Will distributed organizations change the shape of cities and global flows?

This sudden experiment in going mass remote has created a set of macro uncertainties that have yet to stabilize. There is uncertainty, in particular, about its impacts on geography – on the shaping of urbanization and globalization to come.

Urban centres, long lionized as hotbeds of innovation and creativity where density and scale combine to generate outsized returns,[1] are suddenly at risk of losing their prized status. Why bother having office space in expensive urban environments when remote tasks can achieve similar results? The evidence, of course, is not yet in. While some organizations are planning to remain fully remote, others are emphasizing a hybrid approach combining a couple of days in the office a week.[2]

The effects of this on cities are unknown. Historically, they have depended on efficiently aggregating labour markets, creating dense cores of businesses surrounded by radial gradients of increasingly more dispersed residential areas limited by commute times.[3] But going remote upends this model – freeing the limiting constraint of commute time, and disaggregating the efficiency of dense urban labour markets. The result could be a range of new post-urban experiments[4] – from clusters of remote work vacation towns, to car-free pedestrian downtowns, to scattered rings of suburban micro-satellite offices and on-demand spaces. 

But going remote also has implications on the architecture of globalization. While concerns over the security and resilience of supply chains has led to calls for more relocalization of production, it’s not just the movement of goods but of people themselves that could change. Suddenly labour markets can be aggregated not by geography but by global platforms. In principle, the world’s best talent is available anywhere – alongside its lowest-paid. This could become particularly pronounced if not just telepresence (technologies that enable communication across distances) but telerobotics (technologies that enable physical action across distances) become commonplace.[5]

How exactly globalization and urbanization will be affected by the pandemic in the long-term remains to be seen, but the space of possible impacts is large.

Published on April 27th 2021