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Craft Beer and Loathing
On an unusually warm November afternoon in 2011, the newly-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron stepped out of a limousine and strode into a former brewery in Shoreditch, London. The brewery was now a coworking space called, creatively, Tech Hub, and Cameron was there to announce his new vision for London’s dilapidated East. He called it “East London Tech City,” but everyone else knew it by another name: Silicon Roundabout.
The moniker originated with Matt Biddulph, the Chief Technology Officer of a social media startup called Dopplr, back in 2008. Biddulph was peering out of his window at a Shoreditch intersection, the ugly one between Old Street and City Road, when he fired off a tweet:
Tweet from Matt Biddulph: “‘Silicon Roundabout’: the ever-growing community of fun startups in London’s Old Street area.”
It was meant in jest. But within three years, it had become UK government policy.
After the Global Financial Crisis, Cameron was desperate for a way to jump-start the British economy. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 sparked a domino effect in global credit that came close to sinking the UK’s banking sector, and huge parts of the country’s wider economy with it. London needed new, bootstrapping ways to attract jobs and boost property values, and the government chose Silicon Valley as its blueprint.
In Cameron’s first speech about Silicon Roundabout, he said: “Right now, Silicon Valley is the leading place in the world for high-tech growth and innovation. But there’s no reason why it has to be so predominant. [The] question is: where will its challengers be? Bangalore? Hefei? Moscow? … London could be one of them. All the elements are here.”*
In framing his strategy this way, Cameron tapped into a new idea in the field of urbanism that was capturing the imagination of policymakers all over the world. They had come to believe that economic growth was primarily driven by “innovation clusters”—hubs where “new technologies germinate at an astounding rate and where pools of capital, expertise, and talent foster the development of new industries and new ways of doing business.”*
Cameron’s inspiration came from a US academic named Richard Florida, whom the Guardian newspaper dubbed the “rockstar of regeneration” and the “patron saint of avocado toast.”* In a 2002 book that made him famous among policymakers, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argued the internet made it possible for any place to be the next Silicon Valley—if it could successfully attract young knowledge workers, a group he termed “the creative class.” It was a buzz phrase peppered throughout Cameron’s speech.
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The thinking went like this: When a company succeeds, its founders and executives re-invest their earnings into a local ecosystem of related and complementary businesses. By concentrating an industry’s top talent within a single district, that investment was more effective and sparked a chain reaction of network effects. Highly qualified specialists move in, salaries rise, property values increase, and new service jobs are created. Knowledge workers’ earnings flow down to personal trainers, cleaners, and restaurants, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Cameron was elected on a platform of austerity and fiscal responsibility, which made the idea of innovation clusters irresistible. Rather than splash big money on new infrastructure or building schools and hospitals, Cameron’s government would focus on attracting tech talent and elevating London’s vague reputation as somewhere “hip.” Like many others in policy and urban development circles at the time, he believed replicating Silicon Valley’s success was as simple as getting knowledge workers together to network with venture capitalists (As the co-founder of Y Combinator, Paul Graham quips in his 2006 essay How to Be Silicon Valley: “You only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds.”*)
In the same speech, Cameron unveiled a new “entrepreneur” visa. Applicants had to have startup capital of £200K ($270K) and a “convincing and viable business plan” that would create at least two local jobs.* While this provided an enticing new route for the wealthy to enter the UK—akin to the golden visa programs featured earlier in the book—it did almost nothing to attract “nerds” to East London.
In fact, McKinsey—the professional services firm to which Cameron outsourced the creation of his innovation cluster—had doubts about the long-term viability of Silicon Roundabout from the beginning. The firm’s consultants were concerned that rapid gentrification would price startups out of the area and kill the hip vibe the project needed to succeed. McKinsey’s first public report flags design flaws in the visa program too: “There was a very clear request from the East London [business] community for the government to review current visa criteria, with the associated prevention of talent flow into the country being cited as a critical barrier to business growth … The main issue for [overseas] entrepreneurs remains the capital requirement.” In other words, not a lot of young global talent has a couple hundred grand lying around.
By 2013, two years after Cameron’s speech, speculation was mounting about the outcomes of Silicon Roundabout. Newspapers noted skyrocketing property prices in East London,* but nobody was convinced that any innovation was actually taking place or, if it was, whether Cameron’s grand vision had made any meaningful difference. Matthew Clifford, co-founder of the global startup accelerator Entrepreneur First, offered a generous perspective: “even when things are overhyped, hype can have very positive consequences. If you attract talent and capital to a place, to a scene, then even if actually, there’s less there than meets the eye, you do get some positive spillovers.”*
Whatever benefits may have spilled over into East London faded with each year. When a new Prime Minister replaced Cameron in July 2016, she didn’t share her predecessor’s enthusiasm for Silicon Roundabout. Given the circumstances of her appointment, Theresa May had other things on her mind—like Britain’s unexpected decision to leave the European Union. Without a Prime Minister fronting the project, the cracks in Silicon Roundabout became difficult to ignore.
In less than a decade, the “innovation cluster” envisioned for East London had materialized as just another overpriced business park. Property developers, attracted by the buzz, bought up the area’s real estate and raised office rents beyond the rates most startups could afford. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of new businesses in the area fell by 70%.* Rather than advancing disruptive companies that could compete with the US tech giants, East London became a high-end office district suitable not for scrappy nerds with big dreams but for major corporations with cold, hard cash. Shoreditch became the scene of frequent, sometimes violent, anti-gentrification protests.*
In March 2019, the UK government finally admitted the Silicon Roundabout project was dead. A statement shared in Parliament conceded that Cameron’s entrepreneur visa had attracted “low quality projects which contribute little or nothing to the wider economy.”* The visa program was unceremoniously scrapped shortly after.
The final nail in Silicon Roundabout’s coffin came in April 2020, as the first wave of COVID-19 spread and London’s offices, coworking spaces, hipster cafes, and street food pop-ups emptied. Within months of the UK’s first lockdown, Tech Hub, where Cameron originally pitched his vision, closed its doors for good,* and East London’s most over-hyped roundabout fell eerily silent.
The Remote Work Effect
Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location.Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn Founder
At the onset of the remote work era, people living in the world’s most expensive cities were the first to jump ship. A Pew Research Center study found that 1 in 20 Americans moved in response to COVID-19, often spurred by the prospect of more space, lower living costs, and convenient access to nature.* The biggest exodus was from San Francisco: almost 40% more people moved out of the city in 2020 than the year before.*
By December, a fresh bid to become the next Silicon Valley had emerged—and like Silicon Roundabout before it, the idea started on Twitter. Delian Asparaouhov, principal investor at the venture capital firm Founders Fund, was one of the many Californians who’d become disillusioned with San Francisco during the pandemic’s first year. Among the growing discontent on social media, he tweeted:
Tweet from Delian Asparaouhov: “ok guys hear me out, what if we move silicon valley to miami”
Seeing the rising likes and retweets on Asparaouhov’s tweet, Miami’s Mayor, Francis Suarez, responded with a classic venture capitalist line:
Tweet from Mayor Francis Suarez: “How can I help?”
The resulting hype became a meme in itself. Mayor Suarez printed t-shirts with his tweet etched in the iconic neon pink and blue shades of Miami Vice. A billboard appeared on the Bay Area stretch of US Highway 101, broadcasting one of Suarez’s subsequent tweets: “Thinking about moving to Miami? DM me.”
Between July 2020 and July 2021, nearly a quarter of a million US residents decided to make Florida home;* Miami saw the single biggest percentage increase—15%—in tech workers over that year than any other American city.* But what politicians like Cameron and Suarez didn’t pause to consider are the negative consequences of Silicon Valley’s success, and whether similar hubs will follow the same path. The influx of innovators to California undoubtedly boosted the state’s economy and lined investors’ pockets, but it also forced San Francisco’s working poor to live in RV communities and for homeless camps to spring up on vacant plots of land.* The city has become so expensive, even the tech talent that made it thrive can no longer afford to live within its limits.* The Silicon Valley dream has, for many, become more of a nightmare.
