I've read a lot lately about the creative class and how jobs are migrating towards/away from cities and urban centers. Just today there was a post by John Seely Brown that stipulates that, contrary to Thomas Friedman, the word is not getting flatter but "more spiky". That is, people are moving to urban centers to live and abandoning the countryside. Brown and Hagel suggest two reasons:
- The value of "rich exchanges" and tacit knowledge is higher
- The potential of serendipitous interactions increases
Hagel and Brown argue that even with the advance of telepresence and other IT technologies that should make it easier to work anywhere, these advances will further increase the focus on moving to urban centers.
I think they are right, but I think they miss the key reasons - what I call the Sushi and Starbucks principle. While many jobs, especially those "work from home" or telecommuting jobs can be done anywhere there is a reasonable internet connection, the fact that work can be done from the hinterlands doesn't mean that it WILL be done from the hinterlands. No, I suspect that we'll find that increasingly, jobs that require knowledge workers who create or manage intelligence or information will increasingly cluster in urban or ex-urban areas, and those who wish to work in these fields will vacate the rural areas.
Why? It's not because the work "can't" be done in the rural areas, but as people work with information and knowledge, they become exposed to a wider world of change and options. Rural areas tend to be more conservative in nature, slower to change and with less dynamic interactions. As people are exposed to information and change, many of them want more of that, not less. They increasingly crave interaction with other people who have these experiences, and they want new experiences as well.
This is where the Starbucks and Sushi principle comes in. I suspect that if you could overlay the locations to get good sushi and Starbucks with the regions that have the highest concentration of knowledge workers you'd find a one to one correlation. Then the question becomes - is Starbucks a leading or lagging indicator for knowledge workers? I'd suggest that Starbucks and sushi are most likely found where knowledge workers congregate. And once you've had the Starbucks and sushi, it's hard to give that up, even if you could do your job in a more remote or rural environment.
Don't buy into the hype that IT and telepresence will enable more people to move to more rural areas. If that were the case then the traffic in DC would be getting lighter, not worse. Rather, expect more movement of educated, younger people to the urban areas, especially those with universities or high concentrations of knowledge work. Expect the rural core and midwest to grow older and change more slowly.