Looking at what’s next for remote working and resulting regional enablement. How co-working in a highly connected world of fast broadband and video can change the way we work and our personal, corporate and national economics.
Despite the 2013 uproar caused by Yahoo CEO Marisa Meyer’s decision to ban the company’s remote working policy, telecommuting is still thriving, and it’s easy to see why. According to Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network, telecommuting increased 80% from 2005 to 2012 and it’s estimated that regular telecommuters will total 3.9 million by 2016, which is a 21% increase from the current level.
In most cases, to stay truly competitive, hiring the best talent means looking beyond a company’s 50-mile radius. But not all organizations may be ready to expand beyond their existing four walls. So what does it take to foster a truly successful remote working culture?
Once upon a time, innovation was an isolationist sport. In America’s innovative economy 20 years ago, a worker drove to a nondescript office campus along a suburban corridor, worked in isolation, and kept ideas secret.
Today, by contrast and partly a result of the Great Recession, proximity is everything. Talented people want to work and live in urban places that are walkable, bike-able, connected by transit, and hyper-caffeinated. Major companies across multiple sectors are practicing “open innovation” and want to be close to other firms, research labs, and universities. Entrepreneurs want to start their companies in collaborative spaces, where they can share ideas and have efficient access to everything from legal advice to sophisticated lab equipment.
These disruptive forces are coming to ground in small, primarily urban enclaves—what we and others are calling “innovation districts.” By our definition, innovation districts cluster and connect leading-edge institutions with startups and spin-off companies, business incubators, and accelerators in the relentless pursuit of cutting-edge discoveries for the market. Compact, transit-accessible, and highly networked, they grow talent, foster open collaboration, and offer mixed-used housing, office, retail, and 21st century urban amenities. In many respects, the rise of innovation districts embodies the very essence of cities: an aggregation of talented, driven people assembled in close quarters, who exchange ideas and knowledge. It’s in the vein of what urban historian Sir Peter Hall calls “a dynamic process of innovation, imitation and improvement.”
Globally, Montreal, Seoul, Singapore, Medellin, Barcelona, Cambridge, and Berlin offer just a few examples of evolving innovation districts. In the US, the most iconic innovation districts can be found in the downtowns and midtowns of cities like Atlanta, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and St. Louis, where advanced research universities, medical complexes, research institutions, and clusters of tech and creative firms are sparking business expansion, as well as residential and commercial growth. Even a cursory visit to Kendall Square in Cambridge, University City in Philadelphia, or midtown Atlanta shows the explosion of growth and mixed development occurring around institutions like MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and Georgia Tech.
Other innovation districts can be found in Boston, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Seattle, where former industrial and warehouse areas are charting a new innovative path, powered by their enviable location along transit lines, their proximity to downtowns and waterfronts, and their recent addition of advanced research institutions (reflected by Carnegie Mellon University’s decision to place its Integrative Media Program at the Brooklyn Navy Yard).
Perhaps the greatest validation of this shift is found in the efforts of traditional exurban science parks (like Research Triangle Park in Raleigh-Durham) to urbanize, in order to keep pace with the preferences of their workers for walkable communities and the preference of their firms to be near other firms and collaborative opportunities.
Innovation districts are already attracting an eclectic mix of firms in a diverse group of sectors, including life sciences, clean energy, design, and tech. We even see a return of small-scale and customized manufacturing, made possible by 3D printing, robotics, and other advanced techniques.
Unlike efforts to grow the “consumer city” via sports stadia, luxury housing, and high-end retail, innovation districts are intent on growing the firms, networks, and sectors that drive real, broad-based prosperity.
At a time of increasing concerns over inequality and resilience, innovation districts can spur productive, inclusive, and sustainable growth. If properly structured and scaled, they can provide a strong foundation for the commercialization of ideas, the expansion of firms, and the creation of jobs. They also offer the tantalizing prospect of expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations—many innovation districts are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods—as well as sparking more sustainable development patterns, given their embrace of transit, historic buildings, traditional street grids, and existing infrastructure.
Innovation districts represent one of the most positive trends that have emerged in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Smart cities, innovative companies, advanced universities, and financial institutions would be wise to embrace them.
