Last year I wrote two articles on the impact of remote work and the freelance revolution on struggling rural and urban economies here in the US. One piece talked about how secondary cities – I called them legacy cities because they typically played an important role in the development of their regional economy but, at some point, were left behind in population growth – saw remote work and freelancing as a means of renewal, creating opportunity both in the type of work and income. A second article described how innovative rural areas like Piute County in Utah had teamed up with educators at Utah State, employers and remote work experts to bring online, remote, jobs to rural communities in the County.
Without doubt, an emerging and important theme for the freelance revolution is freelancer interest in moving from high price urban areas to smaller city and, increasingly, rural environments. The trend is world-wide, as rural villages seek renewal, and professionals seek a different environment as remote work opportunities offer greater flexibility.
My articles describe how tech and greater openness to remotely performed work has combined to liberate freelance professionals from physical commuting, and enabling freelancers to live a rural shaker lifestyle. But, as social entrepreneur Diana Moret, founder of Pandorahub, points out, it’s not as easy as it looks. She says, “It’s one thing to aspire to a rural or small city life. But, quite another for newly rural freelancers and their families to do so in a way that succeeds for them and for their adopted neighbors and community.”
Consider this recent headline in PR Wire: “Homebuyer Interest in Rural Areas Rises, With Prices Up 11% in July.”
Or from Bloomberg: “Remote Workers Spur an Affordable Housing Crunch in Montana.”
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For individuals and families, the change of environments raises obvious challenges: distance from professional colleagues, access to broadband, dealing with the difficulty many freelancers experience in not knowing how to switch on and off work, or meet family members’ needs in adapting to new friends and schools, re-organizing one’s activities and priorities, and dealing with the stress of significant life change.
Recognizing that rural shaker failures result from of a lack of education and preparedness, Moret and her colleagues have created an inspiring freelance NGO. Think of Pandorahub as an incubator for those planning a rural shaker lifestyle made possible by remote work arrangements. Moret comes from a tech background and is a serial tech and social entrepreneur, and a serious DJ. Her solopreneurship in tech consulting and passion for music gave her the confidence to step out and in 2005 form an NGO called “DJ’s Against Hunger”. Now called “Act, Feed and Help”, it combined her political activism with social entrepreneurship, and put her on a path as a serial innovator. Over time, the NGO which she calls an “early Occupy” used electronic music events as a force for social impact in Barcelona, organizing events that brought together young people sharing an interest in music and a commitment to social change. Over time, the NGO organized education in music and film production for disadvantaged youth as well as producing annual music festivals that brought young activists together. It continues to this day.
DJ’s Against Hunger was a tipping point for Moret, leading to a journey of self-discovery. She recalled, “My family was from a small village that had been abandoned. I was returning to my roots. As I connected with a better way to live myself, it led to starting Pandorahub in 2014. Our goal was to create a better way to help people live and work in nature.”
Today, six years later, Pandorahub is an effective non-profit, helping individuals and villages find one another and create a real win-win for families and communities. It runs workshops and coaches individuals and families, and recently created an experience where people live and work together for two or more weeks in a facilitated experience of life in a small village. Now it’s all virtual, but plans are in place to return to real-life post-Covid 19. Pandorahub is also providing topic-based acceleration programs in rural areas like Comarca Garrotxa in Catalonia, a virtual program that engages locals – both newcomers and established civic entrepreneurs – in creating tangible opportunities for entrepreneurship and job creation. Future initiatives of Pandorahub on the drawing board involve deeper collaboration and best practice sharing with similar NGOs outside of Spain, lobbying for rural entrepreneurship, and working with rural communities to help sponsors and village leaders and members understand the role they can play in welcoming new people to the community.
There are two aspects of Moret and her colleagues’ work at Pandorahub that I find compelling. First, it’s a strong example of the role freelancers regularly play in non-commercial areas. Most writing about freelance platforms, including mine, focuses on the contribution of freelancers to startups and for-profit companies in various areas. But, freelancing is alive and well in the not-for-profit world.
Second, Pandorahub’s work spotlights the real-life work and family dynamics involved as more freelancers, working remotely, leave San Francisco for Jackson Hole Wyoming, NYC for rural Connecticut, or Paris for rural Normandy. According to one report, over 15 million US residents moved home during Covid 19, many of whom sought a more rural environment. The same trend is alive and well in Western Europe according to Reuters. Moret and others tell us: Be informed, be realistic, and be thoughtful before making the move from city to country. She explains, “Five years from now I hope we will have helped local rural communities to welcome urban professionals with balance and compassion, and I hope we will help urbanites be part of the community, to give back in equal measure.”
Similar to Moret’s organization, Swedish researchers are also focused on helping small communities deal with the influx of urban professionals created by Covid 19. GigLab, the Swedish government research effort to understand the freelance revolution, has sponsored research leading to the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative, a consortium of organizations to help rural communities and their new urban citizens adapt and thrive called the. As my Forbes colleague Adi Gaskell recently wrote about the GNAR project:
“The project provides communities with an online toolkit alongside a platform for peer-to-peer learning between communities and a series of educational events. If the transition to remote working is one that is likely to stick, then the lessons from these communities may be applicable in towns around the world that receive an influx of remote workers leaving cities. A lot of thought has been given to the impact on cities of workers leaving, but not as much on the towns that will receive these workers.
“’The main takeaway from our study and work with gateway communities is that these towns and cities need to plan ahead to manage change and the things that come with it … The goal of the GNAR Initiative is to help these places thrive and preserve the things that make them so special.’”
Pandorahub and GNAR remind us of the importance of preparation by both individual freelancers and communities: Many individuals who’ve applied a “ready-fire-aim” approach to relocation find themselves isolated from both their professional colleagues and their friendship community, often leading to illness and depression as well as lost productivity. The communities opening up to urban professionals also have work to do. Village leaders need to clarify their policies; for example, in rural Spanish villages, the role of local governments in acquiring abandoned farmhouses and prioritizing access. Villages need to be aware of investments needed to attract new remote workers, for example, ensuring broadband and other essential services. As populations increase, villages need to be mindful of infrastructure costs.
Pandorahub and GNAR are excellent examples of the kind of thought needed as technology de-concentrates the workplace. A report by the Population Reference Bureau notes:
“But since 1990, most nonmetropolitan areas have been enjoying a ‘rural rebound.’ More people are moving from urban to rural areas and fewer rural people are leaving. Combined with a modest natural increase in population (more births than deaths), these trends have produced another large rural population gain. This rebound is occurring in virtually every part of the (US) and is not limited to a single age group or kind of county. In all, some 600 more rural counties are growing in the 1990s than was the case during the 1980s.”
Technology makes it possible for organizations to support remote work, and freelancers are a population of professionals that benefit tremendously from the flexibility that tech provides. But Pandorahub and GNAR remind us that attracting freelancers, and other young urban professionals, to a rural environment is a significant change for both individuals and villages, requiring education, experience, and a clear eyed, informed, vision and plan. It’s a good lesson to remember.
Viva la revolution!