You can find them in Lisbon or in Buenos Aires, but also in places like Ubud (Bali-Indonesia) or Chiang Mai (Thailand). They can be found in more and more cities, living among us, although it is difficult for us to know how many they are, what type of relationship they establish with our city, or their real impact on housing or the labour market. The so-called “digital nomads” are a phenomenon still to be studied in many cities although, as an emerging global movement in recent years, it should be increasingly taken into account in urban systems.
Digital nomads are professionals who pursue a location-independent lifestyle thanks to technology. Rather than inhabitants, they can be considered as “consumers” of cities, as they don’t usually pay income taxes but are users of all kind of local basic services, not occasionally, but for a significant period of time. It is estimated that approximately a third are women. The fundamental characteristic of digital nomads which distinguishes them from other itinerant workers is the combination of three dimensions of freedom: spatial freedom, professional freedom and personal freedom.
In 2016, FlexJobs revealed that travelling was the second main reason for millennials to work. Previously, a 2012 report prepared by PwC on the labour expectations of this group of people born at the end of the 20th century already indicated that 71% intended to work at least for some time in a foreign country, a figure which the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Survey increased to 81% in 2017. Generation Z appears to have adopted this itinerant behaviour even more.
Logically, technological developments in communications have made this original way of teleworking an affordable and increasingly popular option, not just for young people, recent graduates or those seeking to enjoy enriching experiences which can be of use to them in their future professional career, but also even for people with established careers seeking to quit the routine or avoid burnout (sometimes with counterproductive results).
The main jobs that digital nomads do are obviously related to the digital environment: website development, graphic and website design or specialists in SEO are the most representative jobs for the members of this group.
Effects on cities and their labour markets
As appears to be inevitable nowadays, a movement which emerged as an alternative life proposal has again been commercialized and is generating an incipient business around it. From platforms which help you to plan and organize your travel, such as Remote Year or Hacker Paradise, to Remote Jobs, one of the websites to visit in order to explore work opportunities adapted to this way of living, and even the new concept of coworking+accommodation offered by Roam or Nomad House.
This business is perceived as being so promising that WeWork, the American coworking spaces giant, is rapidly expanding WeLive, its coliving network, and has begun to develop primary schools which, with the name WeGrow, do not only want to contribute to preparing the new generations in a new culture of work, but are also expected to end up shaping complex WeWork+WeLive+WeGrow in which a very specific form of work-life balance can be achieved with the workplace centre stage, at the same time opening up the world of digital nomadism to families. This is a more sophisticated – although just as worrying – version of breaking down the barriers between professional and personal/family life than the one which was shown to exist in Silicon Valley a few years ago (where, for example, Google employees slept in caravans in order to be able to work 90-hour weeks). The movements to change the name of the company, which will be called We Company, are indicative of this comprehensive lifestyle and work proposal.
These transformations of the labour market are obviously not only related to nomadism, but also affect the whole of the digital economy in general. However, the people who are permanently roaming will find it more difficult to participate in the incipient attempts to organize the people who work under the rules of the gig economy and the “on-demand economy” (such as, for example, this British union) and will therefore be less protected.
Although freelance work is the general formula and the coworking space is the essential habitat, one particular case of digital nomadism which has specific effects on the labour markets of cities is that of the people who gain access to salaried employment, but who deliberately request short-term contracts (or simply leave the job after a few months) in order to continue with their plans to travel around the world. It is not in vain that many companies in the digital economy are setting up in coworking spaces, allowing them to attract and temporarily integrate this “itinerant voluntarily precariousness” and have given rise to a new property business model known as Space as a Service, adding to the gentrifying pressures already existing in many cities.
The nature of this new way of working also makes it difficult to connect with local society. This would appear to be a generalized phenomenon: the communities of digital nomads are very endogamous, exclusively using English to communicate and not becoming involved in the local network of associations. Despite the fact that there are examples of efforts to contribute to greater integration in some countries, the negative consequences of this lack of integration are more notorious in cities where economic, social and cultural differences between those who arrive and the local population are greater. Even so, some countries offer support especially aimed at this community of workers, such as specific visas (Estonia).
Another sphere on which more information is needed and appropriate policies need to be implemented by cities is that of the fulfilment of tax and labour obligations by digital nomads. What taxes and what social security should a Brazilian professional pay who translates for five months in Barcelona texts into Chinese for an Atlanta company which belongs to a Korean group? Although there might be an adequate answer to this question from a legal viewpoint, the truth is that the lack of knowledge and, therefore, of control of this kind of labour practice is the norm.
Finally, it is especially important to know in detail what the incidence of the phenomenon of digital nomads is on the housing market of the cities which receive them. It is obvious that we can consider both digital nomadism and coliving as aspects which still have a lower global and local impact than other activities such as tourism, but it is important to keep an eye on their development, above all in highly sensitive areas of cities which are also, logically, the most attractive in which to set up. In relation to tourist accommodation, for example, the regulations established by many cities to limit its proliferation and prevent the progressive replacement of residential uses, may be rendered obsolete by this new form of temporary housing.
The case of Barcelona
The website Nomad List places Barcelona in 11th position on the global ranking of destinations preferred by digital nomads. We do not, however, have official statistical information about how many they are. Nomad List has a few more than 400 registered, while CODINO, a virtual community of digital nomads in the city, has over 1,900.
Being gentrification one of the most troubling issues in our city nowadays, it is very important to understand to what extend this phenomenon is consolidated and at what pace is it growing. Some of these digital nomads are working for big companies, sometimes in very specialised projects and with high salaries, and can afford housing near their employers’ premises, reinforcing the rising rents effect and, thus, the expulsion of locals from some areas of the city (e.g. 22@). Others, notably free-lancers but also less qualified digital workers, may live in more popular but well-connected neighbourhoods, contributing to the expansion of the gentrifying wave. However, we do not know much about where and how digital nomads live in our city and what their impact on the housing or labour market may be, although the first experiences of coliving have already arrived in the city, such as Coworkation or A Landing Pad.
What we do know is their view of the city. From the indicators used by Nomad List, and on the basis of the information provided by the over 100,000 people who are registered on it, we can indicate that Barcelona is the second most expensive city from among the top 50, London (no. 22 on the global ranking) being first on this indicator. The only red light (apart from the one that might be sporadically shown by the climate) also stands out, corresponding to the perception on racial tolerance, in a city which proclaims itself to be open and inclusive. On the positive side, the high ratings for aspects such as walkability, the environment for start-ups and workspaces can be highlighted.
In a recent study prepared by Isabel Cristina Parra, Riccardo Demurtas, Wing T. Dyana So and Yoana Stefanova for the Barcelona Metropolitan Strategic Plan, five strategies were identified with a view to developing more active public policies aimed at this group:
- Create attractive spaces for digital nomads in less densified areas of the metropolis or even in surrounding rural territories, such as the case of Pandorahub.
- Facilitate bureaucratic formalities, from visas to opening bank accounts or temporary registration with the social security, through a single point of contact to support and accompany digital nomads during their stay in the city.
- Integrate them into the city, creating spaces in which they can come into contact with locals with similar interests (not necessarily professionals).
- Create a network of coworking spaces which offers a wide range of potential connections for digital nomads with other members of the group and with local professionals.
- Promote the establishment of roots, encouraging longer stays and more connection with local society, permitting them to contribute to projects for the city and the community which receives them.
In short, Barcelona is an attractive city for companies from the digital economy, and also has characteristics which permit a lifestyle coveted by digital nomads. This explains the privileged position on rankings such as that of Nomad List, even though it is a much more expensive city than many cities appearing on the list. The combination of a good climate, a vibrant social and cultural life, the quality of the public space and support for entrepreneurial initiative has more weight than the obstacles existing. Converting this into a positive factor of development for the whole metropolis and not just an element of greater gentrification again requires a more in-depth analysis of the phenomenon and the implementation of appropriate public policies, to address both material (housing, services, etc.) and social/cultural (more integration) issues.
Oriol Estela is an economist and a geographer. He is a practitioner of local economic development since 1994, first as an independent consultant and later serving at the Barcelona Provincial Council (2005-2016), where he became Head of Economic Development Strategies (2012-2016). Since June of 2016 he is the General Coordinator of the Metropolitan Strategic Plan of Barcelona. He also coordinates the Chair Barcelona-UPF on Local Economic Policies since 2017. He has a long experience on delivering lectures and speeches about local development, urban/territorial strategic planning and local governance issues. He is a regular lecturer at IGLUS.