In the past, innovation clusters represented the best opportunity for cities to attract knowledge workers, but with remote teams becoming more common, that old equation is breaking down. The incentives for individuals to live in overpriced urban centers have disappeared, making it much more difficult to reproduce the network effects that once propelled Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem. Mayor Suarez was playing the same hand as Cameron in East London—but remote work has changed the rules of the game.
While workspace and business travel were once dictated by the company a person worked for, remote work moves the decision-making power from organizations to individuals. As more people choose to work from anywhere, flexible, remote jobs are replacing what were once office-based roles.* Remote work hasn’t just transformed companies, it’s changed mainstream attitudes towards location. Long-held assumptions about opportunity and place have shifted, and more people are weighing their options. Residents of old power capitals like London, Paris, and New York have already shown their willingness to move to more appealing destinations—to so-called “Zoom Towns” near national parks and other sites of natural beauty in the US, and “Nomad Villages” on European coastlines.**
Policymakers in lesser-known cities have even begun competing for remote workers by offering them cash grants. From $2K in Savannah, Georgia to $15K in St. Clair County, Michigan, some incentive programs throw in perks like coworking space memberships, access to local business communities, and help with finding housing and schools in the area. Regional governments expect the programs to deliver significant economic impact.
Tulsa Remote, which launched before the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2018, pairs $10K grants with community business events for remote workers who relocate to Oklahoma’s second-largest city. In 2021, a review found that for every dollar Tulsa spent on its program, $13.77 was generated in local labor income.* The same study showed that one new local job was created for every two household members brought to Tulsa. All told, the Tulsa Remote program is estimated to have contributed $62M to the local economy in 2021.
Topeka, Kansas also anticipates a return on its investment. “What we found is that $10K in remote incentives translates into $50K in economic impact in just one year,” said Bob Ross, Senior Vice President of Marketing at the Greater Topeka Partnership, the area’s economic development agency. “Then you add in the soft benefits of the intellectual and cultural impact [those remote workers] will be making and it’s $10K very well spent.”*
The dissipation of knowledge workers isn’t unique to the US—a similar effect is reshaping Europe. Modest cash incentive programs for remote workers have launched in Malta,* Italy,* and Spain,* while Greece and Portugal are offering a reduction of 50% on income tax for seven years.* Mediterranean countries have suffered severe brain drain in the first part of the 21st century, while also hosting the world’s most rapidly aging populations. Policymakers recognize economic incentives and nomad visas in such places are now vital. Providing formal pathways for nomads to integrate could be their best hope for reversing decades of economic stagnation.
As governments seek to attract and retain talent, they’re beginning to act like startups. In the early days of the web, the software engineering skills needed to build internet businesses were hard to come by. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon had to get good at sourcing and keeping hold of the right workers. As these brands expanded their operations, ambitions, and influence, they optimized their talent acquisition strategies—not only to attract the best people, but also to make access harder for their competitors. Venture capital business models encourage tech companies to monopolize user bases—to do that, they need to monopolize talent too. The scramble for jurisdictions to win remote workers marks a new chapter in this global battle for talent.
It’s unlikely Miami will be the next Silicon Valley. It’s even less likely to be in Topeka, Tulsa, or somewhere in the Mediterranean. Instead, opportunities are decentralizing away from innovation clusters and dispersing across geographies and time zones. As attitudes towards location shift, there’ll be no one, single destination for innovation. The future of innovation, like the future of work, is distributed and global. New remote work hubs are emerging, and they’re in a strong position to carve out cultural and economic niches for themselves.
Today, the question on policymakers’ minds isn’t what will attract wealthy investors or scrappy nerds. Now, they’re asking what nomads want instead.
What Makes a Nomad Hub?
