Digital Nomads, the Eyes and Ears of Urbanization

To manage our cities, we need a work culture that encourages mobility, balances profits with purpose, and values autonomy. Cities need a workforce that can meet challenges where they are. My latest for HuffPost looks at how a distributed workforce can provide the fuel urban initiatives need to take off running.

Inclined moving sidewalk in Montreal’s Beaudry station · Photo Chris Delatorre

Cities are the topic of the century, and for good reason. By 2050, cities will be home to six billion people — about 70 percent of the world’s projected population. Cities comprise a mere three percent of the world’s surface area, yet they account for more than two thirds of its energy consumption. Cities are beacons of economic opportunity and cultural prosperity. Cities are social blueprints of the future. People look to cities for guidance on politics, commerce and social policy. Urban specialist Robert Muggah says, “Cities are where the future happens first.”

As much as cities represent a society’s progress, they also amplify its problems. Urbanization brings violence, pollution, resource shortages and civil unrest. It’s partly why Muggah co-founded the Brazilian think tank Igarapé Institute, to gather unique insights in developing countries that could stimulate action around key issues like urbanization. You could say it’s the future that interests Muggah the most, and from his recent TED Talk on the rise of modern city-states, it’s clear that our work is cut out for us. For instance, while we look to cities for clues on how to lead, we still know very little about urban societies in the regions that are growing the fastest.

To manage urbanization, we need a work culture that encourages mobility, balances profits with purpose, and values autonomy. We need an infrastructure that connects people and data, while facilitating process development and decision-making in real time. What cities need is a workforce of thinkers, doers, makers and collaborators who can meet challenges where they are.

Today, I’m thinking about how a distributed workforce can provide the fuel urban initiatives need to really take off. And it begins with communication.

Collaborating in real time from anywhere in the world is one of the social web’s biggest draws. It allows for better process visibility, faster decision making and increased output, all without expending additional resources. A global workforce that’s always connected and “always on” is equipped to address challenges when and where they happen. More eyes on an issue is a good thing, and having those eyes spread out between agencies, sectors and continents is becoming the norm. The efficiency of the social web has made traditional work models obsolete. The new model — one grounded in autonomy, responsibility and reward — has replaced it.

It’s easy to see how a distributed workforce is best for what cities need, just look at social. Beyond the rusty confines of traditional work spaces and job descriptions, nomads are reshaping business by using the social web to connect and grow with likeminded professionals. By humanizing work and lifting barriers to productivity, this rapidly growing segment of the global workforce is teaching the world how to live and engage more deeply and meaningfully.

What’s more is that nomads are more integrated in their local communities, home and abroad. This “worms-eye” view affords them unique insights that could help agencies like Igarapé connect with people and projects on the ground. The social web gives remote workers greater access to resources, as well as the means to bypass bottlenecks in communication when pursuing opportunities and developing partnerships. Nomads are resilient, which makes a distributed workforce better equipped to meet urbanization and other issues head on.

The social we know is inadequate. LinkedIn, the “official” networking social network, is blind to workflows, littered with ghost towns masquerading as groups, and plagued with a frustrating freemium model. Facebook provides a space to connect with high school friends and lost relatives but little more, and Twitter’s ticker tape of gifs is teeming with cats, marketeers, flame wars and other vitriolic nonsense.

None are designed for work, and the numbers prove it. US workers spend nearly 5 hours on apps every day, the majority of which is on Facebook (source), with a mere 33 percent engaged at work (source). Despite claims of “connecting the world,” the social media we know and love can’t be everywhere at once.

These social networks aren’t built for a distributed workforce. Why? In one word: centralization. Even enterprise social networks, however well-intended, do little more than reinforce silo mentality by limiting inputs and access. As light iterations of their centralized siblings, these corporate-owned “federated” networks come with similar problems. Many companies employ enterprise social networks like Yammer to keep workers engaged across projects and departments. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to extend conversations beyond the safety of the company’s network.

For a world that’s opening up, centralized can only go so far. Responsive design is the new standard. The circular economy is replacing the linear one. Interdisciplinary education and systems thinking are reshaping business. Cross-sector partnerships are the new norm for complex problem solving. With cities on the rise, governance systems are recalibrating. It’s no wonder that 75% of workers would quit for a remote option (source); they see the world and of course they want to join.

As more workers leave the office to pursue mobile opportunities, the ways in which they connect will become more fluid. Solutions will become more customizable and interoperable. The world will be more open. And none too soon.

A distributed workforce is integrated, motivated and competent. A nomad is mobile and ready to get dirty. Send the work visa, administer the shots, stamp the passport, wire the cash, throw in a VPN and a nomad is there, no questions asked. Nomads are techies, luddites need not apply. A nomad values technology like a right arm. None of it would be possible without tech, and a nomad knows it. Nomads are socially driven. (I don’t care if you’re digging a well overseas or selling a toaster oven in town; if you’re talking to people every day, on their turf and on their terms, you’re learning to appreciate them in ways you never could at the office.)

Nomads are serious about work. As born entrepreneurs, nomads do more for themselves than most employers do for their on-site workers. Many handle their own benefits. HR, AP, AR, IT? All in a day’s work. As systems thinkers, they take an interdisciplinary approach to learning on the job. Traveling and immersing themselves in local customs, navigating work cultures, solving technical issues, logging data and following security protocols are just a slice of what a nomad does every day. (Expect a longer resume.) Soft skills come easier for someone who travels and experiences different cultures. Perhaps most importantly, as independent self-starters, nomads need little supervision.

To meet the challenges our cities face, a distributed workforce needs a system of communication that aligns with its values. Distributed social networks make sense. Richard Esguerra at the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes federated social networks as “a vital step towards fulfilling values often lacking in the existing social networking ecosystem: user-control, diversity of services, innovation, and more.” (FYI: When referring to social networks, “distributed” and “federated” are often interchanged, insofar as they represent decentralized forms of communication.)

The more people can shape their careers, the better their solutions will be. Distributed social networks foster more fluid communication, allowing for people to connect, work and carry their identities between platforms, without the fear of losing information or reputations, or being excluded from important conversations.

Decentralized networks have the power to unleash the potential of a distributed workforce. Digital platforms, AI and cultural innovations are rapidly changing the nature of work. By giving people ownership of their data, distributed networks would allow them to integrate and innovate better. There’s little doubt that giving workers more control over when they work, how they work and with whom is more conducive to getting stuff done. Distributed platforms are a natural fit because people can grow and improve at their own pace and on their own terms. In short, distributed social networks are breeding grounds for innovation because they encourage people to think, work and solve problems in new ways.

A distributed workforce could animate local communities with creative partnerships. Relocation programs could help to bolster ailing economies in reflexive ways. Detroit’s revitalization, for instance, could benefit from remote transplants. Workers could join registries for cities where revitalization is underway, and pop-up co-working spaces could spur local businesses by hosting workers in the short and long term. Housing authorities could provide incentives to match.

With greater autonomy and smarter coordination, cities could incentivize cross-sector partnerships. City leaders could advance policies through coalitions like the Global Parliament of Mayors and the C40’s Compact of Mayors, and utility providers could work with local governments and service-oriented nonprofits to design pilot programs. Programs that could bring much needed support to cities like Huizhou in China’s Guangdong province. With a metro population of more than 40 million, Huizhou attracts large numbers of migrant workers from rural areas throughout the region. Rapid urbanization in China has left millions of children alone in the countryside as their parents work in cities far from their homes.

Universities and organizations like TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) could work with city leaders and utility providers to deploy teachers to remote areas, providing supervision and saving children from long and dangerous commutes. Doctors Without Borders and other NGOs could launch affiliate programs to bring medical care to the young and old whose caregivers have migrated for work. Meanwhile, editorial professionals and filmmakers could document the issues, craft the narratives, engage with officials and mobilize local and global audiences. Data specialists, psychologists and social workers could track the efficacy of programs and work with local agencies to develop preventative measures.

In Vermont, partnerships could build local talent where retention is low. The state’s advanced manufacturing sector has reported difficulty in finding STEM-qualified employees. In 2010, technical workers made up less than 2% of the state’s workforce, ranking it 34th in the country. A cross-sector program could reverse the trend.

A statewide cross-sector program could create pathways between incubators and schools to identify and cultivate talent. The science and technology plan put forward by the Vermont Technology Council advocates supporting early-stage science and tech-based companies, connecting students with employers, encouraging companies to identify their future workforce, and expanding a private-public consortium to support retraining for the highly skilled. As of 2013, less than half of the state’s high school grads moved on to higher education within 2 years of graduating. A partner city exchange with Burlington, the state’s most populous city, could innovate retraining programs to include students early on.

In 2015, the City of Burlington announced that it had joined the Compact of Mayors, following the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. One of 400 cities to pledge support, Burlington has further strengthened the local and regional tech scene.

Mayor Miro Weinberger says, “The actions we take at a local level are part of a larger collective effort that will have global impact and create a better world for future generations.” What better way to connect local communities than with a global system built for a broad range of applications?

For distributed social networking to work, people will need incentives to run their own servers and network nodes, either individually or through a group administrator. And that’s just the beginning. Apart from the technology itself, there are political considerations surrounding the development of a decentralized web.

In his 2011 introduction to the federated social network, Richard Esguerra writes, “The best way for online social networking to become safer, more flexible, and more innovative is to distribute the ability and authority to the world’s users and developers, whose various needs and imaginations can do far more than what any single company could achieve.” Given the limited accountability to which super-monopolies like Facebook are currently held, it isn’t hard to imagine the social media giant viewing such a movement as a threat to its bottom line, and then committing considerable resources toward ensuring its demise.

MIT Media Lab’s Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman say decentralization alone isn’t the answer. They suggest focusing on “policies that strengthen the environment for decentralized platforms, including data portability, interoperability, and alternatives to advertising-based funding models.” As for no ad-funding, ex-Facebook developer Dalton Cauldwell’s attempt with shows that subscription-based models are easier said than done. The service couldn’t sustain itself, even after surpassing its crowdfunding goal by a quarter of a million dollars. After two years it announced it had no plans to hire staff or develop improvements.

Learning from the past, a distributed social network for professionals could test a combination of funding models, including a barter system, where users trade products for services or referrals. Or a subscription model based on an employer’s annual budget or individual’s salary. Nonprofits could allocate corporate donations for storage and bandwidth costs, and work with federal or city programs to provide location-based data in exchange for funding.

In choosing a suite of features to maintain a social presence, each remote worker would, in effect, create their own business ecosystem — connecting employers, vendors and affiliates, and adapting fluidly across sectors, regions and regulatory environments. Programs like this could precipitate opportunities in the tech space, stimulate tourism and local food systems, generate value for cross-sector initiatives, and improve the education of the labor force.

I can’t tell you when remote workers became the eyes and ears of urbanization, but it makes sense. If cities are where the future happens first, then they’re perfect for testing distributed models of work and communication. People want control over their data, as well as the ability to connect with whomever they choose and access information when they need it. That goes for work, too.

Traditional models can’t keep up with the challenges our cities face. With an improved work culture and smarter technology, a distributed workforce can.

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