People, whether out of necessity or by a desire for more opportunity, are leaving rural areas in great numbers. The strain on already dense, saturated cities throughout the world will be enormous. But as we're seeing with COVID-19, densely populated urban areas facilitate the rapid spread of disease. Sadly, those moving to these urban metropolises will likely not find the opportunity they are seeking in our current globalized economy.
In 2018, the United Nations projected that by 2050, 2.5 billion more people will be living in cities around the world. In the report, China, India, and Nigeria are listed as top countries for this rapid urbanization, projecting that by 2028, New Delhi will be the most populous city on the planet. As the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs writes:
Many countries will face challenges in meeting the needs of their growing urban populations, including for housing, transportation, energy systems and other infrastructure; as well as for employment and basic services such as education and health care.
There is a fairly elegant solution to this problem, however – leverage technology to encourage remote work and revitalize rural areas throughout the world.
The UN's projection of 2.5 billion people moving to cities by 2050 is just that: a projection. But this doesn't need to be our future. Through advancements in communication and collaboration technology, the world could reverse this trend and restore both the pride and practicality of living outside of a major city.
The cloud-based rural revival
I call it the "cloud-based rural revival," and the premise is simple. In places that will be most affected by radical urbanization, like India, for example, broadband is more than strong enough across the country to support remote work for people in rural areas. We need to encourage strong and self-reliant local communities and economies everywhere. I believe the present downturn is going to challenge a lot of assumptions about the nature of work. Its effects will be long-lasting and will reshape the world.
Right now I am working from a remote farm near Tenkasi, India. The nearest village is about one and a half miles away. I have been taking video meetings, group chats, and even participated in a live TV program, all using my cheap Android phone on a 4G connection. The fact that this is even possible, that I could get away with doing all this, is new.
Along with broadband, I also believe economies of scale in production are becoming achievable at lower levels of scale. This is a very important techno-economic trend that implies that smaller scale production is very feasible. Combine the two trends, and you are going to see a revival of smaller towns.
Further, a recent 5G forecast from International Data Corporation projects the number of 5G connections to skyrocket from 10.0 million 2019 to 1.01 billion in 2023. With 5G network infrastructure so widespread in the matter of just a few short years, quality high-speed internet connections will reach more rural areas and make remote work even easier.
Solving the problem of urbanization
In many of America's largest cities, salaries are no longer commensurate with the cost of living for employees. Look no further than San Francisco, a city where the high cost of living was in part caused by an influx of the very type of company best suited for remote work – software. In the wake of this pandemic, the US and the world at large have adopted a more favorable view of remote work and a better understanding of the tools needed to facilitate telecommuting. Could this presage a more fundamental reversal of the trend towards city living?
According to one survey of American workers, between 2005 and 2018 regular work-from-home among the non-self-employed population grew by 173%. This does not, of course, solve the problem of urbanization, as many of these remote workers are still living in cities. But being able to telecommute is a major first step in repopulating rural areas, and it's a trend that translates to countries outside of the U.S. as well.
Rural expansion and retention could also help drive agriculture, an industry that has been hit hard over the last decade in the United States, and one that serves as an economic pillar in countries such as India.
It's true that industries such as manufacturing, which is site-specific and often necessitates an urban workforce, still account for a large portion of India and China's job market, as well as much of the developing world. But these economies are growing rapidly in other, more flexible sectors as well — areas like software engineering, customer service, content development, telemarketing, and many others.
Will COVID-19 be the catalyst for change?
In India this transition began long before COVID-19. This pandemic, however, has recharged conversations about urbanization, remote work, and lumbering, global economies.
Epidemics and pandemics become increasingly dangerous in dense urban environments, so these types of moves make sense. But through the institutionalization of remote work tools, companies can effectively transform themselves digitally. They can make decisions quicker, devolve responsibility and accountability lower down into their organizations, and allow rare and shy talent to surface and contribute.
To successfully revive rural areas around the globe, it's going to take as much effort on behalf of employers as it does on employees. This idea that big cities have to get bigger is incorrect, and if businesses could change their thinking around where their employees need to live, they could see some great operational and financial growth. For employees the value of staying in rural areas is obvious — cost of living is low, people can stay close to family, and contribute to the overall natural health of their country. What's needed for businesses seeking remote workers in rural areas is outreach, and again technology is paving the way for companies to connect with people in under-served communities and recruit them for this type of work.
We are the first generation to experience ubiquitous broadband. It is like the first generation after the printing press. We cannot know all the changes that will happen, but I already have a glimpse – small workgroups that spread themselves out. Perhaps the shock of COVID-19 will be the catalyst for this change, rebalancing cities and restoring identity, dignity, and purpose to our rural areas.