Remote Work and New Cities

I was catching up on some 99 Percent Invisible, when I ran into an episode titled ‘Soul City.’ The episode tells the story of Soul City, North Carolina, a city that was founded as a new, largely-black city in the 1970’s.

Soul City no longer survives today, largely because they were unable to attract enough jobs to the city. No jobs, no one moves to the city. A vicious chicken-and-egg problem.

Remote work could fix that problem, no?

As more and more jobs move online (or get replaced by robots…), there’s less and less of a tie between job location and town development. That’s a tie that’s existed, well, forever. Farmers lived where they could farm. Medieval tradespeople lived where they could sell their wares, factory workers lived near the factory. If their occupation didn’t exist in an area, they would need to move.

But today that’s not true. There are tons of remote, fully-online jobs, where the only requirement is a stable internet connection.

So what would draw people to form a new city, a city run largely by remote workers?

That’s a good question. I suspect it would be much more focused on culture and services, on the local music scene. It would have a few special requirements – restaurants and banks and gyms and stores that are used to people who work strange, non-9-to-5 jobs, for example.

It would need to be compelling. A remote worker can work wherever they want, so it needs to be ‘better’ on almost every category.

Perhaps it would be better for employers – in a time zone that’s hard to cover, or a time zone that has lots of customers, but a city that has low cost of living.

We’re starting to see companies that cater to remote worker travel – Remote Year, for example. I suspect we’ll see a city that decides to cater to remote workers soon, too. Low cost of living, lots of services, lots of local culture, highly walkable, etc.