When Google launched Helpouts in November, it opened amarketplace for experts–from scrappy entrepreneurs to big-name brands such as makeup retailer Sephora–to share their skills over video chat.
Now, while some clueless consumers are simply looking for mascara tips, the search giant sees a vastly different industry that can benefit from the service: health care.
That’s right, in addition to the many musicians, yogis, and IT pros chatting on the Helpouts platform, there are also doctors, counselors, veterinarians, and lactation specialists, among other medical professionals. By melding parts of its infrastructure–namely Google Wallet and Hangouts–the company gives consumers a single destination, either through a computer or Android phone, to book sessions with experts and to pay for them. Doctors can even prescribe medicine, as Helpouts is aligned with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
THE COAUTHOR OF THE RECENTLY RELEASED REMOTE: OFFICE NOT REQUIRED ON WHY COMMUTING WILL KILL YOU AND DESTROY YOUR MARRIAGE. (WE MAY BE OVERSTATING THINGS SLIGHTLY, BUT STILL.)
The conventional idea of luxury is the antithesis of work. Sure, the gilded few are awarded trinkets to soothe their working experience, perhaps with a swanky corner office, a plush company-provided Lexus or–if they’re wearing a T-shirt rather than a suit to work–with free gourmet lunches and ping-pong tables. (Or not, as the case may be.) But even for those with the grandest of paychecks and superfluous perks, work is still in direct opposition to luxury.
The vast majority of workers across the world still commute in some form. And no matter how nice your company car is, sitting in rush hour traffic for an hour each way is still a special version of hell. Maybe you ride the train or subway. A step up, perhaps (though certainly not lately, for those commuting into New York City via MetroNorth), but think of all the other things you could be doing.
It’s not exactly news that long commutes are brutal, but the science behind just how brutal is mounting, and it all points to the same conclusion: Commuting is a recipe for misery, associated with an increased risk for obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure and other stress-related ills like heart attacks and depression, and even divorce.
So you suffer through that daily commute, and then the next chamber of the daily grind begins: You arrive at your office (if you’re lucky; cubicle if you’re not), where a thousand interruptions chop up your workday into tiny work moments.
There’s the status meeting, followed by the meeting about the other meeting, the all-hands-on-deck lunch leading into an hour more of idle chatter, and finally back to your office, just in time for your phone to ring or a co-worker to stop by. And you can’t just turn off Bill when he’s loitering outside your office at the end of the day, eager to chat about this or the other thing.
Before you know it, the day is over, and it’s back in the car or train and home so late that you hardly have time to breathe again before it’s the next morning. Alarm sounds, and it’s time to wash, rinse, and painstakingly repeat.
Of course, that seems like the antithesis of luxury! Nobody wants that kind of drudgery, no matter how much they’re paid to do it.
But the problem isn’t actually the work itself. It’s the fight against the hostile environment surrounding the work that’s the laborious slug. Seeing through that requires looking beyond the traditional formula of work that we’ve been brainwashed into believing is the only way.
Most people lump the accidental circumstances of work together with the actual work itself and write the whole thing off as a torturous exercise from which they can’t wait to break free. They sign up for the working man’s dream of deferred living. Toiling away for the next three decades in order to reach the nirvana of retirement when–finally!–true luxury can be had.
In retirement, they believe, you can move “up to some paradise, where the trout streams flow and the air is nice,” as Bob Dylan put it.
That sounds lovely in theory, but the truth is, most people don’t make good on those extravagant plans for retirement. They don’t travel the world. Their bum knees and shoulders prevent them from playing their hobbies with the reckless abandon they once imagined they would. They don’t go wild with all their saved cash.
It’s time to reject the false dichotomy between work and luxury. See, none of this is about escaping the intellectual stimulation of work itself. Work is not the enemy we’re trying to outrun. We’re simply running from those accidental circumstances.
The fact is that most people like to work. Really work, that is. Engage their brain and their talents in the creation of value. At least if they are fortunate enough to work in a field of expertise, if not passion. Retirement from that is not nearly as luxurious as it sounds. Sudoku puzzles won’t replace that accomplished feeling of a good day’s work.
So what if we could have both? What if we could retain the stimulation of work and also embrace the true luxury of nondeferred living? That’s the inclusive truth that more and more people are finding in working remotely.
