They told us the world was flat. Globalisation was supposed to give everyone in the world a chance at economic opportunity. But in the case of tech, in particular, it was still concentrated in a few powerful hubs.
San Francisco. London. Shenzhen.
The direction of the world economy was still decided by an elite group of talented individuals, limited to certain locations.
Then, the shock of the last eighteen months has revealed we hadn’t actually been living flat at all. It showed how attached we were to the 'spiky' status quo of people concentrated in offices and cities, even though we had the cheap internet and digital tools to set us free whenever we wanted.
Now, we’re entering an era that will be defined bottom-up. It will be defined by nimble talent in local communities, a huge, diversified engine of ideas and innovation. There is no centre in this new economy, just as there are no constraints. Individuals, creators and entrepreneurs, you should be excited. Investors and big companies, this is the new frontier.
Now, we’re entering an era that will be defined bottom-up. It will be defined by nimble talent in local communities, a huge, diversified engine of ideas and innovation.
The bottom-up era
If the pandemic and the development of cheap digital tools has toppled the monopoly that mega-hubs have had over innovation, what does this mean for us?
It means we're on the cusp of the most historic migration of talent we’ve ever seen. This time, it’s the employers seeking out the employees, and it’s happening online, not in person.
We’ve spent the last year and a half getting used to work from home, but the true endgame of this monumental shift is work near home.
We’re able now to build a workplace around the specific needs and potential of each person. If you’re more productive in quieter environments or have caring responsibilities or children, you no longer have to be excluded. This will be a far more inclusive way of working than sitting at our kitchen tables, trying to teach our children maths while we Zoom.
Unconstrained by the narrow lens and normative trends of cities, we could see many more originations of ‘scenius’ — special ideas propelled by particular groups in particular places. The Industrial Revolution started near Blackburn and the Dyson headquarters are in Malmesbury. People ask why Europe hasn’t created a Google or a Facebook — I’d say the probability that company will now come from Chelmsford, instead of London, is higher than ever before.
With a dramatic shift from ‘where’ to ‘who’, we can generate better ideas with more diverse ways of thinking, led by our local communities. Technology will help us to discover new and better ways of working remotely, as it always has done. And it might even help alleviate the war for talent that has European founders pulling their hair out.
With a dramatic shift from ‘where’ to ‘who’, we can generate better ideas with more diverse ways of thinking, led by our local communities.
We should be embracing this radically better future with excitement. We are entering an exponential age of idea generation, and much of it will happen on our doorstep. In an age of concern over loneliness and the decline of our community fabric, we could be witnessing the reversal of declining social capital and the revival of our high streets.
Who will survive the shift?
As I said before, the new economy will be driven by individuals from the bottom-up. The ones who should feel threatened are the companies that are not willing to enable their employees to succeed. Progressive organisations have a huge part to play in this positive ‘near home’ future and will be the winners.
If VCs, investors and employers want to be successful, they won’t be able to simply rely on old networks anymore. They’re going to have to work to find the many needles in the haystack outside of London, Paris and Berlin.
Companies have tried to woo workers with empty 'benefits' like hotdesking and unlimited vacation (that no one ever takes). But they haven’t actually taken care of workers' wellbeing. Now, they’ll have to compete with individuals working in local communities who can already easily prioritise mental, physical, family and community health and live balanced lives.
Our work and personal lives can act in concert, and not in competition. For every suburb, village, commuter and post-industrial town, I say bring it on.