What Makes a Nomad Hub?

11 minutes, 5 links


Updated May 4, 2022
Global Natives

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

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.

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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.

Confronting Gentrification

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!”

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