It’s the new luxury, and the definition is this: Freedom, time, and space. Freedom from that dreaded commute, from that productivity grinder of the traditional office, from being chained to the one city in which your employer happens to be located. Time to spend with friends and loved ones, to do what you really want outside work hours. Space to live and breathe.
But it’s still early days and it’s still “weird.” Like Internet dating was in 1997. Remote working still reminds most people of either scammy signs at the side of the road that promise, “$1,000/day to work from home!” (without mentioning what the work is exactly) or social hermits who never leave their house or put clothes on before noon.
Reality is far more interesting than the lazy stereotypes would suggest. While working from home, or from a coffee shop or a coworking facility, has its drawbacks like anything, it at least offers a credible shot for working men and women to have a taste of true luxury. Access to more freedom, time, and space–without putting up with 30 years of deferred living.
While working remotely obviously frees you from the dreaded commute and the interruption factory of the office, it also lets you pick where to live. If you love to surf, why would you live in New York and only hit the waves a couple of weeks out of the year? If your greatest friends and family all live in D.C., why are you slaving away in Seattle?
Liberating yourself from the geography of work opens a whole new world of opportunities. It lessens the necessity of looking forward to retirement to finally live your life.
This new world was made possible due to progress in information technology, but the technology not only made living away from the city possible, it also made it much more desirable. It used to be that the city had a monopoly on all the luxurious amenities of modern civilization. The most books in the best libraries. The best cinemas showing the most movies. The best stadiums playing the most popular sports. And so on.
We now live in the future without even realizing it: Everyone with an Internet connection has access to (virtually) every book ever written, every album ever recorded, every movie ever directed, and every sports game playing live in incredible resolution. This dramatically opens the map for living ever farther away from the traditional city hub, while still having access to all the fruits of modern culture.
This is not going to stay a best-kept secret for long. Working without the commute, without the shackled office, and living in the place of your dreams, with access to all the world’s culture, sounds like a science fiction utopia. But it’s very real indeed. It’s the future of luxury, and it’s called remote work.
—David Heinemeier Hansson is the creator of the project-management tool Basecamp and the web framework Ruby on Rails. He’s a best-selling author ofREWORK and coauthor with Jason Fried of REMOTE: Office Not Required, released October 30, 2013. He’s a partner at the software company 37signals and lives in Chicago, Malibu, and Marbella, Spain.
The early attempts to preview what roads will be like in the future, once self-driving cars of the sort Google is working on dominate, are pretty exciting.
Research already shows that even partial automation of driving could significantly reduce the 30,000 traffic deaths that occur each year in the US alone. Cars with “forward collision warning systems” that alert drivers or automatically hit the brakes are involved in far fewer crashes, suggest several studies. Worldwide, 1.2 million people are killed every year by cars.
90% of automobile accidents are due to human error, leading to 30,000 deaths and $300 billion in damages in the US alone. Fully autonomous vehicles could slash those losses by huge margins.
Autonomous vehicles traveling in high-speed “platoons” that reduce aerodynamic drag could reduce fuel consumption by 20%.
Up to four times as many vehicles could travel on existing highways if all vehicles were automated. The Texas Transportation Institute says traffic congestion wastes 5.5 billion hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel each year.
Self-driving cars incorporated into car-sharing services like Zipcar could affordably transform cars from a thing people own to a service they call up on demand.
Getting to the point that the road is completely or even just mostly full of autonomous vehicles will be difficult, notes Knight. The biggest challenge of all could be that the moment when the sensors and decision-making abilities of an autonomous vehicle are overwhelmed and the car requires human intervention is a difficult transition to make. Lulled into a sense of security by a car’s self-driving systems, human drivers can be slow to react when a traffic situation requires their attention.
“We may have this terrible irony that when the car is driving autonomously it is much safer, but because of the inability of humans to get back in the loop it may ultimately be less safe,” Clifford Nass of Stanford University told Technology Review.
Another day, another drawback of a long commute. Aside from their ability to bring us to higher-paying jobs, lengthy trips to work offer very few beneficial side effects. Our stress levels go up, our sleep levels go down, and our interactions with friends and family go scarce. And now it seems our marriages—or, at least, our committed partnerships—can go awry, too.
That’s according to new work from researcher Erika Sandow of Umea University in Sweden, set for publication in the British journal Urban Studies, which found that couples with longer commutes are more likely to break up than those without them:
To summarise, one might expect the social costs of long-distance commuting to reduce the quality of a relationship in many ways and thus increase the risk of separation. The statistical results from these analyses not only confirm such assumptions about social costs but can also reveal other and more unexpected results regarding the effects of long-distance commuting on relationships.
Sandow reached her conclusions by analyzing a unique dataset that tracked millions of Swedes across ten years, from 1995 to 2005. First she separated out all the people who were either married or cohabitating, then she split that group two ways: people who commuted one-way more than 45 minutes, and people who did not. Previous work has found that 45 minutes is more or less the threshold at which the maladaptive side of commuting presents itself with increased vigor.
About 11% of all couples in the analysis had separated by 2000. But while 14% of couples with one or more long-distance commuters broke up, that was only true for 10 percent of other couples. On average, then, long-distance commute couples had a 40% higher risk of separating than did couples whose trip to work was relatively short. (For the sake of simplicity, Sandow calls this latter group “non-commuters.”)
Digging deeper into the data, Sandow found some notable wrinkles. When people commuting a long way for a long time—in this case, more than five years—their relationships actually proved much stronger. This separation rate for persistent commuters, at 11%, wasn’t much different from the 10% of so-called “non-commuters” noted above. Meanwhile, separation was also less common if one partner had been a long-distance commuter before the relationship began.
Both these findings suggest that some people may simply acclimate better than others to a long trip into the office. They may also be a sign of what Sandow calls a “customization process”—the development of strategies to handle the stress and strain of long commutes so they don’t interfere with a person’s home life.
Some couples had a better chance of making it when the woman was the partner who commuting a long way. Compared with women who commuted a short way, women who commuted a long way for more than five years had an 8% reduction in odds of being separated. In simpler terms, couples handle the stress of long commutes better when it’s the woman who bears most of the commuting burden.
Where the couples lived within Sweden also played a role. While long-commuting men in metropolitan areas broke up more than other men in the city, the reverse was true for long-commuting women. As it happens, people in rural regions had the highest separation rates, for reasons that left Sandow a little stumped.
Now for the caveats. The biggest, and in many ways the most troublesome, is that it’s impossible to tell from this data which couples would have separated regardless of their commute. What seems safe enough to conclude for now is that if you’re the type of person whose long commute bothers you in the first place, there’s a good chance it will end up bothering your relationship, too.
It’s been 20 years (to the month) since Kowloon Walled City was demolished, but amazingly, it remains one of the most dense structures ever built. As many as 33,000 people crammed into the seven-acre plot, known in Cantonese as “the city of darkness,” before they were relocated in 1993. This diagram, from the South China Morning Post, is an eye-popping reminder of one of the most legendary structures in the world.
Nothing like it had existed before, and nothing has since.
The Walled City was one of those urban anomalies that tend to pop up in disputed territories and borderlands. It began as a Chinese military outpost in the 1800s, and emerged as a kind of no-man’s-land when England leased Hong Kong in 1898. The Japanese razed the site during World War II, and after the surrender, it became a magnet for refugees when neither England or China wanted to deal with the burgeoning, ungoverned community. Kowloon Walled City, as we talk about it today, was born.
In the years that followed, 300 towers rose on the site—soon, these buildings were woven into a dense interconnected network of ad hoc infrastructure. There was never an architect or planner involved, just an army of residents and carpenters who worked to fill the cracks. Without city services, residents got water from wells, and trash was hauled up to the roof. Every resident had an average of 40 square feet of living space. Unsurprisingly, a William Gibson character describes it best, in 1997’s Idoru:
There was a place near an airport, Kowloon, when Hong Kong wasn’t China, but there had been a mistake, a long time ago, and that place, very small, many people, it still belonged to China. So there was no law there. An outlaw place. And more and more people crowded in; they built it up, higher. No rules, just building, just people living. Police wouldn’t go there. Drugs and whores and gambling. But people living, too. Factories, restaurants. A city. No laws.
