In my previous blog, I had described how the world, especially in its advanced cities, is evolving into a freelance society, where no one will have jobs, but where everyone will have work. As promised, in this blog, I will discuss how this will change the cities we live in, and which cities will be the new winners. While these are two separate questions, the first about what the freelance society would do to our cities, and the second about what cities should do to be competitive in this new world, I will assume for the purposes of this essay that the changes demanded and the best responses provided coincide. This assumption allows me to merge the questions into one - what will the ideal city for a freelance society be like? What would/should its defining features be and how would/should it be different from the cities of today?
I believe there are at least six defining features of the ideal city for a freelance society. As we go through these features, we will see some qualities recurring through them. Put together these qualities will capture the essence of the ideal city.
First, this ideal city will prize and foster versatility and resilience in its citizens. In the old city (including today's) where people had jobs, knowledge and skill in one area was valued. And the more the old city's citizen worked at her job, the better she got at it (or at least was deemed to do so), and the more valuable she became to her employer (current or prospective). The Master of One Trade, with knowledge of no other was the winner. The world became more specialized, and the winner's mastery narrowed. Doctors specialized in specific sub-diseases in specific body sub-parts, with the principle - the narrower the specialization, the higher the remuneration. Similar things could be said about lawyers, economists, physical scientists, businessmen, etc. Take the last example, if you look at job advertisements for head of sales and marketing in a company, they always ask for 10-15 years or more of experience. This may be sensible in a stable, slow changing world, but in a fast ever changing world, do you want someone who will repeat or imitate her past work or do you want someone who will try what has not been tried before?
In a freelance society, one does not have to choose between trades, the citizen of the new city does not have to be a marketing professional or lawyer,one could be both. In fact, she must be both or more than both. There is no one employer she has to satisfy, but many buyers of her knowledge and skills, and she could sell different trades to different buyers. And in a fast changing world, it makes sense to diversify, because if the demand for one type of trade lessenes, she would still have others to fall back on. So the winner will not be the master of one trade, but the master of a few (along with being the jack of a few others, which can be ramped up to master level given the necessity and/or the inclination).
The new citizen must be versatile and she must be resilient.
The ideal city will help its citizens attain these qualities by providing an environment for continuous education - its citizens will never leave school permanently, they will always come back for short periods of time or they will permanently devote a part of their time to learning. In the ideal city, learning will become a regular part of everyday life, just as work, household chores, exercise (for some) and vacations. This will change the city's approach to education. It will enable its citizens to enter the labour market younger, but allow them to return to school throughout their lives as and when needed.
The second defining feature of the ideal city would be a market that prizes what one can do over what one has done. It will be forward looking. In today's world, employers prize experience as that is the most accessible source of information about a person's capabilities. But is it the most reliable? Is a physicist with 30 years of experience better than one with 5? Is an air stewardess with 30 years of experience better than one with 3? Or is a marketing professional with 20 years of experience better than one with 4? In none of these cases, it is necessary that the more experienced person will be the more capable person. This is not to say that experience does not matter. It does matter and will continue to matter in the freelance society, but not in the ways we have thought about it or used it as a guide to predict future performance.
In many cases, experience will continue to matter. For example, the more operations a surgeon does, the better she becomes or the more flights that a pilot has behind her, the better she is. But there are diminishing returns to experience. At some point more experience does not matter. But in a freelance society, the returns to experience will diminish faster as knowledge disseminates more widely and rapidly. In addition, given this higher dissemination and absorption of knowledge (and therefore, the associated higher generation of knowledge), experience may become irrelevant or less relevant faster than before, and therefore the person who keeps up with the new knowledge will win - what you have done will be less important than what you can do.
Experience, while counting less will still count in two ways. One it will continue to matter in jobs requiring repetition, such as the aforementioned surgery and flying a plane, at least for a short period of time when the technology and methods are relatively the same. On the other hand, the jobs that require constant thinking and innovation, where the task at hand while similar to previous tasks is still not like any other, the sort of experience that comes from repetition will not matter. However, another type of experience will matter, and this brings us to the second area where experience will count. This is the experience of how to solve problems or do things rather than the experience of solving problems or doing things. And this experience will come from working with many different types of problems, working with many different types of people, and working in many different types of situations. This experience will teach the new citizen to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and change.
Therefore, a city that promotes critical thinking, openness and tolerance in its citizens over faith and tribal mindedness will win. This may seem obvious and many will think we are already there, but my experience in the US and UK tells me that it is not so. In both countries, there is a great confidence among its employers and employees that they have all the answers - and the outside world does not have much to teach them. For example, if you bid for a local government contract in the UK, experience with other local governments in the UK will count far more than experience with a local government in China or Japan. There may be legitimate reasons for this, but I think that such parochialism is more widespread than it needs to be. In this sense, cities in emerging markets may be at an advantage because they are more open to outside influence and learning from others. In fact, some even go out of their way to do so.
