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The Downside of Density: Bursting the Tech (Location) Bubble

Re-Opening Means Opening the Tech Bubble

As the U.S. starts to re-open, people have begun to consider what the “new normal” will be when it comes to working in the office. One thing we know already is that we’re going to need to practice social distancing and take other preventive measures for months or even longer.

That’s really difficult if you’re talking about going back to work in a big urban downtown core packed with multi-story office buildings. The crowded elevators and open-plan cubicles of modern urban office life, not to mention packed coffee shops and jammed buses, are simply incompatible with social distancing and maintaining clean environments. (In Massachusetts, for example, the Governor’s reopening plan for offices set one date for the entire state – except Boston, which is on its own later timetable.)

While companies in those dense environments struggle to find ways to adapt, it’s likely that the return to work in an office will probably happen more rapidly (and more “normally”) in places with lower population densities, like Charlottesville, VA, Durham, NC and Columbus, OH where we operate our large offices. That could persuade some companies to move away from high-density tech corridors – and may finally help burst the bubble that can trap innovation.

In Praise of Lower Density

While offices everywhere have to deal with spacing, sanitizing and health-checks that never existed before, the environment for offices and workers in a lower-density community is a lot less challenging.

For one thing, buildings are lower, so people don’t need to use elevators all the time – less crowding and less touching of controls. Fewer people per building also means less crowding in common areas. When it comes to getting out of the office for some exercise during the day or to walk to the coffee shop, there’s plenty of room to keep your distance compared to a narrow city sidewalk.

Commuting in lower-density locations also rarely relies on transit. With many people living within a few miles on less busy streets with bike paths, lots of workers can bicycle to work in relative safety (bicycle sales are skyrocketing). If they drive solo, they also have a place to park, usually free; transit riders who take to their cars in big dense cities like San Francisco may not have anywhere to park, at any price.

Less Crowding, More Creativity

Of course, we didn’t choose our locations with a pandemic in mind. Our goal was to build a company that, while working on some very advanced technology, was also far from insular tech centers.

When Richard Florida published “The Rise of the Creative Class” several years ago, he argued that a region’s economic success would correlate with its level of diversity and its density. We’re great believers in diversity – our home cities are a very diverse place on many levels – but not so much when it comes to density. We’re much more aligned with the thinking behind Steve Case’s “Rise of the Rest” road trips. Bringing the benefits of technology to communities outside the traditional tech corridors is good for those places – both economically and in terms of building better communities. In turn, what we innovate in those communities will benefit greatly from the ideas and creativity that exist in those communities.

What we saw from the outset was a chance to get great people who wanted to do great work, but with a more relaxed way of life that enhances creativity. It also meant we would be joining a more diverse economy than the single-industry tech centers. Most important, it meant our team would be working and creating outside the “tech bubble.”

In Praise of Bursting the Tech (Location) Bubble

To me, living and working inside those bubbles is a detriment to creativity and innovation. Yes, you’re surrounded by a lot of very smart, motivated people with tech skills. And that’s the problem: When you surround yourself with people just like yourself – who look like you, share your background and education, demographics, politics – you tend to see everything through that blurred lens.

When you’re inside the bubble, It’s far too easy to use the environment around you as a focus group or proving ground for your ideas. If that’s how you see your audience, you tend to see problems from just one angle (or judge what is or isn’t a problem that needs solving). You also can fall into a trap of believing that great technology is a solution unto itself. But it’s hard to burst that bubble; it upends the pattern of urbanization of the last 100 years and is the antithesis of the sprawling “campuses” companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and others have built in the last 20 years in Silicon Valley.

The pandemic may be the pin that pricks the bubble. While more extensive working from home is going to be a permanent part of work (for those whose jobs allow it), we won’t eliminate the office. That is already forcing businesses to radically rethink where they locate, how their physical presence is structured, and what they and employees require in order to create safer workplaces. Those of us who proudly live in “Fly Over Country” can attest that the advantages of doing business in our ecosystems now may well outweigh the advantages of urban density, not just in the cost structure (which they alway have), but in the creativity of our teams as well.

Inevitably, that will lead some companies to relocate in less dense communities and regions, and for startups to begin their lives there as well, which is precisely the point that this article “The Pandemic May Forever Change the World’s Cities” made in the Washington Post on 20 May 2020. When this migration begins, these companies and their knowledge workers may discover the creativity advantages that exist outside the bubble. Innovation will be the better for it.

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