The Walled City was often described as a cesspool (“den of iniquity” was another favorite), but at the same time, the community was a model for cooperation: residents created basic rules to deal with matters of survival, like fighting fires. Schools, shops, and businesses (including those of doctors and dentists who couldn’t get licensed in Hong Kong) flourished. Crime was also a major problem, as you might expect—for a time in the 1960s and 70s, the Triads controlled the city. But as the SCMP describes, most former tenants remember it fondly. “We all had very good relationships in very bad conditions,” one ex-resident says. “People who lived there were always loyal to each other. In the Walled City, the sunshine always followed the rain.”
In the mid-1980s, concerns over living conditions spurred officials to relocate the majority of residents, and only a few years later, the Walled City was empty. Most of the pictures and reports on the Walled City hail from the few years between the beginning of relocation and the razing of the structure, in 1993. Today, the site is a park—a bronze model of the city is all that remains of its former residents.
What’s really interesting about the Walled City is how much we still talk about it, two decades after it disappeared. It’s taken on a life of its own as a cultural touchstone for ideas about ungoverned urbanism: Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy describes several different iterations of Kowloon-esque walled cities, while architects wonder if 3D-printing technology could lead to a second coming. Kowloon has become a way to describe a whole set of ideas about cities and government today, well beyond the scope of the original experiment. [South China Morning Post, images courtesy of Greg Girard]
Technology has blurred the walls of the workplace in at least two dramatic ways. People who once worked inside the clear confines of a cubicle, inside an office, within an office tower in a commercial district, can now work from nearly anywhere. And because the spatial distinction has been disappearing between work and home (and everywhere in between), neat divisions in time are now eroding, too.
Even if you do still have an actual office where you commute every day, you have probably experienced how these lines have softened simultaneously: You’ve walked out of your building and into the subway, pulled out your phone, and gone right back to triaging email.
These sweeping shifts in where and when work takes place have been brought about by much more than just the Internet. Credit the portable laptop and the smartphone, WiFi and fiber optic infrastructure, computer security from VPNs, high-quality teleconferencing and the cloud. As for your computer itself? “It’s just a shell,” says Adam Stoltz, a real estate workplace strategist based in Washington. “It’s the thing that enables me to get to the data.”
We normally talk about all of this as a revolution in technology, or in the nature of work itself. But something else also happens when technology enables people to change where they work and how they use time: The environment around us needs to respond, too.
For decades, cities have reflected the neat separation of work and home, with residences in one part of town, offices and industry in another, and infrastructure (highways, parking garages, hub-and-spoke transit systems) built to help connect us between the two around what has been for many people a 9-to-5 work day. But what happens when more people start to work outside of offices, or really anywhere – at all times?
Suddenly, we need WiFi in parks, and certainly in underground subway systems. We need more physical spaces that serve this new lifestyle: co-working offices and live/work apartments. People who once drove to work may now find that they want more productive commutes; now it makes more sense to ride a commuter rail car that enables the work day to start an hour earlier. Whole private networks of transportation have arisen around this idea in San Francisco. Coach buses there now collect workers to take them to Silicon Valley offices, but they’re outfitted like mobile offices in the expectation that employees will start working en route.
Some cities like New York have even begun to change how they think about intersections and roadways in a world where pedestrians are more likely to be looking down at smartphones than up at the environment around them.
Likely other adjustments (large and small) will be needed as well. Our built environment has been designed to accommodate the ways that people worked (and lived) 20 or 50 years ago. So now what happens when our behavior changes, when the ways that people move through and need to use space across cities no longer matches some of the ways we’ve built them?
Stolz raised the question this week at an Intelligent Cities unconference in conjunction with the annual American Planning Association meeting in Chicago. As others pointed out, some of these evolving work patterns aren’t really new; they’re a return to the ways people worked before the Industrial Revolution, when shopkeepers for instance lived in apartments above their stores. We may look back on the 9-to-5 workplace not as the norm, but as a relic of the last century.
As we move away from it, it’s interesting to think not just about the implications for how we use our time and how we define the idea of “work,” but also for what all of this might mean for cities.
In the future, Stoltz asks, “If you’re planning a city, should there actually be places where there is no WiFi?”