What if one of the long term results of the current pandemic, and the likelihood of further disruptive events in the future, is to make “things” more mobile than people?
As many more people work from home and those who need to be in a workplace are better being close to home, and we understand that we humans are the biggest vector for disease transmission what effect might that have thirty years out on how we live and work?
Over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, and we know that historically cities are far more productive and innovative than less dense communities thanks to the inverse quarter power law. (here’s a short Blinkist article that includes it). The driver of that productivity is connection, and historically connection meant population density. The London coffee shop effect of the eighteenth century.
Right now however, we’re in the middle of a huge, unintended experiment. What if we can have connection density without population density?
We are learning how to do it. The authenticity, energy, agency and attraction exhibited by a vibrant small business is out of all proportion to the complacency and entitlement shown by many corporates. Small groups on Zoom have far more energy than the same people in a McHotel meeting room.
I wonder whether small local groups working together might be more effective that the bodies currently representing small business? Network theory tells us about the power of “betweeness centrality” – those supernodes and superconnectors that sit away from the centre, but have their own separate identity and attractiveness.
What if we find ourselves in a world where goods and data can travel globally with little friction, but people can’t as result of bio and related geopolitical issues? How might we organise local human networks to global goods and data networks?
In a few months we have learned to have conversations over online media of a quality and intimacy we have not seen before, because face to face was easier, more conventional and (meetings aside) more pleasurable. Now however, we are beginning to know different.
Amongst the many things we have to pay attention to as we reduce our carbon footprints is less travel. The value added by travel to our interactions (except for those organising and delivering the travel) is questionable. I spent far too many years of my life commuting for three or four hours a day before I realised that stupidity was an option, and could choose not to. That means I must have spent between 2,500 and 3000 working days of my life isolated from other people pumping out carbon to ever reducing productive effect. That might have been outweighed by productivity in the early days when other forms of co-working were limited, but I guess break even might have been ten years ago, and since then net negative.
I am fortunate to live in a small Derbyshire Village. It sits on the River Derwent, itself at the heart of the first industrial revolution. People left the village to work in the cities then, in Derby, Manchester, Sheffield and I wonder whether some degree of reversal might take place and it becomes not a commuter dormitory but a small hub within a bigger connected network. I wonder what might happen if some of the beautiful old buildings in the centre became small highly connected areas where people could work individually and together, and a cohesive group of diverse talent. We’ve had these sort of workspaces in cities for ages, but when we connect remotely more effectively, why go to the city unless it’s really required? The City can develop it’s own life and function as a place where people live, not commute to.
It’s two hunded and fifty years since the Industrial revolution, and that according to many is the length of time a civilisation lasts from inception to decline. Perhaps we may want to consider that the old normal is past and will not return. Maybe we’re moving not to a global village, but globally connected villages.
We shouldn’t mourn it’s passing. We have more generative things to do.