At an altitude of 4,830 metres on the Everest Base Camp Trek, guess what you can find? WiFi access. Which means you can work, Facetime your loved ones, or Instagram your Everest selfies. By dispensing with the need for a physical presence, technology has made it possible to communicate, share and work remotely in some of the most isolated locations on Earth.
For centuries, people have gravitated towards the bright lights and busy streets of cities to make their mark on the world. But what if the skylines of London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and Johannesburg made way for the open landscapes, quiet streets and chirping birds found in the rural towns of their countries?
As technology advances and the nature of workplaces and jobs radically change, and fewer jobs require a physical presence, the need for people to continue flocking to cities could diminish. Could we see the start of counter-urbanisation with the world’s population increasingly living rurally instead of in cities? Could this be the answer to the monumental task faced by cities under enormous pressure from population growth, urbanisation and climate change?
By 2050, the world’s urban population is projected to grow by 2.5 billion, with 68% of the population living in cities (an increase from 55% in 2018). The pace of growth is strongest in developing countries with the United Nations estimating there could be 43 megacities (up from 31 today) with more than 10-million inhabitants – mostly in developing countries – by 2030. Global migration is further contributing to the growth of cities, as new migrants prefer to live in the metropolises of their newly-found countries as opposed to rural areas. This leads to cities even in relatively remote countries like Australia buckling under the strain of stretched infrastructure.
People gravitate to cities for the simple reason that they need to earn a livelihood. Early human civilisations such as the Sumer and the Ancient Egyptians centred around fertile land. Fertile land meant more food, which meant more people, more trade opportunities and more demand for additional goods and generally more individual wealth, which created a drawcard for others. As this cycle fed itself, cities appeared and thrived.
But, with advanced economies reliant on services, people’s livelihoods are no longer linked to the land or the production of goods, but rather to managing the underpinning transactions. In the future, say 50 years from now, why wouldn’t people gravitate to rural areas where there is more room, when it is perfectly feasible through technology to manage all those transactions remotely?
There are many practicalities of city living that would need to be adapted for true counter-urbanisation – and technology will be taking centre stage to make this happen.
As healthcare moves towards a more personalised offering, could this one day remove the larger efficient-but-impersonal general practice health clinics we find in cities? What will it mean for the scale of tertiary teaching hospitals – they’ll still be necessary, but could they be smaller and more specialised? And, could we see this kind of localised, digitised offering parlayed into other areas?
Schools and universities have operated virtually for decades and are only expected to expand – further reducing the reliance on bricks and mortar structures, which people feel they need to visit physically to obtain the service.
It’s indisputable. Automation is increasingly able to do more and deliver more, therefore removing the need for factory and plant-based workers. But more jobs are being created too.
According to a Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) study, digital transformation is actually creating more jobs than it is destroying; therefore, increasing the need for people with the requisite skills sets.
New communications technologies and digitalisation have paved the way for the gig economy – temporary jobs which give people flexibility on where to live. It’s a win-win, with companies cutting costs by hiring freelancers as needed and people now having the choice to escape crowded, expensive cities to venture beyond the metropolis.
The developing world has one major advantage to technology that the first world doesn’t; the opportunity to leapfrog development and move straight to the latest innovations without having to first ‘disassemble’ old infrastructure and systems, and be nimble.
In one year, India moved from its 155th position in mobile broadband penetration to the world’s largest mobile data-consuming nation. With no need to work around decades of telephone lines, fixed phone company monopolies and customer reluctance to move, the country’s telecoms are strengthening their fibre optic capacity in response to the massive demand.
Cities indeed bring communities together as do rural communities. In small villages, locals are more strongly connected and engaged with each other’s lives than in much larger cities. The pub, the bingo hall, the football pitch, the high street, all remain as focal points of community life.
The spread of internet connection in third world countries and rise of social networks means online communities flourish even in the most secluded places. While digital relationships can never replace face-to-face interaction, a person’s remote location no longer forces them into isolation.
Counter-urbanisation might just be the way forward for both developed and developing countries to create sustainable solutions that take the pressure off cities, while also improving the lives of their citizens. But, for it to work, there has to be an emphasis on collaboration and strong partnerships. Partnerships aimed at strengthening communications networks and rolling out new technologies to bridge the divide between the global village and rural areas, and cementing economic, social and environmental ties.
With disruption and technology moving at an exponential rate, we’ll also need to check our rigid perspectives on what constitutes work at the (hypothetical) door and be agile to the changing nature of work.
It might seem like a far-fetched idea – but, in an age when mankind is looking to start a colony on Mars, is it really?
A version of this post originally appeared on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog.