Distributed Teams as Distributed Economic Development

Hello, everyone! My name is John O’Duinn and I want to start first by saying a big THANK YOU to @nadia , @MariaEuler and @RoRemote for making this event happen.

It was my honor to give the opening talk at EdgeRyders Next Generation Internet Event. This is part of EU Next Generation Internet - and the outcomes of what we discuss here will help inform what focus, investments and policies Europe will choose to build a next generation internet that supports the wellbeing of citizens, organisations and ecosystems. With that in mind, it struck me that over the years, we’ve evolved from Internet connectivity, to Internet for businesses, to Internet of Things and now to the Next Generation Internet for Humans. The obvious question is - why now?

I’m glad you asked!

  1. We are at an interesting inflection point in society, with several large tipping point changes happening at the same time:
    a) Technology changes - smartphones, free streaming video, high speed internet on smartphones. Internet usage is now mostly on mobile devices - not desktop.
    b) Changes in Social contract - no more job for life. Average job tenure keeps shrinking. Even “temp/contract work” is shrinking to per-task/gig work.
    c) Generational changes - Millennials became the largest segment of US workforce in 2016, GenZ will become the second largest segment of workforce this year (2020). Also people who would “normally” have retired by now are staying in the workforce because they lost their pensions/saving during the last big recession, so have no choice but to keep working. These factors together mean this is the first time we have five different generations all in the workforce at the time.
    d) COVID-19 has been an accelerator of this trend, but it’s important to keep in mind that these trends have been going on for years before covid-19. We dont know how long will COVID-19 be a concern into the future, but I believe it is not measured in days or weeks.
    e) Many companies in Silicon Valley already announced not moving back to offices this year; some already said not until mid-2021, and many announced moving to “remote first” workforce. While this might sound extreme, this is not “only” Silicon Valley. To show how mainstream this is, in City of London, 30 largest employers already talking about only 20-40% occupancy at most. One example I found recently was: “I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time,” Jes Staley, CEO Barcley

  2. The “old normal” was not working for most people.
    a) Traffic and commuting is so bad that demand for housing near offices is causing a housing crisis as well as gentrification-and-displacement disruptions for others who don’t work for that employer yet still need to live there for their job.
    b) People were spending more time commuting to work. This caused the creation of “commuter towns” and “bedroom communities”, built for people who live and sleep there, but commute to work in a different town.
    c) The environmental impact of all this traffic is significant. According to the California Air Resource Board, people driving cars, mostly to and from work is 28% of total emissions. 28%. Everything else, truck, planes, agriculture, electricity stations are each under 10%.
    d) Those who lived outside of commuting distance of employer offices have higher rates of long-term unemployment. Over time, they accurately felt more sidelined from the “booming economy”, which in many cases led to resentment of the economic and political status quo.
    e) No surprise that two weeks ago, a Yougov survey in England found only 6% wanted life to be exactly the same as it was before COVID-19.

  3. Traditional Economic Development is when a jurisdiction gives money to a large employer so they move to your town. The company will pay corporate taxes, so eventually the jurisdiction gets its money back. Additionally, the company hires local humans, trains them as they progress up the career ladder and work there for life. But the social changes mean that formula no longer works.
    a) Because of “no more job for life”, employers only want to move to a location where there are pre-trained unemployed candidates waiting to be hired. If not enough are there, a sudden influx of people can cause gentrification and displacement of existing humans.
    b) Because of “no more job for life”, humans don’t want to relocate for a new job. Relocating is expensive and disruptive to family life. Trend to dual-income families means someone has to give up their job to become trailing-spouse. Especially when you know you’ll be switching jobs again in a 1-2-3 years.
    c) Encouraging companies to relocate is hard, expensive and takes a long time. As Amazon discovered in NewYork recently,

  4. If Traditional Economic Development is no longer working, now what? How about trying something different - Distributed Economic Development. This is the heart of a law I helped write for The State of Vermont. This “Remote Worker” law has these essential parts:
    a) Encouraging knowledge workers / creative class workers to relocate is easier, cheaper and faster then encouraging corporations.
    b) Each employed knowledge worker creates 4.8-5.7 jobs in the local community.
    c) Remember that humans are a social species. Even if we have high speed internet at home and can work from home all the time, we need social interaction with other humans to work online over prolonged periods of time.
    d) Find an existing unused building in a formerly-walkable neighborhood and convert it into a mixed-use neighborhood coworking space. Think of this as a node on the Next Generation Internet of Humans. @nachorodriguez , @jamieorr and others here are also doing this.
    e) Remodel the building with a specific layout - different to the typical coworking spaces seen in larger metro cities and which helps increase foot traffic to nearby businesses to help them also survive!
    f) Provide incentives for some knowledge workers/creative class people to move to your community to help introduce these new concepts into daily life and start the movement in that location.

  5. How does this work?
    a) People move to live in your neighborhood, bringing their existing jobs with them and start working from your small neighborhood coworking space. Even when they change employer jobs every few years, they still live in the same neighborhood and still walk to work online from the same neighborhood coworking space.
    b) These people diversify the tax revenue for your community, which is important to avoid the “all eggs in one basket” risk.
    c) The more people do this, the more their neighbors see they also can find real meaningful jobs online. This helps reduce “brain drain” caused by people graduating school/university and leaving town looking for jobs elsewhere.
    d) Because they are all walking to neighborhood coworking spaces, they are not commuting in cars or public transport, which helps the environment immediately and for low cost.

Does this really work? YES!

This was an important part of the State of Vermont’s “Remote Worker” law I helped write; it was wildly successful and I’m now working on similar laws and policies for other jurisdictions. It’s not just me. In the US, others have done similar initiatives for places like Tulsa OK, Savannah GA, Alabama and Utah.
Here, today, @jamieorr , @nachorodriguez , @FayeScarlet and @mayursontakke (and others!) are each doing this, in slightly different ways, with their neighborhood community coworking spaces. Each is successful in their own business. Each has been successful in supporting other businesses in their community. Each is helping their local economy. Please listen to what they have to say during today’s various sessions. See if this would help in your own local community.

Please join us in this movement by spreading the word or sharing any ideas you have to help with others here on the resilience.edgeryders.eu forums. After all, this Next Generation Internet of Humans might, just might, save the planet.

Thank you.

John.

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Hi @joduinn thanks for your talk at the event, I very much enjoyed it and it inspired me to do some of my own research into remote working and the challenges for the future..

I’m not sure I understand exactly why people need to relocate in the distributed development model - is it to support more small town / rural economies? or do you think in the current situation where people are where they are (perhaps rather still too far from their office) it is unlikely they will find a co-working space in proximity?

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Hello @joduinn, nice to meet you!

This sort of works, we have seen it ourselves. But I can’t shake off the feeling that it’s a one-off. Only a small part of the workforce has the will and the power to detach themselves from a traditional workplace. The power has to do with large swaths of the economy being dominated by a culture of control, where bosses want to see people at their desks. The will has to do with being prepared to give up the informal “watercooler networks” where deals and alliances are made.

Nevertheless, people with both the will and the power exist, and they will make a scheme like Vermont’s successful. Those people will move to Vermont. But what if Costa Rica tries the same thing? Will there be another cohort of people in that position? Or will people in Vermont decide that Costa Rica is sunnier and cheaper, and what the hell? Or will the Costa Rican scheme simply fail?

As part of my interest for co-housing spaces, I spent some time in Bali, in a space called ROAM. Like many such, it caters to digital nomads: people who write code for, say, BNP Paribas’s IT department, and commit to the company’s codes repos. Why would they not work from remote? And as long as it is remote, why not move to Bali, rather than coding from an expensive Paris apartment?

The people in ROAM understood that everybody wanted them. With a Paris or New York City’s salary, and being so mobile, they were very welcome in most middle- and low-income countries, and even in less central parts of highly developed countries. So, they made it count. They would trade expat tips: “with my salary, I can afford a villa in Bali, but I could have a mansion in Vietnam”, this sort of stuff. They were building lives predicated on local cheap labor to make their Margaritas and give them massages, and made no mystery of their preference for such labor to stay cheap.

I do hope that I am wrong, and that you are right to be optimistic. We will soon know.

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I am someone who always performed better in a job when it was based on going to a workplace. Working from home, which I have been doing the past few years, is actually pretty new for me. Ultimately for me the difference was social. But not just water cooler social. It had more to do with being part of, and in some cases leading, a crew. Going to a coworking space would get me part of the way there…