If there’s one global metric every city in the world wants to be celebrated for, it’s the vaguest possible one: “quality of life.” Each year, brands such as Monocle, The Economist, Mercer, and Deutsche Bank publish annual lists of the best cities in the world to live, work, and raise a family.* Nomads and expats look at similar features when choosing where to go: clean air to breathe, a nice home to live in, political stability, personal safety, and to know the community they’re moving to is accepting of people like them.
But cities that are celebrated for their high quality of life are not necessarily the same places that deliver a high quality of life for nomads. In fact, the high cost of long-term living associated with these destinations is often what nomads are moving away from.
The expensive property markets, in particular, make nomads consider how much further their money would go in a different place—or, indeed, a string of different places. An accommodation budget of $3,500 per month in New York City gets you a 1-bedroom apartment on a 12-month lease. In the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur (a similarly melting pot city, known as “the New York City of Southeast Asia”), a 1-bedroom apartment will set you back just $450 per month, on flexible terms, and often includes access to an on-site gym and swimming pool.
These days, many different indexes and rankings examine the pros and cons of destinations from the perspective of remote workers, yet they rarely agree with one another or accurately reflect where real nomads spend time.
Global HR firm Work Motion looks at affordability, civic infrastructure, cultural attractions, and ease of compliance—and puts Melbourne, Montreal, Sydney, Wellington, and Prague on top.* Housing platform Nestpick’s Work from Anywhere Index looks at 16 destination features including visa availability, pollution, and COVID-19 vaccination rates—marking out Melbourne, Dubai, Sydney, Tallinn, and London as nomad hotspots.*
According to telecoms company Circleloop, eight of the top ten countries for nomads are in Europe, and the other two are Canada and Australia.* Its index considers monthly rental costs, internet connectivity, and happiness levels, measuring countries as a whole rather than a particular city or region. This national lens isn’t helpful, considering the price difference between properties in Vancouver and Longueuil, Paris and Metz, or São Paulo and Fortaleza.
These are commercial publications hoping to bolster brand narratives and sell more products, whether that be data connectivity, jobs, or short-term apartment rentals. Which is to say, these lists don’t really reflect where nomads are going, or what they want. A better way to understand how nomads make these decisions is to visit Nomad List—the website made by Pieter Levels, who we met earlier in the book. The site was made for nomads by a nomad, and while it’s still a for-profit venture (turning over $679K per year with a 93% profit margin as of February 2022) it’s a strikingly transparent one: all of its traffic and revenue data are available publicly.*
Nomad List ranks the world’s towns and cities according to their suitability for remote workers, pulling in public data from a wide variety of sources and making it easy and attractive to browse. While its data isn’t always 100% accurate, Nomad List gives a detailed impression of the criteria nomads consider when deciding where to go and how long to stay, bringing in factors like wifi speeds, whether English is widely spoken, climate and humidity, and the cost of living for one to three months.
Tokyo, London, New York, and San Francisco rate as some of nomads’ favorite places to spend time;* but based on the trips logged by Nomad List members, their average stay in these cities is just 9 to 12 days. High costs mean it’s rarely practical for nomads to stay in these places for longer than tourists. They’re priced out, because the accommodation and other infrastructure they need just isn’t available at a reasonable cost. So, they spend most of their time elsewhere.
During the first two decades of the 21st century, a network of nomad hubs emerged: Bali, Chiang Mai, Medellin, Lisbon, Krakow. These early hubs were often smaller cities or waning tourist towns that nobody previously regarded as innovation hotspots. They weren’t startup hubs with access to venture capital or swanky office spaces, and they didn’t boast world-class universities. Still, they all emerged as popular Nomad List destinations within just a few years.
Before nomads, it was difficult to see what these places had in common—not climate, culture, language, cuisine, or political alignment. But with the gift of hindsight, there are a few common features. They all began with close-knit business ecosystems and open-minded policymakers. They also offered practical benefits: good internet access, affordable accommodation, and high English or Spanish language proficiency. Most have relatively convenient time zones for those working with European and North American companies too. Nomads visited these places, recommended them to others, and created buzz online.
