The pandemic has broken the monopoly cities such as New York and San Francisco once had on high-paying jobs and upward mobility, and it’s given smaller cities (e.g. Austin and Salt Lake City) an opportunity to grow their burgeoning tech economies.
One of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic has been companies embracing remote work, affording many employees greater control of when and from where they work. But the work-from-home revolution poses an enormous challenge to cities, which have long enjoyed a monopoly on high-paying jobs and upward social mobility. Already, we’ve seen the work-from-home revolution elicit an exodus from prohibitively expensive urban centers. San Francisco has lost 90,000 residents, 10% of its population, since the pandemic began and as many as 300,000 people have left New York City.
Without a monopoly on high paying jobs, cities can no longer rest on their laurels and expect people to come to them. Big cities are going to have to work for it and new competitor cities are emerging across the country.
To succeed in the future, cities will have to attract the talented technology workers that are the lifeblood of a thriving modern economy. Here are three ways they can do that:
A city is the original network. The allure of a city is the close proximity of people and resources, allowing for a more efficient exchange of information, goods and services which increases everyone’s productivity.
Working from home threatens this model, as people no longer need to be in the same geography to be connected. However, cities can combat this transition by investing in their own, location-based networks.
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Technology-wise, cities need to invest in high speed, affordable broadband internet access so that companies will want to open offices in cities. Cities initially attracted residents by offering them electricity, plumbing and other public utilities. The city of the future will offer 5G internet as a utility, making the city a necessary destination for firms and employees alike. High-speed internet will also support individual remote-based workers who require the competitive advantage of working on a high-speed broadband network.
But cities also need to invest in their physical, person-to-person networks — the kinds of connections that can’t be replicated online. Silicon Valley is successful because it’s a trust network. Residents have an inherent connection and are more likely to trust each other, which fosters innovation and business. That’s the mark of a high-functioning network.
Cities that can replicate this model, creating their own innovation hubs, are well-positioned for the post-pandemic economy. Indeed, we’ve already seen many cities — such as Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Austin — develop high concentrations of tech innovation.
New York and San Francisco are iconic American cities. But despite their mystique, they’ve failed to provide their residents with a high quality of life.
In many ways, these two cities are victims of their own success. While their populations grew from year-to-year, and they were home to booming business sectors — tech in San Francisco, and finance and media in New York, they failed to invest their good fortunes in their futures.
New York City’s subway system, one of the greatest public works projects ever constructed, is a vital form of transportation for any New Yorker. But after years of disinvestment, the system fell into disrepair; the equipment is a century old. San Francisco’s failure to invest in affordable housing made it prohibitively expensive for many people to live forcing out much of its unique cultural identity. Now that people don’t have to live in either city to further their careers, thousands of workers are opting for more affordable cities that provide a higher quality of life and without sacrificing upward mobility.
Quality of life is measured across many metrics, and how these are valued will vary from person to person. Safety, education, transportation, public health, affordability, culture and community are typically some of the most important ones. These aspects of city living can be improved by investing in public goods, such as parks, public squares, alternative forms of transportation, running paths, affordable housing, public education and protected nature areas.
These amenities help people live happier, healthier, more high-functioning lives, and act as recruiting tools for cities hoping to attract and retain residents.
All of these strategies are aimed at the same singular goal, which is to attract and retain talented workers. Much like a company is only as strong as its workers, a city is only as strong as its residents.
While the work from home revolution poses new, unprecedented challenges for metropolitan areas, it will ultimately be the best thing that’s ever happened to America’s cities.
Instead of having to concentrate in Silicon Valley or New York City, knowledge workers can now work from anywhere in the country. As tech workers disperse across the country, it creates a broader, more inclusive tech industry — one that embraces cities between the coasts and boasts a more diverse collection of individuals.
Each of the cities taking on this new challenge has the potential to become an innovation network unto itself. And with dozens of cities across the U.S. building innovation networks, America has the opportunity to enter a new era of distributed economic prosperity.