A Different Vision of the Future

I ran across a few articles in the past week or so that predict the majority of the population will be living in cities by 2050.1 I don’t dispute the projection, these people generally know what they are talking about, but I would like to do a bit of daydreaming of my own. I can envision a world of small towns populated by remote workers and independent service providers, communities with relationships that are closer, deeper, and happier than their city dwelling counterparts.

I read Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson last month. The book struck a chord with me because I live 40 miles from where I work. I make the drive every day, except when weather prevents me or I’ve made other arrangements. I have the opportunity to work remotely from time to time, but it is not every day. The team at 37 Signals is mostly remote, and detail in the book how more businesses could benefit from adopting a culture that supports remote work. Fast Internet access, video conferencing technologies, and collaborative software have made remote work not only possible, but beneficial. Richard Branson says that One day offices will be a thing of the past. I agree. In fact, I think remote work could transform modern businesses, and in turn, our culture.

If most knowledge workers worked remotely, and could choose where they lived and who they spent their time with, I imagine that many, like me, would choose to live in smaller communities. The cost of living is less in small towns, the people are generally polite, and crimes are few and far between. If there are groups of remote workers in small towns, than they and their families could support a secondary economy of service workers. Grocery stores, bakers, butchers, barbers, small restaurants and cafés, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and all the other services that are needed by groups of people. A community of entrepreneurs, similar to the villages that were common in the western world before the industrial revolution.

Big box stores can be replaced by Amazon and other online retailers. If you need a lamp, order it from Amazon. Batteries? Amazon. I generally do this now. I understand that the goods must come from somewhere, and that there will still be factory work, and that the factories will most likely be in the cities, but in my vision of a sustainable small-town future, our needs for factory made goods would be far less than what it is today. This brings me to the third part of my vision, the Maker Movement.

We think of movements as the organized action of a group of people following a common ideological or cultural path. The DIY and Maker Movements certainly fit that description. They are filled with people who want to figure out how to make or do stuff on their own, rather than purchasing pre-packaged goods or services. Are the two movements different things? I don’t think so. I think they’re two circles on a Venn diagram that overlap almost completely. Perhaps there’s a bit more art and design in the Maker Movement circle (what we might call the “Burning Man Influence”), and a bit more changing-your-car’s-oil-in-the-driveway in the DIY circle, but otherwise the passions for creating, building, and sharing are the same.

Creating, building, and sharing is at the core of this vision of mine. Knowledge workers can bring in money to small town economies, service work builds the core of the village soul, and makers reduce the amount of factory-built junk we need. Makers can sell their work locally or remotely via services like Etsy, or just set up their own stores with Squarespace.

What will make the system workable is transportation of goods. We need truckers, or, maybe even trains. Research into automotive efficiency will continue and work its way more and more into the big trucks. I imagine something like a general store being responsible for the import and export of goods and, more importantly, raw materials to the small town. Raw materials could be used by the makers of the town to build what they need, strengthening the core talents of the citizens, building self reliance, trust, respect, and community.

Like I said, this is a daydream, but I don’t think it is unreasonable. I’m optimistic about the future, and I don’t think it needs to involve stuffing seven billion people into super cities, packing them like sardines in a tin. There are other options, better options, and it is up to us to make them come true.

  1. There are several others. Just do a search for “seven billion live in cities in 2050” for more.