The New Geography
By Jeff Bloom and Rob Kay
A visionary new book by New York Times columnist Joel Kotkin is making the rounds these days in Honolulu and his views on the New Economy are well worth evaluating. More specifically, Kotkin's reflections on how the digital revolution is reshaping the American landscape may well provide those who make policy in Hawaii with clues as to how we might plan our future as a digital island and home to Information Age workers.
Conventional wisdom has it that with the rise of a digital economy, people can choose to live wherever they want and physical geography matters less and less. For example, the advent of the Internet, cell phones and other technologies make it possible for individuals to move away from large cities. People are free to live and or even telecommute if they so choose.
While on the surface this appears to be the case, Kotkin posits that geography still plays the ultimate role when it comes to influencing where people live and work. Certainly citizens are freer to live where they want to but in his words, ""The importance of geography is not dwindling to nothing in the digital era; in fact, quite the opposite. In reality, place--geography--matters now more than ever before," he tells us.
Cities, he explains, may no longer be the industrial or corporate centers they once were earlier in the last century. Nowadays they are becoming magnets for talented workers whose intellectual capital and high tech skills are more important than "office drones" or cheap, unskilled labor. He argues that this type of pooling of primarily highly skilled talent is more akin to a dynamic that existed in pre-industrial cities.
Much like Venice or Amsterdam attracted craftsmen such as diamond cutters, silversmiths or fine artists during the Renaissance, high tech centers such as Boston and San Francisco are Mecca's for skilled programmers, engineers or Intellectual Property attorneys in the 21st century. New economy workers-particularly young and single individuals, in short, will go to where creativity, trade, and culture flourish. This is especially true with young, single people who are well paid and crave the theater, entertainment and art that only a civilized city can offer.
Thus, in Kotkin's vision, not all cities will flourish as digital enclaves. The new "digital city" has to have the aesthetics and culture to draw young, highly paid, highly educated workers to succeed. This includes everything from cappuccino bars and stimulating nightlife to great architecture. Thus the appeal to the young and hip digerati probably has more in common with Florence during the Renaissance than Detroit during the time of Henry Ford.
As one may surmise, other parts of our country will definitely not appeal to most high tech workers. Kotkin seems particularly dismayed with the older suburbs-Midopolises he calls them--built in the 1950s and 1960s around some the larger cities. No longer sparkling "bedroom communities" they now suffer from rising crime, gangs, aging infrastructures, and declining schools. These ossified suburban rings on the periphery of larger cities such as Long Island and the San Fernando Valley, no longer hold sway for the most desirable New Economy workers.
Rather, the new breed of information worker prefers to live in a different type of suburb that Kotikin terms "Nerdistans." Self-contained-often master planned communities--with excellent educational systems and modern infrastructure such fiber optic connectivity, Nerdistans generally attract middle-aged, married high tech workers. Generally these are well paid engineers or higher echelon digital workers with growing families who want their high tech toys and a high quality of life-parks, good shopping centers and schools for their families. He cites Austin, Texas; Raleigh, North Carolina and Irvine, California as prototypical Nerdistans.
The third type of community that the author classifies as high tech hot spots are "Valhallas" which can range from bucolic old mining towns in the Rockies to picturesque villages on the Maine coast. The lynchpin of these new outposts is QOL-quality of life. These are often historic or rural towns that because of their aesthetic appeal and newly found connectivity to the Internet have become as Kotkin says, "liberated from conventional bonds of geography". These communities which once relied on ranching, mining or logging have become magnets for the New Economy elite who relish recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing or golf.
The clean air of the mountains or a refreshing sea breeze offer a perk of inestimable value to a hardworking Silicon Valley executive who is tired of battling for parking places in San Francisco and moving at a snail's pace down Highway 101. In short, the New Valhallas that are emerging across America-from Boulder Colorado to Camden Maine-- offer the perfect "QOL" for affluent new economy workers. We believe they also present an intriguing model for our state.
In our next column we'd like to discuss what Hawaii can do to attract New Economy workers and to become a New Valhalla.