Imagine the following scenario.
You run a growing business in New York City, an entrepreneurial company that has an exciting new technology to improve the effectiveness of solar power generation. You have a design team working on a bet-the-business heat exchanger that uses magnetic materials to be three times as efficient as anything on the market. But a crisis has developed. Mere days away from unveiling the first prototype, the project has hit a serious roadblock.
You have gathered the team in the main conference room. The current version of the prototype is set in the middle of the table. You look around the room, taking in each of the faces before you. You see that Sylvia, who is a brilliant junior member of the team, seems particularly agitated.
You ask Stan, your team lead, to give a status report. Stan has thrown together a quick visual presentation including video of the latest test runs, data charts and analysis. You watch the video intently, occasionally grabbing a pointer and highlighting items about which you have questions.
After Stan’s report the discussion begins in earnest. You are pacing the room, listening to the debate. Stan suspects a problem with the magnetic inductors but the two-person team who worked on the inductors remains adamant that they are nominal. Out of the corner of your eye you can see that Sylvia really wants to say something. You turn and walk over to her, facing her directly. “You have another idea?” “Yes sir I do,” she replies.
Sylvia has run some tests and is convinced that there is an impurity in the device’s shell that is disturbing the magnetic fields right where the device narrows. Intrigued, you go to the table and pick up the prototype. You turn it over, looking at the narrow section. Sylvia comes over and points to the area she is describing. “Good work,” you say and pat her on the shoulder. You order more tests and a bunch of pizza. It’s going to be a long afternoon for the team.
Of course, your afternoon is going to be better than theirs. Your team is sweating bullets in a small conference room in midtown Manhattan. You, on the other hand are looking at the Great Range from your living room in a beautiful house on Mountain Road off of Route 73, where you have been the entire time. A quick evening hike up Mount Jo to blow off some steam is in the plan, followed by a late dinner at Jimmy’s where you will boost the local economy to the tune of a nice Barolo, Calamari and two delicious tenderloins.
Fantasy? Science fiction? Nope. It’s coming.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are lots of ideas for bolstering the Adirondack economy that can be discussed and debated. Some are better than others. This one is a game-changer. Imagine a world where anyone whose career allowed them to work remotely was able to easily choose to live in a beautiful place like the Adirondacks with no loss in their ability to do their job. It’s not just our tech savvy entrepreneur from above who would meet that criterion: a retired law enforcement officer who was now a consultant; a literary agent; a software engineer; a writer or critic; an artist; an insurance claims processor; an advertising copy editor; a money manager; even a psychologist. In fact, in an evolving American economy that is ever more driven by knowledge workers, it could be any knowledge worker.
From my perspective last week’s Dispatch was one of my more innocuous columns – at least in comparison to others I have written promoting wilderness in the park. It contained three fairly non-controversial suggestions for ways we might bolster the economy by leveraging the Adirondacks as a wild place. Yet for some reason – I don’t know, maybe the change in Daylight Savings Time – it provoked the strongest and most divisive comments any of my Dispatches have ever gotten. I was disappointed to see too many of the arguments come back full circle to tired positions that have been hashed over endlessly. I’m more interested in an evolution towards something new.
Personal attacks aside, the common thread in the comments seemed to be a version of “Do you really think…?” as in “Do you really think that promoting outdoor education would have any effect on our economy?” or “Do you really think that the State buying more land helps the economy more than the displaced sportsmen would?” These kinds of comments feel stale and world-weary to me, as though nothing is going to change, as though everybody is a taker and selfish, as though we know better because we live here in the Adirondack grind and middle ground is not welcome.
So let me put to you this way: do I really believe that running some cable and connecting people to the internet can change the economic game in the Adirondacks? You bet your bacon I do. Because this isn’t a stale and tired kind of thing; this is a new frontier and quite fortunately we are poised to be able to take maximum advantage of it.
I need to call this new connected world of employment something. The most common term is telecommuting so I’ll use that even though it is not the perfect term. Whatever the label, I use it to mean working remotely from home as permanent condition, regardless of the physical location of either home or job.
The argument comes in two simple parts: first, telecommuting is a massive and growing economic opportunity that will become nothing less than a transformational part of the US economy; and second, the Adirondacks are ideally positioned to take advantage of it.
Economists are in agreement about the first part of my argument: the growth and impact of telecommuting is indisputable. On the one hand demographers have long noted increasing urbanization; in fact the year 2008 was the first year in human history that more people lived in towns and cities than in rural areas. On the other hand in the last four decades there has been a growing counter trend in America. The National Intelligence Council has studied this as part of their Global Trends 2030 Report, to be released at the end of the year. Here is a passage from one of the contributors, Xenia Dormandy, a Senior Fellow at Chatham House:
… This relates to the trend towards telecommuting. As statistics from Global Workplace Analytics show, in recent years there has been a significant upswing in telecommuting in the US (and perhaps elsewhere). Increasingly white collar workers are choosing to work from or near their home rather than commuting into the center of cities. New businesses have started up that provide offices for workers from different companies to come together and from which they can telecommute… …As more (relatively) wealthy individuals choose to live and spend time on the outskirts of cities or even in rural areas, working from there, they will invest more in these areas so bringing economic benefits. As communications technologies continue to improve and become cheaper, from conference calling to Skype to personal videoconferencing, this could have an impact on these other trends of rising inequality and urbanization and make less stark the consequences of the rural/urban divide…
The aforementioned Global Workplace Analytics, which does research in telecommuting trends, reports that while the overall workforce in America grew 4.3% between 2005 and 2011, the regular telecommuting workforce grew 73%. In CNN’s latest ranking of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, 85 of them promote telecommuting and nearly ten percent of them have more than half of their employees telecommuting. Cisco Systems, a leader in telecommuting, did its own study and concluded that it saves hundreds of millions of dollars per year by supporting work from home. Intel Corporation abandoned geographic work assignments long ago. Teams are scattered and employees can work from home or any Intel facility in the world.
