A futurist is a person who specializes, or has a strong interest, in attempting to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present. At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me. I am not a futurist. While my job entails a fair amount of trying to divine potential outcomes in the relatively near-term, I am not a futurist. I mean we’re talking about a guy who looked at the first smartphone and shrugged. However, as I look at the rapid disruption occurring in today’s world, I feel like there are forces coming together which make certain futures and changes more likely than they were even just a couple years ago. Most of these potential changes seem to be centered around the concurrence of a (another) coming leap forward in telecommunications technology, the current high cost of living in certain urban environments, and several sectors that are high-cost and ripe for technological disruption.
Several months back a potential client called to pick my brain about the Federal Communications Commission program to make available a portion of the 2.5 GHz spectrum to any federally recognized tribe or Alaska Native Village. Simply put, qualifying organizations could apply for the spectrum, receive the license to use it for free, and then do with it what wanted ideally focusing on increasing broadband and other advance telecommunications access for their communities. Broadband access in rural areas is an issue across the country and particularly in off-road system areas. There are several organizations in the Alaska that have worked to close the urban-rural broadband divide, but “last mile” communities “lag” regional hubs and urban areas. “Lag” isn’t even the right word nor is “divide”; it’s a canyon.
So, at the same time as this conversation I started seeing more reports about Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) communication systems providing broadband internet access. The most famous (or infamous if you’re a stargazer) of these systems is SpaceX’s Starlink. Starlink will eventually deploy thousands of satellites to orbit the globe and provide a global broadband internet connection. The company is launching 60 satellites at a time to sit just 340 miles above the earth. Early users of the system have experienced download speeds as high as 60 Mbps with uploads as fast as 17.7 Mbps. Latency is around 31 milliseconds. I just ran a speed test on my system here at home (which serves me wonderfully) and has enough bandwidth to accommodate all members of the house on video calls at once and we get 200 Mbps download speeds at 9 millisecond latency. I remember before a recent upgrade when we would have been thrilled with 60 Mbps. So even in its infancy the Starlink system is capable of service that just a year or two ago I would have been thrilled to receive in Anchorage. Most importantly 60 Mbps can smoke just about every current rural system in Alaska where speeds typically range from less than 1 Mbps to 50 Mbps for select regional hubs. Think about the child in Kipnuk, Upper Kalskag, Holy Cross, Shungnak, or Ruby whose school could figuratively step from a mining road to the autobahn. If the price is right, change is coming.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and now I’m seeing news reports that “big cities” have lost their luster and firms are working with employees to decamp from the cities that have gotten too expensive and they’re replacing my front yard street light with a new 5G micro tower. Now, I bring my saltlick for this chapter because the allure of big cities waxes and wanes over time. The companies that are leaving now will be replaced eventually when prices drop enough. That said, I think there’s the potential for a real shift here. Between 2005 and 2017, 90 percent of innovation sector jobs clustered in just five cities: Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, and San Diego. Second and third tier cities have been left in the dust saying nothing of rural areas. The extraordinary concentration of those high-paying jobs in those areas and the growing number of “left behind” places in the country have contributed to the fraying of a unified vision of America. I won’t go down that road any further, but I want us to start considering a potential recipe here:
- True broadband even in the most remote of areas, plus
- A sudden upgrade in everyone’s work-at-home skills, plus
- A desire by people to live in high quality of life areas, plus
- A willingness by employers to let employees live in a smaller cluster in less expensive cities and to let them work from where their productivity is highest, equals
- Opportunity for places that can attract people by offering a high quality of life in whatever way those places choose to define it.
I see a future where place both matters less and matters more than ever. It matters less because employees need not be co-located to collaborate effectively, and it means more than ever because you have to offer a great quality of life to attract talent and keep them there.
I will leave it there to percolate. Where would you be if place relative to job didn’t matter or mattered much less?
The Good News Section
The month’s post is entirely COVID free except for the Good News Section:
- More evidence every week that masks prevent infection and may reduce infection severity by reducing the viral load for those exposed.
- Nationwide the number of daily cases has come down and the number of currently hospitalized is 50 percent of the July peak.
- There are now 9 vaccines in Phase 3 trials and 5 vaccines approved for early or limited use (but none for the US general population). Expect early general population vaccine data in October/November.
Jonathan’s Takeaway: Thanks for spending some time thinking with me about the future. What do you see from the continuing revolution in the speed of data?
Jonathan King is a consulting economist and Certified Professional Coach. His firm, Halcyon Consulting, is dedicated to helping clients reach their goals through accountability, integrity, and personal growth. Jonathan has 24 years of social science consulting experience including 17 years in Alaska. The comments in this blog do not necessarily represent the view of employers and clients past or present and are Jonathan’s alone. Suggested blog topics, constructive feedback, and comments are desired at firstname.lastname@example.org.