How long are we going to need that city?

Luke Beirne Luke Beirne
Environmental Geologist
11 September 2018
7 min read

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?

The concrete jungle's becoming crowded

By 2050, the world's urban population is projected to grow by 2.5 billion, with 68 per cent of the population living in cities (an increase from 55 per cent 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?

Technology will further break down physical barriers

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.

During the World Economic Forum in January this year, Last Mile Health and Living Goods announced an initiative aimed at reinventing primary healthcare by leveraging the disruptive power of mobile technology.

The $50-million collaboration will see 50 000 community health workers delivering quality door-to-door care to 35-million people – whether they live in a busy downtown area or a remote agricultural property. The potential benefits are staggering: the life-saving healthcare will save lives, it will save money, create jobs, empower women, prevent pandemics and strengthen health systems.

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.

Automation means opportunity – not just obliteration

It's indisputable. Automation is increasingly able to complete more tertiary sector tasks, deliver more primary and secondary sector materials and manufacturing, 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.

Coming from an organisation that established its original robotic farm over 15 years ago, Jenny Jago, strategy and investment portfolio manager for DairyNZ, says that by getting a younger generation engaged with the technology, they have an opportunity to see the career potential that underlies it.

And it's true:

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.

Web-based platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr and TaskRabbit have created a platform for businesses and independent professionals to connect and collaborate remotely. About three million jobs are posted annually on Upwork – with an estimated value of $1 billion. The opportunity to not just earn, but build a legitimate, rewarding and interesting career, while working remotely, is very real.

Developing world gains

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.

Evolving infrastructure in rural areas means developing countries can thrive too. In fact, an initiative called the 'Project Loon' has massive potential to improve education in developing countries. Through this project, a network of balloons will be launched to travel to the edge of space and make it possible for rural communities and remote areas across the globe to have internet access and connect with the world.

Social connections are evolving

Cities indeed bring communities together as do rural communities. There's a road in a small town in England called "The Street" – that's how small the town is. However, as is often the case with 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 soccer field, the shops on the main 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.

Driving renewal at a local level can make a meaningful impact in smaller cities and rural areas. Jeremy Nowak, co-author of The New Localism, believes that the "right workforce qualities and civic strategies can reposition the value of rural workers".

In South Africa, the government has put its energies into achieving economic transformation by focusing on its rural and township economies.

Through collaborative partnerships with the private sector and public-benefit organisations, the government is creating jobs for youth, empowering local businesses and pushing for more inclusive growth. While it's still in its early days, the shift in focus could see more innovation in stimulating rural economies.

Bridging global and rural areas

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?

Click here to subscribe to Just Imagine.

Luke Beirne
Written by
Luke Beirne

Unfortunately, you are using a web browser that Aurecon does not support.

Please change your browser to one of the options below to improve your experience.

Supported browsers: