Venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel was recently interviewed on the Fox Business Network on the city of the future. Thiel talked about the two major shortcomings of today’s city as a situs for knowledge work concentrated in centralized metro commute-in offices: transportation and housing. Transportation systems – roads, highways and public transit – are “badly inadequate” in most metros, Thiel said, and housing costs are exorbitant. Both leave knowledge workers with two bad choices. “People need to have super long commutes or live in small apartments near the city centers where they have to spend all of their salaries on the apartments,” Thiel explained.
That’s where information and communications technology (ICT) can provide a workaround by allowing knowledge work to be dispersed outside of urban centers, according to Thiel. ICT solves the housing problem since it provides access to more affordable housing while at the same time eliminating the need for daily commute trips.
The idea isn’t new and has spawned years of debate despite the strong benefit in solving the housing and transportation challenge ever since Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting” in the 1970s. That debate continues to play out nearly two decades into the new century among organizations – ironically including ICT innovators like Yahoo, HP, Apple and IBM – that resist substituting ICT for transportation, fearing a geographically dispersed workforce won’t be as productive or collaborative as one co-located in a centralized, commute-in office setting. Thiel explains:
The ICT version (of transportation) people have talked about for decades is telecommuting. And so would there be some way so that you won’t need transportation at all, you could just do your work remotely. For a variety of reasons this has not worked over the last 30, 40 years people have been talking about it. The [perceived] problem generally is that people who work from their homes, they don’t work as hard. A lot of the value of work comes from talking to people in various ways.
However, Thiel notes management practices are changing to overcome those concerns that concentrate on managing the production and delivery of the work product. That focus necessarily forces a degree of diligence and collaboration to get the work done, he implies.
I think we’re starting to see more and more of this telecommuting in Silicon Valley and elsewhere where people are finding small teams of developers outside of Silicon Valley, there are ways to sort of bundle, put the work in certain packages that you allocate to different people. So I think maybe one of the end runs around the transportation system will be telecommuting. That’s a trend that’s underrated that’s worth exploring a lot more.