Early nomad hubs succeeded because they balanced nomads’ practical needs with something more elusive: serendipity. Nomads place high value on the experience of being on-the-ground and connecting with interesting people. Despite all the digital connectivity, they still want to physically go where the action is and be part of it. Beyond the practicalities, this social capital is what matters most when nomads choose destinations. Some places feel dead, and others pulse with possibility. There’s a “cool” factor no policymaker can hope to create, because it’s built from the bottom-up, not from the top-down.
Relationships, hobbies, work, networks—life in the 21st century doesn’t happen in a single place. What nomads hope to find in the places they visit are the opportunities and adventures meeting new people creates. “Serendipity” might not sound like a concept governments can build around, but they can nurture and bolster the conditions for it. A city or town that wants to become a nomad hub has to get good at facilitating strong human connections, and not just between nomad visitors, but also between nomads and locals. Nomads don’t just want to meet other nomads, they want to learn how different people from different cultures think about the world and their place in it.
In the years ahead, policymakers seeking to foster human connection should build upon what makes their place unique. Specialization helps create a scene and reputation, which keeps new people arriving, and encourages nomads to learn from locals about what makes their place so, well, special.
This can, will, and should look different everywhere. My hometown in the UK, Norwich, has embraced its 21st-century role as a city of stories, positioning it well for today’s knowledge economy, and to attract a specific subset of remote workers. In 2012, Norwich earned the UNESCO City of Literature title, bringing together a rich writing history and the success of the local university’s creative writing school. This specialization connects the city—home to just 200,000 people—to an international network of writers, artists, publishers, and cultural collaborators, often from faraway places. Everything from tourism marketing to themed graffiti focuses on Norwich as a destination for writers and bookworms. This edge has translated into a modest but strong global identity—visitors come to plug into the local literary scene.
Smaller towns and cities like this were not major international tourist or business destinations in the past, but they can play an outsized role in the era of remote work travel. When people can work from anywhere, their location can be aligned with their lifestyle, interests, or even beliefs instead of the location of their office. A person interested in writing may visit Norwich and then go onwards to other UNESCO Cities of Literature: Iowa City (where this book’s editor lived), Edinburgh, Montevideo, Bucheon, Baghdad, Prague.
Startup cities focus on business and tech culture; nomad hubs go a step further, offering access to niche networks beyond the obvious. Destinations can lean into niches and create the optimal environment for different interests and types of innovation—infrastructure and perks oriented around a specific discipline, then access to like-minded people, ideas, conversations, and bespoke resources. The success of a nomad hub isn’t built on expensive real estate or the presence of investors—those were the ingredients of past innovation clusters.
What comes next isn’t about “the next Silicon Valley” at all. Governments have the opportunity to specialize within specific fields rather than aspiring to become a generic tech and innovation hub. In El Salvador, the government’s strategy is to develop regional hubs for bitcoin and blockchain, decentralized finance (DeFi), and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), supported by national policies but with a localized focus on each technology.
The opportunity now is for the underdog and unexpected destinations, whether they’re second-tier cities in advanced economies, capital cities in emerging economies, or somewhere else entirely. National policy (like new visas) can play a role in creating the right conditions for these hubs to thrive, but ultimately, a tight regional focus on specialization needs to be front-and-center for the countries hoping to compete. Policymakers need to leverage their unique context to cultivate a shared interest between locals and nomadic visitors in the continuance, experience, and prosperity of each place.
Almost 15 years after the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class, the book that inspired David Cameron’s Silicon Roundabout, author Richard Florida was still being grilled about the role his ideas played in accelerating gentrification. In a 2017 interview, Florida admitted that his initial exuberance for innovation clusters had been naive.* In that year, the 50 largest metropolitan areas were home to just 7% of the world’s population, yet they’d come to generate 40% of global economic growth.* This consolidation of economic power happened regardless of whether a place was designated as an innovation cluster or not. If the city started out rich, it grew rapidly. If it was poor, it lagged behind its wealthier neighbors. No innovation cluster had ever bucked the trend.
The most consistent outcome of innovation clusters was not the birth of unicorns. It was gentrification. Real estate in poor areas marked for urban renewal were gobbled up by international businesses and ultra-wealthy investors. Property prices climbed quickly, and existing communities found themselves unable to afford the subsequent rent hikes. Locals can rarely afford to continue living in neighborhoods when they’re suddenly overwhelmed by affluent outsiders. When nomads relocate to cheaper places, they trigger a similar process.
During the pandemic, Mexican destinations rose to the top of Nomad List. While other countries introduced lockdowns, health mandates, and travel restrictions, Mexico’s borders stayed open and the government adopted a laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. Citizens of more than 70 nations could stay up to six months in Mexico as tourists, just as they could before. If they wanted to stay longer, a quick visa run across the border, even if only for a few hours, would grant them a six-month extension. With much of the world closed and more remote workers than ever before, Mexico became a vibrant hotspot for digital nomads, along with other fringe groups seeking to vote with their feet: libertarians and anti-vaxxers. As one former Silicon Roundabout entrepreneur described it to me, the draw for foreigners was simple: “Mexico City is as buzzing as Brooklyn or Shoreditch, but everything is super cheap—plus, everyone’s here!”
But what about the host communities on the receiving end of these newcomers? In Tulum, chain link fences separate the luxury condominiums from the shanty towns where local cleaners, construction workers, and food vendors live. While in Playa del Carmen, upmarket resorts are situated within gated communities and armed security guards only permit locals to enter for work. In both places, signs and billboards advertise 0% finance for Americans and Canadians to purchase local properties and monetize them on Airbnb, as well as expedited immigration services for such investors.
The most popular nomad destinations in Mexico are places where both low and middle-income communities are being displaced at alarming speed, thanks to decades of corrupt housing policy, inadequate urban planning, and widening prosperity gaps.* With segregation between locals and visitors so stark, it’s no surprise that anti-immigration and anti-foreigner sentiments are rising quickly.
When an American freelance marketer visited Mexico City in March 2022, she breathlessly tweeted: “Do yourself a favor and remote work in Mexico City—it is truly magical.”* The accompanying photo showed El Parián,* a high-end shopping arcade in the gentrified Roma neighborhood. It’s a place full of boutiques, wine bars, and hip restaurants only the rich can afford, plus an apartment building run by the international real estate company Sonder, where a room costs around $200 per night.
Figure: Sonder Parián in Mexico City. Source: Sonder.
The tweet went viral, garnering tens of thousands of shares and hundreds of comments—an example of the damaging gentrification that had come to define the Mexican capital.*
Tweet translation: “Give me courage when they come to make our rents higher, because when we go there, we are nothing more than second-class Westerners, cheap labor.”
Tweet translation: “How nice it must be to live in Mexico City earning dollars or euros … because earning in pesos is harder every day.”
Gentrification is happening with or without nomads, but their presence does contribute to its acceleration. As the Mexico example shows, there are strongly-felt (and extremely valid) concerns that nomads are global gentrifiers, perhaps even modern-day colonizers. Simply making it easier for people to come to a destination is not an effective way to create a hub that benefits both local residents and nomadic visitors.
It’s tempting to interpret what happened in Mexico City as symbolic of a dangerous reality in which outsiders conveniently dismiss the negative consequences of their lifestyle. But that’s not the end of the story—we must also acknowledge that nomads are often responding to gentrification themselves. The forces driving many nomads to move across borders are symptoms of the problematic systems, policies, and inequalities found within national borders too.
All over the world, challenges like a lack of affordable housing, the inability to save meaningfully, and expensive transport options combine to make life much more difficult than it was for previous generations. Property ownership is now out of reach for many millennials and is little more than a pipe dream for most of Gen Z. The traditional markers of success in the West are increasingly difficult for people to achieve without moving to cheaper locations, whether in their own country or abroad. Nomads choose to seek their own version of happiness elsewhere, foregoing outdated ideas of success, ownership, regularity, and commitment for freedom, flexibility, adventure, and affordability.
Until people everywhere can access the same remote work opportunities and global mobility rights as those originating from the most powerful countries, urban development will continue to result in gentrification on an international scale. The nomad boom could exacerbate the problem, or become a way to combat it. Governments need to think carefully about the role nomads can play in uplifting their local economies, business ecosystems, and global connections, and create policies to guide those outcomes.
There are practical ways to safeguard against the negative impacts and create the conditions for more inclusive economic development. Firstly, governments must provide the infrastructure needed for their own citizens to access remote work. Segregation and gentrification are inevitable unless the basic infrastructure for remote work is accessible for all. If a country’s internet access is good enough to attract nomads, policymakers must ensure it is affordable for locals. For many poorer regions, participation in the global economy is still out of reach. Nigeria, for example, has one of the world’s slowest and most expensive internet connections.* Because of this, remote work remains unrealistic for most people in the country:
Tweet: “Nigeria doesn’t even have the infrastructure to support remote work. At this point, efficiently WFH is for the privileged. People spend more money providing electricity and barely reliable internet than they would on transport fares. It’s insane”
Secondly, governments need to weave integration efforts into their migration policies, including nomad visas. The beta version might simply be formalizing the requirement that nomad visitors work from a local coworking space and share their knowledge through talks, workshops, and mentoring. This can encourage the serendipity needed to fuel collaboration across cultures, economies, and borders, and contribute to locals’ skills and exposure to global work opportunities. Over time, we need to design ways for nomads, host communities, and policymakers to co-create the right solutions for their local context and in line with their specializations. We’re at an early stage in the journey here, and the solutions can start small and scale.
Thirdly, nationalized hiring norms need to change. Nomads are one side of the remote work coin, but the same forces that make their lifestyle possible have to enable people from low passport power countries to work for overseas companies without relocating. Remote work should mean access to opportunities for everyone, but geographic restrictions on positions are still the default. To apply for a US job, you need the right to work in the country already. In practice, that means only outsourced jobs—roles that require the same skills and experience but pay significantly less—are accessible to people who do not already enjoy the right to work in wealthy jurisdictions. A Mexican passport-holder cannot easily move to the US to access US jobs and earn US wages, even though those jobs can now be done from anywhere.
Finally, global mobility policy needs to catch up, or else economic and visa discrimination based on the coincidence of a person’s birthplace will continue. The internet has the potential to level the global playing field, but technology does not change business incentives or existing power structures by itself. Right now, nomads are the victors who inherited powerful passports, while members of host communities are more often the victims of a global system of exclusion. Those without the right passports are currently stuck in one place with fewer opportunities to build the life they want.
Remote work shouldn’t only deliver opportunities for nomads who hold powerful paperwork. It should provide wider access to global work for people who couldn’t traditionally access the visas required to migrate to innovation clusters. Because a “hub” that’s only accessible by a lucky few can’t be all that innovative, can it?
The next part of the book delves into the global spaces and global culture created by people who meet in nomad hubs, and the ways in which the norms of business travel have shifted in response to remote work.
New Travel Markets and the Rise of Subscription Living
On the Eastern edge of Amsterdam’s inner-ring is an area known as “The Knowledge Mile.”* This “innovation cluster” launched as part of a city marketing campaign in 2015,* presumably the vision of a team familiar with the ideas of Richard Florida. When I visited two years later, the project was in full swing. Every other building in the area was either a trendy cafe, a startup office or part of a university. If a founder invited you to their product launch, the venue was likely to be on a tree-lined boulevard named Weesperstraat, the Knowledge Mile’s main artery.
My destination was about halfway down, next to the local WeWork. The entrance was set back from the street, a giant potted plant on each side of the automatic doors.
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