Will Future Mobility Lead to Future Instability?

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Thomas Frey's picture

In 2008, I was asked to speak at the Leaders in Dubai Conference along with several world famous speakers like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giulliani, Tom Peters, and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn. Attending the conference were 1,200 world leaders and influencers from 40 different counties.

At the time, Dubai was a shining new star on the global stage, attracting the world’s best architects, building remarkable structures, tackling ingenious new projects, and raising the bar for creativity around the world.

However, everything happening in Dubai was because of foreign workers and foreign talent. At the time, foreigners made up about 85% of the population and 99% of the private work force.

Laborers working on high-rise buildings were easy to spot, all dressed in blue coveralls and wearing hardhats, riding commuter buses between the work sites and the labor camps they called home. Dubai had attracted over 1.2 million construction laborers from countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, all because of the attractive pay, approx. $225 per month which was roughly twice what they would have made back home.

Two years later, nearly all of these workers had returned home as the economic situation plummeted and all new construction ground to a halt. In the years ahead, mobile workforces like this will become even easier to attract. But at the same time, negative news will leave cities and towns empty and abandoned in its wake.

Increasing Our Mobility

If we live to be 70 years old, we get roughly 613,200 hours to live. That’s 365 days, times 70 years, times 24 hours. This is the time we have to enjoy, to love, to cry, to learn and to travel. And when it comes to travel, it’s getting easier and we’re doing more of it.

Here are some of the clues we’re seeing about how global speed and mobility has improved around the world:

  • Cross-border migration has increased 42% in the last decade, from 150 million to 214 million, with most of the traffic directed toward OECD countries. (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development)
  • The number of students traveling to other countries to attend college has risen from 2.1 million in 2002 to 3.4 million in 2009. Researchers project this number to grow to 8 million by 2020.
  • According to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. now has the largest percentage of its population foreign-born since the 1920s. 13%, or 40 million people, were born in other countries with the largest numbers coming from Mexico and Latin America.

Circumnavigating the Globe

It was less than 500 years ago when Magellan’s crew became the first to circumnavigate the globe, and it took them a little over 3 years to complete the journey. Magellan himself was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines, but his crew managed to complete the journey.

Since then, the time it’s taken to circumnavigate the world has shrunk dramatically. Here are a few of the records set along the way:

  • 1522 – Ferdinand Magellan – 3 Years
  • 1764 – John Byron – 2 Years
  • 1924 – US Air Service – 175 Days
  • 1929 – Hugo Eckener – 21 Days
  • 1931 – Wiley Post – 8 Days, 16 Hours
  • 1933 – Wiley Post – 7 Days, 19 Hours
  • 1949 – USAF B-50 Lucky Lady II – 94 Hours
  • 1961 – Yuri Gagarin – 1 Hour, 48 Minutes (First Russian Cosmonaut)
  • 1969 – Apollo 10 – 1 Hour – Astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan traveled at 24,790 mph (All-time human speed record)

Compressing the time it takes to travel around the earth from 3 years to 1 hour is indeed a huge accomplishment. But sadly, the all-time human speed record was set in 1969 and hasn’t improved since.

Distance Traveled Over a Lifetime

If we assume the average person in 1850 walked 4 miles a day, same as the average travel speed of the day, over a 50-year lifespan, they would have covered 73,000 miles over the course of their life.

Using the same assumption, that people travel an hour a day at the average transportation speed of that era, we can begin to get a picture of how mobility is changing how we live:

  • 1850 – Average speed 4 mph* – Traveling 4 miles per day X 50 year life expectancy = 73,000 miles.
  • 1900 – Average speed 8 mph* – Traveling 8 miles per day X 60 year life expectancy = 175,200 miles.
  • 1950 – Average speed 24 mph* – Traveling 24 miles per day X 70 year life expectancy = 613,200 miles.
  • 2000 – Average speed 75 mph* – Traveling 75 miles per day X 80 year life expectancy = 2,190,000 miles.
  • 2050 – Average speed 225 mph* – Traveling 225 miles per day X 90 year life expectancy = 7,391,250 miles.

* – Average speed based on Richard Florida’s calculations for the U.S. in his book titled “The Great Reset.”

Even though these numbers are rough estimates based on travel for people in the U.S., every country in the world has seen their mobility progressing along a similar growth curve.

