The New Location, Location, Location

So far in my series on virtual geography, I have talked mainly about relative location — the 50-foot-rule, the Twitter Zone and the notion of ambient presence are all about where a is in relation to b, in cognitive and physical ways. What can we say about absolute location? The man with the best (and I believe, right) answer is Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, The Flight of the Creative Class and now, what might be his Magnum Opus: Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life

Why Absolute Location Still Matters

Yes, remote work and telepresence are going to be the way of the future, thanks to a perfect storm of nesting Gen X’ers with two-body problems, high gas prices, growth of mega-cities and declining hinterlands. I have personally been navigating this stormy world. After spending a year with us being in different cities, my wife quit her job in Washington, DC, and joined me in Rochester, NY. Now, after a fruitless, months-long job search, she is going back to DC to take up an attractive offer. This time, I will (eventually) be going with her. By the end of this year I hope to have worked with my managers to clear the way for a productive remote-work arrangement. I am shopping for webcams and using the phone more, by way of preparation. Face-time is a hard addiction to overcome.

My personal experience has validated for me the thesis Florida has been shouting from the rooftops for over a decade now: that location is the single most important decision in a person’s life, ahead of even career/specialization choice and choice of if/who/when to marry. His new book refines and distills the argument down to its essence: location is the key strategic life decision. Every other decision that crops up through the twists and turns of life becomes easier if you pick the right place to settle down in.

And “settling down” geographically, incidentally, is one of the few rituals of life that has resisted the turbulence of modern life. Though most of us today bum around globally across more countries and cities than our parents did, we still want to eventually stabilize at a particular (x, y). All but the hardiest of us are exhausted by wanderlust by the time we hit our 30s. I know I am: since I left ‘home’ (Jamshedpur, India) in 1993, I have lived in 5 cities (Mumbai, Ann Arbor, Austin, Ithaca, and Rochester). I am done. I don’t even really enjoy vacation travel much anymore.
There are, of course, pragmatic financial reasons, like the increasing urgency of finding some (x, y) to plant a home-equity seed, but largely, the reasons at play are primordial cave-man era needs. Climate for instance (bleak winters are another thing I don’t want as a permanent fixture in my life anymore), and the urge to build connections to a somewhat stable physical community.

Florida’s Spiky World vs. Friedman’s Flat One

So if location matters, which ones matter most? Florida argues that Friedman’s ‘Flat World’ argument is fundamentally flawed. That what he calls the “creative class” still gravitates to, and thrives in, just a handful of major economic regions in the world. If you haven’t encountered the notion of creative class before, Florida defines anybody who is part of the information economy as a “creative” (there are good reasons for doing so). Archetypes like artists and musicians belong of course, but so do accountants and programmers.

The key point to recognize is that the creative class no longer goes to where the work is: work is forced to go where the creative class is. And the creative class seems to like going to large exurbian/suburban/urban regions in areas with pleasant climates (Doh!).

The world is global and flat to the extent that these regions are scattered all over, but it is still a mistake to think, for instance, that Red America can innovate and create with as much fecundity as Blue America. Or that rural India can match Bangalore. So the playing field is not really level (and if you believe Florida’s arguments about critical mass, will never be). Your opportunities are vastly multiplied if you live in or near the spikes of creative capital worldwide.

You can find a bunch of interesting maps at the Who’s your city website. Here is the basic creative class distribution map.

Florida looks at the list of usual suspects (in the US, the Bay Area, Seattle-Redmond, Washington-Boston, New York…) with a bewildering array of lenses to understand the creative capital they manifest. The places themselves are not as interesting as the conclusions he comes to about them. A startling (and well-validated by data) conclusion he reveals and discusses is that most major regions have a “regional personality” that applies to any large-enough region. The Washington DC region, I learned, is a place where I can expect a somewhat neurotic and unsociable, but open-to-new-experiences personality (both communitarian and individual). You want community, go to Chicago. Here is the “personality map” of major populated regions of the US:

The conclusions validate my own — I’ve had my own private opinions of the “personality” of the major regions of the world that I am familiar with. I’ll share just one: the Delhi-Noida region in India is a jerk.

The Implication for Corporations

The conclusions are stark. In the decades-long tug-o-war between career and location, location is going to win. Companies will have to learn to manage in new ways, and go where the talent is, at least virtually. Productivity and Presenteeism will need to be pried apart. Face-time and Twitter-time will need to be traded off. As the boomer generation and its tactile, communal culture retires, and the more solitary, individualist and existentialist Gen X takes over, they will lead the charge. Millenials entering the workforce will largely not know any other way of living — live wherever you want without that constraining your work choices.

So if you are starting up a large enterprise facility, no matter what tax breaks and other inducements state governments offer, to get you to set up shop in some dying rural hinterland, it would be very dangerous to succumb. You need to be positioned strategically, relative to creative-capital centers of the world, both geographically and virtual-geographically.

And if you are setting up a small/medium business or one that relies purely on information work, it is a no-brainer. You need to be in creative-capital regions.

And What are We Buying?

This doesn’t, of course, address the overall decline in physical-geography-anchored social capital that Robert Putnam worries about. As social capital accumulates on LinkedIn and within extended virtual enterprises with porous work-life norms, it will inevitably continue to leak out of specific geographies. Social capital is not a conserved quantity like mass-energy of course, and we can hope that we’ll find new wellsprings of the good stuff to revitalize geographic social capital as well, and get beyond the current zero-sum situation between virtual and physical. Maybe the Millenials entering the workforce will be the ones to rebuild geographically-anchored civic communities 2.0.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter