Age of the digital nomad: The plan to abandon cities in favour of freelance freedom

Can you imagine a future where the desire for mobility and human connection is so strong that people reject traditional city lifestyles to work from technology-focused intentional communities? We find out whether digital urban nomadism could become a mass movement.

The rise of what has been labelled ‘mass digital nomadism’ and the emergence of the urban digital nomad, or ‘nuppy’, is described in a recent report produced by Montreal-based trend forecasting agency Logomachy, a team of four 21 to 28 year olds led by Guillaume Dumas. Trained in social science, but working as a freelance programmer and web designer, Dumas says Logomachy’s aim is to explore what will be big in five or ten years’ time.

The nuppy is entrepreneurial, adventurous, liberal, and a traveller with a high level of digital literacy. The nuppy is ready to take advantage of a cosy apartment on wheels, a cheap and versatile tiny house, for an initial investment of a few years’ rent, in order to have the freedom to live anywhere. This must be with the right people, however, who are defined as “skilled and enthusiastic professionals, attracted to homogeneous and thriving communities”.

These communities are expected to become “cultural hubs for the global subculture”, specialised around different lifestyles (such as veganism and organic farming), shared interests (for example, videogames or hip hop), alternative spiritual practices, political ideologies and sexual identities – not dissimilar subreddits.

“In that sense, mass digital nomadism will be for intentional communities what Reddit has been for internet micro-cultures,” states the report, “concentrating people interested in a particular topic or lifestyle and helping them to reach the critical mass essential for building a healthy and blossoming community.”


The appeal of nomadism

It is a combination of personal experiences and forecasted trends that led Logomachy’s report in this particular direction. These include the fact that freelancers are expected to make up 40% of the American workforce by 2020 (an Intuit 2020 study, among others, supports this), the prediction that computerisation, artificial intelligence and automation will affect almost half of US employment (according to the 2013 study ‘Future of Employment’) and increasing competition for freelancers from developing markets such as India.

Other factors are the prohibitive prices of living in the city, meaning mortgages and pensions become harder to attain with diminishing freelance earnings, as well as the growth of the tiny house movement.

On top of this, Dumas says there are two major flaws with cities: they restrict both mobility and community. “In a world where the main language is money, it is hard to get out and go somewhere else,” he says. “Mobility is where you have your power, so we thought the concept of mobility was fundamental.”


Shared values in communal living

As for community, while Dumas was travelling in California he experienced life as part of a co-operative of over 100 students aged 18 to 27. There he realised how efficient and effective a community could be, made up from people with “real shared values” who live, cook and work together. “That kind of community is so strong,” he says, “stronger than anything else that exists on earth.”

Dumas also feels that specialisation is “very important to maximise the vibe of the community” and reveals that he spends between 30 and 60 minutes a day on Reddit. “It allows the most marginal communities to end up with 5,000 subscribers or maybe 50,000 – when you put the planet together you can have a lot of people exchanging on a really narrow topic,” he says. “You can end up with the right people for you – it’s not just saving a few bucks a month, it’s about living with people who share values with you.”

So, Logomachy’s paper was born – designed as an answer to these growing trends and also as a combined solution for the loss of mobility and loss of community in the city.


The future of work

The rise of freelance workers and the various disruptions to the future of our work aren’t just predictions for America, they are expected to have impacts all over the Western World. A recent report from the UK’s Commission for Employment and Skills, titled ‘The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030’, points to several forthcoming changes to business and society and comments that “their long-term impact on UK jobs and skills will be significant”, with the low-skilled facing limited opportunities.

The report highlights factors such as emerging economies acquiring stronger representation in global production chains, demographic change and migration changing the face of the workforce, technical developments changing traditional modes of working and business organisational structures becoming more flexible and networked.

The desire for a better work-life balance, the need for greater flexibility in the workplace, the growing diversity of the workforce and digitalisation of production processes (for example, automated processes and 3D printing) are given as some of the most plausible trends. Disruptions include zero-hour contracts and flexible working arrangements. Obvious examples of this development include Netflix and, more recently, Virgin offering unrestricted vacation policies to workers.

48% of respondents envision a future where robots and digital agents have displaced more jobs than they have created

But is the technological threat as severe as it seems? Logomachy’s report refers to an internet study from the Pew Research Centre in the US, titled ‘AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs’, which canvassed nearly 2,000 expert responses on the impact of AI and robotics on the future of employment. It found that 48% of respondents envision a future where robots and digital agents have displaced more jobs than they have created, pushing workers to migrate towards freelance work.