To be sure, people who travel 7.4 million miles in their lifetime will have radically different ways of thinking about their life, their work, and future opportunities than people who lived 50 years earlier.

Implication of Increased Mobility

As we increase our mobility, we increase the fluidity of our workforce, our lifestyles, and our cultures. Opportunities will serve as attractors and negative influences will drive people away.

While our current thinking about mobility is centered around driving in cars, flying in planes, and the future vehicles that will be used to transport us, our ideas for improving mobility will begin to permeate virtually every system, procedure, regulation, and public policy we come into contact with.

The flow of humanity will tie directly to a region’s economy, its livelihood, and its sense of well-being. This is where true freedom is born. Yet wherever flow is optimized for its constituency, it creates large scale variability that can be detrimental to the region as a whole.

Here are some possible scenarios:

  • In countries with excessively high debt, and tax rates skyrocket to compensate for it, both people and businesses will vote with their feet and move away. Entire countries may experience a massive talent and brain drain as a result.
  • Countries that go to war will see increasingly high numbers of people deserting their countries to avoid the conflict.
  • Communities with the greatest job opportunities will see their populations mushroom over night. Similarly, areas with large numbers of layoffs and dying industries will turn into ghost towns equally as fast.
  • With society becoming increasingly mobile, people will be reluctant to make long-term commitments. As a result, all new mortgages will need to include a dropout clause, or dropout insurance, that kicks in if they suddenly need to leave.
  • Communities will increasingly be judged by their “freedom index” (drug laws, crime rates, police presence, etc.), their “happiness index” (cultural activities, overall friendliness, social tolerance, etc.), and their “opportunity index” (statistical odds of finding new opportunities when old ones go away.)
  • A single news story about better living conditions, healthier lifestyles, lower taxes, or ultra-engaging cultural events will cause hundreds, and perhaps thousands to move to new communities almost instantly.
  • Demographics shifts will be abrupt, hard to plan for, and will leave tremendous economic turmoil in their wake.
  • Countries will begin to compete for citizens, touting their strengths and benefits, at the same time trash-talking the countries they hope to draw from. For countries with rapidly declining populations, citizenship laws will be quickly revamped to make it easy and painless for people to claim new residency.
  • With increased transparency, virtually every governmental system will have to be reworked to include extra sensitivity to the fact that their actions could drive citizens away.

How many times over the past decade have you become frustrated with your community, city, state, or country? How many times have you wished you could move somewhere else?

As we have seen in the job market, the easier it is to switch jobs, the more people will switch. Similarly, when moving becomes easy, more people will move.

Final Thoughts

In February 2009, just 3 months after my visit to Dubai, news reports showed a record number of cars being abandoned at Dubai International Airport. The dust-covered Mercedes and BMW’s at the Dubai Airport were a telltale sign of the economic shifts that had just occurred there.

Public news services put the number of cars left at the airport at slightly over 3,000. But informal reports from Dubai bloggers described it as tens of thousands of vehicles abandoned around the city.

People who lost their jobs and were over-extended on their credit began a mass exodus, largely because of Sharia law, the Islamic code that deals severely with people who can’t pay their bills. Bouncing a check is punishable with jail time and debtor prisons are indeed alive and well in that part of the world.

People who abandoned their cars suddenly had an arrest warrant waiting for them should they ever try to reenter the country.

In 2008, 3.62 million foreign nationals lived among Dubai’s 864,000 residents. In 2009, reports showed the country was cancelling visas at a rate of 1,500 per day, and the city that was once on the verge of becoming the Las Vegas of the Middle East, was now quickly turning into a ghost town.

Unlike most communities, Dubai has a PR engine working overtime to compensate for all the negative reports. Today, three years later, they have managed to turn things around, and the outlook is much brighter.

Ratcheting forward 20 years, if this same type of incident were to happen in 2030, Dubai would very likely lose over 3 million foreign nationals in less than a month, and the economic fallout that followed would be catastrophic.

Mobility is a double-edged sword. The same systems and tools that make it easy for people and business, make it hard for cities and countries to govern. When countries attempt to limit mobility, they will also limit commerce. Over time, governments will need to learn a whole new set of rules before they can properly adapt to this new way of thinking.

About the author:

Thomas Frey is the innovation editor of THE FUTURIST magazine. This piece was originally posted on his Website, Futuristspeaker.com

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