week the prime minister urged UK citizens to get back to the office, saying they’d had enough ‘days off’ during lockdown. Meanwhile one of the country’s largest financial institutions, Nationwide, told its 13,000 employees that they’re permanently free to ‘work from anywhere’.

Two starkly different visions, then, of work in the 2020s. The same tension will no doubt afflict industrialised nations around the world.

Many employers, though, are converging on a settlement: a mixed model that will see staff in the office occasionally, and free to work anywhere for the rest of the time. That sounds a balanced compromise; it’s also a revolution. One that will have far-reaching effects on the way we live, how we do innovation, and the nature of citizenship.

So this week, notes on the transition towards remote work. I’ve examined the shift across four key dimensions:

  • Cities

  • Education

  • Creativity and innovation

  • Citizens and states

For each dimension, I’ve devised a short scenario built on a number of key predictions. In some future instalment of NWSH – I’m thinking 2025 at the earliest – I’ll revisit the claims I make this week. Each scenario features one tweet, chosen because it is a powerful illustration of one of the seeds, already growing in 2021, of my imagined future.

A final note: these scenarios focus on rich, industrialised nations where office work is predominant and many can work from home. The World Bank estimates that in low income countries only one in every 26 jobs can be done remotely. Those countries, clearly, will travel different paths, and I hope to write about that in a later instalment.

🏙️ Cities

The lunchtime economy lands in the suburbs. Tier II cities compete for knowledge workers. New city states are born – first in the cloud and then IRL.

Affluent knowledge workers still regard proximity to a megacity as an indicator of prestige and relevance. But now free to appear in the office once a fortnight, those with families disperse to attractive outer-ring suburbs and satellite towns in search of more space and a garden. That shift remakes the suburbs: higher prices, a new wave of automated convenience stores to serve the lunchtime economy (such as these automated stores popping up across rural Sweden), and co-working spaces to allow work-from-home laptop junkies to escape the children.

Meanwhile, reduced demand for homes and office space in the inner-city eases rents. After two decades of gentrification – bankers, lawyers, young people with rich parents – some inner-city neighbourhoods are partially reclaimed by a genuine bohemianism. Artists, writers, and actors put unused commercial and retail space to new and innovative use. But for millions of low-income workers tied to physical location – security guards, taxi drivers, care workers – inner city life is still a struggle.

Some knowledge workers depart their megacity altogether; mostly to smaller cities. A new arena of inter-city competition emerges as these locations fight to attract talent, taking their lead from the mayor of Miami, who used used social media banter to sell his city as an alternative to Silicon Valley during the pandemic.

Soon enough, that trend converges with a new push towards devolved governance. Inspired by 20th-century success stories such as Hong Kong, the later 2020s sees a new wave of charismatic founders establish charter cities: independent city states intended to attract itinerant knowledge workers and reimagine government for the 21st-century.

Many are born, first, as decentralised cities in the cloud, which bring people together based on shared values, interests, and skills.

🎓 Education

Lower tier universities crumble to dust. Superstar lecturers embrace the creator economy. A new wave of online-first universities challenges incumbents.

The pandemic forced universities to improvise remote learning programmes. In the years after 2020 they consolidate those new capacities, and shift to a mixed learning model – online and in-person – as standard.

Elite institutions – think Harvard, the Sorbonne, Cambridge – continue to attract top student talent and act as finishing schools for the children of the 10%. But high tuition fees and new online options (more on this below) make it harder for middle-tier universities to attract students. Fuelled by all this and strained government budgets, the later 2020s sees a bonfire of middle and lower tier institutions.

Meanwhile, the industry is swept by a vast curriculum and teaching consolidation. Why should 100 lecturers nationwide teach an Advanced Calculus course to new undergraduates each September, when 100 universities can now invest in, and share, a single online course?

That shift fuels the emergence of a class of superstar lecturers, whose courses are watched globally. Soon, stars in this winner-takes-all marketplace look to break away and monetise their huge audiences, leveraging tools such this new creator platform for academics. Later in the decade, superstar lecturers club together for form new online bundles. A bright idea: maybe we should call these bundles universities?

At the heart of all this? Rising numbers of young people reassess the value exchange – economic, cultural, social – offered by a traditional undergraduate degree. After all, many now expect to make a living not as an employee, but as self-starting, online creators: of content, tools, and services.

The decade’s middle years see the rise of entirely new, online-first universities catering to those expectations. Many take inspiration from early examples such as On Deck, which famously modelled itself as ‘a Stanford for the internet’ as early as 2020. 

💡 Creativity and Innovation

Remote creativity is the new ‘management’. Startups compete to fuel remote creative magic. Small, in-person, cohabiting teams fall back in fashion.

In a world of remote work, the science and art of collaboration at a distance becomes an obsession for founders, businesses, and management thinkers in the 2020s.

Cue an explosion of research when it comes to high-performing teams and the mechanics of remote creativity. Researchers take their lead from a now canonical study by the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory, which found that communication is what sets the best teams apart. Specifically, an ongoing stream of democratic, multi-directional, informal chatter that happens outside meetings.

These patterns of communication were as important a predictor of success, especially creative success, as all other factors combined, including the intelligence of team members. And in the 2020s, countless Harvard Business Review covers promise new thinking on how to facilitate this kind of informal communication remotely. Meanwhile, startups compete to become the platform that takes teams from remote collaboration to remote creativity. New kinds of offices emerge in the metaverse, via startups such as Gather.

As the decade wears on, though, a creeping realisation dawns. Nothing can match the strange fire that catches light when the right people are thrown together in-person to eat, sleep, and breathe the dream.

Businesses start running residential innovation sprints. A new generation of startup founders, too young to remember the ‘two people in a garage’ origins of many iconic technology companies, publish essays rhapsodising the benefits of IRL innovation.

🧑‍💻 Citizens and States

Citizenship is reimagined as a location-agnostic bundle. Rising numbers question the relevance of the nation state.

At the intersection of much of the change discussed here is a single, powerful phenomenon. That is, the emergence of the Sovereign Individual.

In short: mainstream lifestyles in the 20th-century were built around the need to live close to a place of employment. As that need falls away for many in the 2020s, fundamental questions about the relationship between individuals, places, and governments emerge into view.

The decoupling of knowledge work and location, and a proliferation of one-person, creator economy businesses, fuels a new global class of itinerant workers who hop from city to city while working for the same employer, or themselves.

To which country should these workers pay tax? Who funds their healthcare? A new conception of citizenship – as a bundle of rights, responsibilities, and benefits that citizens can take anywhere with them – begins to emerge.

By the end of the 2020s, the revolutionary idea that the nation state is no longer a workable unit of political organisation has begun a long march into the mainstream.

But via these shifts, long-running tensions around globalisation find new expression. The dividing line between those able to work from anywhere and those bound to one place becomes increasingly politicised. Established knowledge workers in affluent countries must now compete against a global talent pool, as employers seek accountants, designers, and copy writers in cheaper markets. Those long familiar with the downsides of offshoring, from call centre staff to manufacturing workers, have little sympathy.

By the end of the decade, politics is fundamentally polarised: around those who have little use for the nation state, and those who cleave to it more tightly than ever.

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David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.