A confluence of circumstance and technology may be about to profoundly change trends which have stood for centuries.
Since the advent of modern sanitation and industrialization in the 1700s the world has moved towards living in urban centres. This process of mass urbanization began slowly but in the 2nd half of the 20th century accelerated markedly, so much so that by 2011 more than half of all people on Earth lived in urban areas. The United Nations projects that by the year 2050 more than two-thirds of all people on Earth will live in urban areas.
But straight-line projections are a fool’s game at best.
When Covid-19 hit the world in 2020 and much of the planet was plunged into lockdowns of varying strictness, the world’s middle classes very quickly had to adapt to a new reality. That of working at home. Some (such as us here at the Institute of Race Relations) took to this very quickly while others adapted much more slowly and grudgingly.
In many ways the extended duration of the Covid lockdowns was only possible due to a number of major technological innovations, namely delivery services, fast internet speeds, and efficient global courier networks. These changes have allowed middle-class workers to work and shop from home with a level of ease and comfort never before seen.
In major developed economies, the proportion of people working from home jumped from about 5% before the pandemic, to about 60% at the height of the lockdowns. While this number has shrunk now that lockdowns are eased or over in much of the developed world, surveys show that majorities of white-collar workers would prefer their companies to work mostly from home. About a third of workers want to work from home full time. While some companies will surely return to the status quo, the bottle has been uncorked and with the normalisation of working from home, many middle-class jobs have been almost entirely unshackled from the big city.
At the same time, cities around the world, but particularly in South Africa, are falling into ever greater levels of dysfunction. Homelessness, rising house prices, crime, failing infrastructure, pollution, and traffic are making cities ever less pleasant places to live in.
In some of the world’s great cities, declining birth rates and misgovernance are driving people out. New York, Tokyo, Milwaukee, Baltimore, St. Petersburg and Los Angeles have all seen declining populations or seen the growth in the number of residents shrink to almost nothing.
Taken all together, it’s entirely possible that we may indeed be at the start of a reversal of massive growth in cities, as middle-class people choose to move away from the big city to set up shop in a village or small town.
In the past this would have been unattainable as these places tended to lack amenities, such as good restaurants, and it was often difficult to get a good internet connection, and buying electronics or appliances was a painful experience. However, the growth of high-speed internet, boutique restaurants, and online shopping (with global delivery networks) means that for those with enough money almost all these drawbacks are eliminated.
With the shine of the big city dimming, the opportunity for smaller towns and villages to scoop up wealthy rate-paying residents is immense. With the right infrastructure, tax policy, and immigration laws small locales may be able to pick up wealthy immigrants, not just from their own country’s big cities but from across the world.
My girlfriend and I are at the moment actually considering moving to a small town in South Africa. Despite neither of us being very high earners, the freedom from geography that our remote work gives us, added to the dysfunction of Johannesburg, means that small-town life makes sense not only for our quality of life but also financially.
Unfortunately, South Africa is poorly placed to take advantage of this potential.
Small towns across the country suffer from lawlessness, collapsed or collapsing infrastructure (think of Harrismith), and in many cases poor internet.
As an example, one of the towns I considered moving to is the wonderful tourist and sheep farming town of Sutherland, which falls under the Karoo Hoogland municipality in the Northern Cape. Unfortunately, despite the charming people, restaurants, and interesting astronomy-related activities (the locale is one of the best places for stargazing in the world) the town boasts, it lacks fibre internet and even more concerningly only has water for four hours a day. At least Sutherland, unlike most of the rest of country’s rural areas, has very little crime.
South Africa does have some small towns ready to take middle-class workers but most of them (if not all) are in the Western Cape. Places like Swellendam or Bredasdorp come to mind but even these are not immune to load-shedding or outbreaks of xenophobic violence (in the case of Bredasdorp).
As for attracting overseas visitors, South Africa has a number of deterrent factors, such as our high levels of crime. However, the government has not done anything to make the country attractive to ‘digital nomads’ in policy terms. Despite plans to introduce such a visa the government has been dragging its feet.
Countries such as Mauritius, the Maldives, and Greece have all brought in some form of ‘digital nomad’ visa which allows people working remotely to stay for a year at a time in the country. So far, the Western Cape has made moves to encourage digital nomads but with the glacial pace at which national government moves it is unlikely that we will see them as soon as we should.
This is a market South Africa is well placed to take advantage of, as we share a time zone with Europe, enabling European workers to live in South Africa while being in the same time zone as their colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere.
Technology is making possible incredible changes in the lifestyles of millions and the problems of rural poverty may finally have a solution. But only if we move fast enough to seize the opportunity.
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