I don’t buy the cult of the city

There have been dozens of articles about the growth of cities clearly showing how, in the future, 200% of us will live in cities (roughly).

I get the data; I see the trend, but I think the future is very different and I think it’s a much brighter future which will see us much happier…

Why are cities growing?

Industries have centralised.  Companies still do deals face to face and have grown to be near each other.  I don’t expect that to change any time soon.  In the UK, that often means London.  If you want to meet someone in the UK, there’s a fair chance London is the easiest place to meet even (especially?!) if you live at opposite sides of the country.  So companies have clustered in major cities.

Commuting sucks.  Studies have been done which show that commuting is the least happy part of your life.  The average commute is 8.5 hours per week (and 57% of us commute by car so I’m not pretending we all go to Central London every day), and because we all have to be at our desk at the same time, journeys are much slower and more stressful than they need to be.  So we’ll endure a lot to avoid those daily commutes, even living in a shoe-box.

Things happen in cities.  Whatever you want to do, you can do in a city.  You can eat Hungarian food after 10pm, find a group of like-minded people on any topic, choose from a different range of theaters.  Because there are people, there is a market to serve them.

We are young, free and single longer.  We used to have a few years with no ties then settle down with 2.4 kids and a Labrador.  For multiple reasons that phase of life has got much longer.  We may well spend a decade or two before we want to “settle down” which means there has been a step-change in how many people are in this phase of their life.

But something magical is happening…

What is the future?

We have cut the umbilical cord.  Internet everywhere and the cloud means we can work anywhere.  So far most of us have only used these powers on our dining room table but we can now work anywhere.  This means we can now be “based in the city” without needing to be there every day.

The dream.  We love space. When people have “made it”, not retired but achieved success, they seem to get a nice place in the country.  Now they have control of their time, they choose to spend it “living the good life”, with “a place in the country”…  This shows that we want to escape the city.  Imagine if we could get there much earlier in our careers?  If it was an option for more of us?

“Why do you rob banks?” someone asked the bank robber Willie Sutton who replied “That’s where they keep the money”.  That same logic holds for us as business people and employees.  We’ll still go to the City when we need to.  To do deals, to meet other people, to meet colleagues.  When the balance tips from two days at home and five days in the City to a couple of days in the city, the rest near home, we can make very different decisions.

Happiness is two lockers.  I believe most of us will be happiest with a split life.  A place to work in our chosen City where we do deals and spend time with colleagues and another near home.  To have two desks seems extravagant, but to feel permanently on the move feels too transient.  So I suggest that happiness is two lockers; two places you belong to.  One where you work and the other much closer to home.

Rise of communities.  I predict more of us will go to cities each month; just less often.  We’ll spend more of our time living in our dormitory towns.  This will mean we breathe more life into our towns as they respond to the new opportunities we present them; we’ll look forward to our trips to the cities and like tourists once more, we’ll actually appreciate their many wonders.

What does this mean for you?

Let your staff be happy.  I know you have designed your life to suit you, but you might not extend the same rules to your team.  Every role you have is now flexible.  Flexible means you will help and support your staff to fulfill their role when and where works best for you both.  Some of those roles will change little.  Barista’s will still need to start work before opening time and be near the coffee machine they operate, but you’ll be surprised at what is possible.  Does every role need to be full-time?  Does everyone need to be in the office every day?  Let early birds start earlier, night owls work later.  Schedule “together time”; formal (weekly meetings), informal (just time working together to allow spontaneous conversations) – and social (lunches etc).

Attract better talent.  “Would you rather have £5,000 pay-rise or flexible working?”  Most chose flexible working.  You’ve been bribing your staff to commute when you could have given them a cost-free pay-rise by introducing flexibility into their work routines.  You can now attract and retain better talent by giving them more flexibility than your competitors.

Ponder local. These trends are only just starting, but they’re going to grow.  Greater daytime populations will make new business opportunities possible.  Decision makers who “work in London” are now realising the cost advantage of using regional and virtual suppliers who use these modern ways of working.

Start a co-working space.  There are hundreds around already, but nearly all in cities.  As part-time working in cities becomes possible, spaces to work productively nearer home will be in demand to satisfy the other half of the solution.  So we need more, many more such spaces.

Tom Ball

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