The third defining feature of the ideal city for a freelance society is the dissolving of the distinctions and increasing overlap between the different types of physical spaces in a city. The ideal city will provide overlapping and seamless transitions between the home, office, school and the coffee shop. In the last major transition in the advanced cities, factories gave way to offices, and old factories and warehouses were indeed converted into offices. In the new city, the home or coffee shop will be the office or school, and the office could be the home and the resort could be the office . Rather than having offices in central areas and residences in the suburbs, there will be living spaces everywhere that seamlessly transition from one function to other.
How will this configuration look like? There may be very few and small offices owned by companies for some functions - central coordination, storage of equipment and data, etc. And these can be either in the centre or outskirts of the city or in the suburbs. The old office blocks will be converted into flexible living spaces, with apartments and common areas that can be used or rented for different functions - daycare, meeting rooms, videoconferencing, play areas, shopping, cafes, etc. As there will be one office to go to, there will be no need for companies to have separate offices. All work could be done at home or in temporarily rented meeting or workspaces, especially if the work requires several people being physically in the same room.
Rather than sequestering landuse by function, the new city will, therefore, become a collection of living communities or villages that contain overlapping spaces for all living functions. These living communities or villages could compete by providing different services and quality of life, and people could choose to live and work in communities that best meet their preferences, rather than having to compromise and live near one's job (or that of one's spouse). Given that people's preferences are diverse, the new city will have a diverse set of inter-connected local communities.
Which brings me to the fourth defining feature of the ideal city for a freelance society - connectivity. Connectivity - local, regional, national and global - will be one of the most important features of the new city. Connectivity will be more important than mobility. In fact, it will be critical, as the worker in the freelance society could be working for a client in any part of the world, in fact, she could be working for multiple clients in multiple parts of the world. Therefore, the new city must provide top of the line communications infrastructure that would enable rapid, seamless connectivity from any home, rather any room in the city to any part of the world. This will include voice, data and video communications. Just as each modern home has a washing machine or a fridge, each new home will have videoconferencing facitilities that realistically simulate real-time live interactions between people in different parts of the city, nation or world. There is already telepresence technology available today to enable participants attending a meeting from different locations to feel as if they are in the same room. In the new city, this will be extended to every home.
As far fewer people will be commuting to the same job everyday, and far more people would work at home and travel only for meetings at randomly distributed times, the infrastructure that has built for a commuter society will not be appropriate for the new city. Peak and off peak travel distinctions would go away. There may be far fewer people going in and out of the cente of cities every day, and more people traveling randomly between different local communities, and between cities in different parts of the world. As there will be no centre and no periphery, hub and spoke models of travel will be replaced by point to point travel - local, national and global. And cities which enable this the best will be the new winners.
The fifth defining feature of the ideal city for a freelance society will be openness and freedom to all and a complete break in the link between citizenship and nationality. The new city will be a global city, whose citizens come from all parts of the world. In a freelance society, work can be done for anyone by anyone anywhere. If in this society, a city wants to be competitive, it must attract the smart, diligent, creative people from all over the world. To do this it must be open, free and tolerant and it must provide the best living environment and living experience possible.
The sixth mundane yet important defining feature of the ideal city for a freelance society is convenience. As the citizen of such a city will be a global citizen and her work will come from many different locations from many different clients, the new city should make these local, national and international transactions as convenient and seamless as possible. This will have significant implications on how the city organizes the day to day lives of its citizens. For example, it must enable rapid, efficient monetary transactions including in foreign exchange. It must not put onerous restrictions on opening and maintaining bank accounts in different countries. It must come up with new methods of taxation that keep it competitive while at the same time prevent tax leakage or avoidance. It must figure out a new way of providing mortgages to people without regular jobs. And so on. There will be many ways lives will change in a freelance society. The city that provides the most convenience for this transition will be the winner in the freelance society.
As I have discussed the different defining features of the ideal city for a freelance society, we have seen some recurrent themes and qualities. These include - versatility, resilience, forward looking, knowledge of the how and what of solving problems and doing things, dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty and change, critical thinking, openness, tolerance, overlapping, seamlessness, connectivity, rapidity, freedom, convenience, efficiency. Of course, many of these are applicable to today's job-based society too, but many are not, and those that are applicable will be applied differently in the freelance society.
We are moving to a freelance society. And the city that figures this out first and brings about the changes talked above will be the new global city - the new New York or London, if it is not these two that figure this out the first!
© Raja Shankar: This essay may be copied or referred to freely, as long as it is sourced to the author
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