STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
How Digital Nomads Improve Cities
By Joe Jarvis - July 19, 2017
Seems like a simple question. As I have been traveling recently outside of the U.S. it has come up a lot.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I want to rattle off some stats. Where I was born, where I moved to; I name the broader regions and the closest cities.
I am from Massachusetts, outside of Boston, but I moved to Florida. No, nowhere near Miami or Orlando. On the Panhandle, basically lower Alabama.
My answer was never the U.S.A. because that is too broad. It doesn’t give much information. Most people asking where I was from assumed I was from the U.S.A. and were curious to know from which region I hailed.
Los Angelos is 2,700 miles from New York City. It would take you two full sleepless days of constant driving to reach Miami from Seattle. America is a large country with vast cultural, geographical, and economic differences. The regions, cities, and people are unique.
And it is not just America where people refer to the region or city instead of the country. Everyone I met who has traveled Asia referred to city names and not the country. They visit Ho Chi Minh City, Manilla, and Chiang Mai, not Vietnam, Philippines, and Thailand.
The natural way to describe a region does not necessarily have to do with the country’s borders. Cities all have their own government anyway. Any authority from above only causes barriers to attracting residents.
Cities free to govern independently can better compete to attract business and visitors.
Digital nomads work remotely and travel. They are a great example of people who vote with their feet. Digital nomads choose a city where they like the culture, technology, and government.
Digital nomads earn money online, and then spend it wherever they are staying. This means an influx of cash flow for the cities. The best cities attract the lengthiest stays and most outside money. Eventually, many digital nomads find a place to settle down permanently.
Digital nomads could be considered curators of good cities. Moving from city to city, they share what they learn, and influence the policies of places which look to attract more visitors and residents.
Cities Compete for Residents
Two young men I met who own online businesses were discussing their travels in Asia. I am embarrassed to admit, I didn’t know in what country many of the cities were located. They choose where to travel based on what the city offers, not what the country offers.
I sat down and talked to one of these fine gentlemen to gain a bit of insight on how he chooses the cities to inhabit. He is a recovering digital nomad; he is ready to move beyond the traveling work life and settle down. As he considers where to more permanently settle, he told me the criteria for deciding where to visit.
Most important to him are access to fast and reliable internet and easy transportation around a city.
He said he had stayed in Ho Chi Minh city for seven months because of how easy it was to get around, and because it had good internet. But if a protest broke out, as happened several times over his stay, the government would shut down access to Facebook. This was disconcerting and sometimes inconvenient. Facebook ads are an important way to drive traffic for an online business.
Singapore is great because he can drop in for a few days with the ease of transport into and around the city. It is relatively inexpensive for such a high tech city, clean, and convenient.
In contrast, there is a large region of Asia to which he never even considered going. It doesn’t matter how good the public transportation is, or how friendly a mayor is to entrepreneurs. Cities in China are completely off limits.
Why? Because China doesn’t play well with Google, and his business depends on Google ads. Sure, he could use a VPN (virtual private network) if he wanted to work around the strict limitations China places on the internet. But there is even talk of the country outlawing that loophole. China is simply too restrictive of the internet freedom required to run his business.
Manila only kept his patronage for two and a half months. The city is a nightmare to get around. The public transportation is dirt cheap, but unreliable and packed with people. The internet is spotty, and that cannot be tolerated for a man who runs a remote online business.
But there is one exception. In metro Manila within the city of Taguig is a private sector of the city. It is a model experiment in governance.
Bonifacio Global City (BGC) is a section of Taguig which was developed and is now run, by private companies. Of course, it is not entirely independent of the state. But it does have its own security, traffic, and ambulance services. Regulations and tax rates are the same as the rest of the Philippines. Instead, the city decided to focus on providing a healthy lifestyle for their corporate residents.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the Manila metro region plagued by traffic and pollution. Company headquarters, embassies, and even the Philippines stock market exchange have been relocated to BGC. The infrastructure and environment they created promote mental and psychical health.
The Bonifacio Land Development Corporation bought and developed the land which used to be an American military base. They started by building an easy to navigate layout, parks, and offices to make it the most beautiful and desirable section of the city.
Once you get inside BGC, transportation is efficient and seamless. Non-motorized transportation is encouraged with beautiful “greenways,” parks, and paths. Walking and biking is a breeze. Once BGC created the perfect climate for business to flourish, they began selling the surrounding land. Private companies built condos, hotels, high tech businesses, and top of the line restaurants and shops.
It is truly a global city, having attracted international companies, as well as schools and embassies from all over the globe. Culture, art, and museums flourish in the enclave.
Bonifacio Global City is a prime example of how to attract business and residents by designing a desirable climate.
The attraction takes on different forms. BGC focuses on creating a healthy and stress-free work life, while still being in a central urban location. This fulfills both main criteria for my digital nomad friend. He cares most about internet access and easy transportation.
For city-states like Singapore, the focus is on a friendly regulatory and business environment. Some small countries like Liechtenstein focus on individual freedom and decentralized government. And decentralized countries like Chile are ideal for setting up a countryside farm or estate.
Independent city-states and autonomous regions will help lead to experimentation in government. Individuals will choose the type of mini-society that works best for them. Many people are already doing so.
Digital Nomading is Not for Me
I could never be a digital nomad. I have been traveling for over a month at this point and feel tired, unproductive, and anxious.
But digital nomads are important players who drive innovation. They force cities to compete for their business. They end up curating proper living environments for people who don’t want to be a digital nomad but still want to permanently relocate to a better place.
Tomorrow, I am heading back to where I am now “from.” Not the closest city, not even the town, but a little slice of heaven I have chosen to inhabit called Prickly Pear Plantation.