But what about the other 52%? This portion of respondents actually expects that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025, believing in the power of human ingenuity to create different work options. Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, is one such expert.


Embracing new technology

“I believe in the unbounded creativity of humans, who, as technology advances will find ever more novel ways to earn a living by providing products and services,” Shneiderman says. “Automated tools amplify human abilities and enable them to take on ever more ambitious projects.”

According to Pew Research, in 2013 there were 112,820 web developers and 165,100 computer network support specialists in the US, jobs that didn’t even exist back in 1999, and there are many more examples like this – while jobs such as bookkeeping, clerical work are expected to give way to computerisation.

But Dumas believes that we exist in an exponential universe right now. “When we create new jobs, we’re already going to have AI,” he says, “so the rate that jobs are computerised will just accelerate.”

However, Shneiderman thinks that disruptions will be new work styles and new opportunities will arise because of adventurous social innovators and advancing technologies. “The WWW is a huge facilitator of co-working and other forms of collaboration,” he says, giving the rise of co-working as an example.

In some ways the idea of Logomachy’s intentional communities could be viewed as a natural step on from the ever-growing co-working phenomenon. In fact Dr Helen Jarvis, a reader in social geography at Newcastle University, who specialises in intentional communities, work and employment, says the notion of a new social movement shaped by footloose e-lancers is not far-fetched at all. “Indeed, it extends some of the practices we already find in digital hubs around the country,” she says.


Intentional community challenges

In a post-material age of austerity, Jarvis says that we are witnessing a yearning for deeper relationships with others and with the natural and built landscape of a cherished place of belonging. This fits well into Logomachy’s prediction for a future movement towards nuppy communities – but how feasible is the idea?

Jarvis believes that a future in which complex self-organising communities will form around specific lifestyle interests is far-fetched and fails to appreciate how communities form and function in reality. “It is the ‘social architecture’ of collective self-organisation – not trivial lifestyle fads – that bind people together in pursuit of common intentions and goals,” she says.

There are other challenges that all communities face. Alexander Aisher, an anthropologist based at Sussex University, who runs the DecisionSeed participatory decision-making workshops for organisations, says that the free rider problem and tragedy of the commons (the overuse of resources) stalk the borders of the best-intentioned communities.

There is a strong experimental quality to the whole endeavour, which requires a certain mind-set from its participants

He also points out that while some issues have been partially addressed by online communities, which themselves possess “commons-like” characteristics, such as anti-trolling processes on reddit, people in a community need to discuss the difficult issues from the earliest stages. “This is extremely difficult when everyone is feeling so elevated by the vision,” he says. “There is a strong experimental quality to the whole endeavour, which requires a certain mind-set from its participants.”

While Logomachy’s community will have technology at its heart, Chris Roth, editor of Communities magazine in the US, reminds us that in reality communitarians have very diverse attitudes towards technology. “I’m not sure how viable an exclusively tech-work-oriented community would be in the long term,” he explains. “I believe that for a healthy community to emerge there would need to be others in the community to ‘ground’ it and hold it together on the interpersonal and community level.”

He says he can see a niche for the kind of community Logomachy describes, but underlines how diversity (internal, not just external) is often the “spice of life” in a community.


Mass vs elite: Social Darwinism?

Dumas acknowledges that all the possibilities haven’t yet been explored, but thinks there’s scope for the communities to develop and grow beyond its obvious 20 to 30 year old single nuppy demographic. “It’s more about having role models,” he says. “Can kids benefit from a community of loving, sharing people? Absolutely.” Yet he concedes that a tiny house could be a bit small for a family of four.

Building something in common rather than competing is what Logomachy’s vision is all about. “We try to bet on human solidarity over the technological threat,” he says, adding that virtual reality could happen in 15 years, a revolution that could expand the way we work anywhere.

Dumas also admits that the word “mass” is “a bit tricky” for the digital nomadism concept. “I really doubt this is for anybody – I think it takes courage, it takes will and it takes a bit of money to have that kind of house and a business,” he says. “It’s kind of an elitist project, but, then again, it’s the story of life – it’s like social Darwinism.”


Images courtesy of Nate Bolt.

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