The technological driver that enables telecommuting is a broadband or high-speed pipeline to the internet. A community or region that wants to catch the telecommuting wave must have broadband. But the presence of broadband itself has all kinds of economic benefits for a community in addition to allowing telecommuting. From improving work efficiencies to enabling distance education to reducing travel to supporting web-based shopping and on-line commerce, even to selling in global markets from the heart of the Forest Preserve, the economic benefits are pervasive. For those skeptics who want the details, I highly recommend this report from the International Telecommunications Union.
In short, the economic impact of telecommuting is already tremendous and it is rapidly increasing.
Telecommuting is an enabler of the growing counter trend to move to rural areas, sometimes referred to as the rural rebound. The statistics have fluctuated: before the mid-2000 recession there were two decades of overall growth in rural population; since the recession demographic movement in all directions has stagnated. But while the overall demographic shift is to urban areas, the number of people wanting to move back out to the countryside is increasing.
This has been studied in detail and the trends in rural growth are directly related to the social, cultural and recreational amenities available. While farming, manufacturing and mining rural counties have continued to lose population, recreational or scenic counties have seen increases. I refer you to the work of Dr. Kenneth Johnson of the Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire, from whom I quote in this 2012 paper:
“The demographic story was quite different in rural counties with natural amenities, recreational opportunities, or quality of life advantages. Counties rich in amenities have consistently been the fastest growing in rural America. Major concentrations of these counties exist in the mountain and coastal regions of the West, in the upper Great Lakes, in coastal and scenic areas of New England and upstate New York…”
In other words, people who seek healthy living, a longer active life, recreation, scenic beauty, a buttress against climate change, perhaps even real winters (as Saranac lake is promoting) are driving an unmistakable demographic population increase and they are looking for places like the Adirondacks.
It is easy to conclude that the first part of our argument is a given: the demand for telecommuting and the growing outflow to desirable rural areas is a significant economic opportunity. But are the Adirondacks really positioned to compete for this market? To quote Sarah Palin, “You Betcha!”
First, the Adirondacks are desirable, for all the reasons every reader knows. Wilderness is an increasing draw, as I have been arguing. The region’s location, not far from major cities and centers of technology, is good. There are marvelous educational institutions in and around the park. School systems are generally above average and some are first rate. Housing prices are generally pretty good – though not everywhere. The same is true with taxes.
The Adirondack climate used to be a negative and it may still be for many. But national demographic trends are changing that for the better. Migration to warmer climates is slowing as people place a higher priority on the quality of their environment, especially access to water. Availability of clean water is becoming much more important and the Adirondacks have no lack of that. Additionally more people want to preserve the experience of four seasons with snow even as climate change stands to considerably narrow the playing field for that experience.
With all that said, the Adirondacks’ natural amenities count for little if potential telecommuters can’t be connected to the rest of the world at the level they need. That means the park needs robust broadband connectivity.
Taking the long-term view, this can’t be just any broadband connectivity, especially if the Adirondacks are going to out-compete other desirable rural areas for relocating workers. The standards for remote work are changing rapidly and the sophistication with which remote workers will be able to interact with others is poised to take a quantum leap, almost certainly within five years. Consider the scenario at the beginning of this Dispatch: interacting fully with people and things in a room in which you are not physically present. Think a lower-level version of Star Trek’s holodeck, if you will. Much of the software knowledge needed to create that kind of virtual and augmented reality is already understood (and software is by far the hardest challenge), thanks in part to the incredible progress in computer graphics driven by the entertainment and movie industries. I spent most of my professional life in IT and I have good friends in that sector of the business. Trust me: as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The needed hardware – processing, memory, video devices, sensors – is rapidly catching up and dropping in price. What was unaffordable just a few years ago is now a commodity. And so it goes in the electronics world.
That leaves the network, which must be powerful enough to transmit the massive amount of information needed to make an interactive world out of bits and bytes. For a lot of people “broadband” means they have DSL or cable. An informal definition the industry often uses is a connection fast enough to stream video. These things take megabits per second of bandwidth. The near future of robust telecommuting, the kind that is called for in my scenario, the kind that can make the Adirondacks a marquee telecommuting draw, needs a connection a thousand times more powerful, or gigabits per second of bandwidth. Then it needs smart people to make it work, to pioneer it and prove the concept, to fund and build the infrastructure so that others can follow and so that economies of scale can start to exert their influence and social networks can draw in like-minded people.
You might think that of all places the Adirondacks would be nowhere near this kind of future; heck, much of the park can’t support anything more than unreliable dial-up connection, so this kind of far-out dreaming is just more pie-in-the-sky nonsense. But you’d be exactly wrong. The infrastructure, human and otherwise, for supporting telecommuting on a scale that can reset the economic arguments in the park is being built as I write this. Some very bright people with world-class credentials are working in the Adirondacks to make it happen; in fact from my professional viewpoint, having spoken at length with several of them, I am convinced it is going to happen, period. Soon, we will just need to market it.
These individuals are our new pioneers and the Adirondacks are their new frontier, as it was once a frontier for men and women generations past. The difference is that in the past the Adirondacks were harsh and hostile, not populated with roads and towns and stores. Most of all they were too far off the beaten path to compete with other places where people went to make their fortunes. Not anymore. Not if someone can work in New York City like they’re standing in it and live in Long Lake because they love it.
Next week: the state and future of broadband in the Adirondacks and the economic consequences that go with it.
Photo: View from the board room