Do you have this friend who always talks about her next city to live in? Or do you know this obnoxious guy who’s living in your city and is always trash-talking how your city operates? He’s probably from somewhere else and everything is better somewhere else, which is why he’ll move there after his “finding my true passion” year is finished.

If you do, you probably live in a city that I want to put into focus. If you don’t, think twice. You might be the person that’s painted in bad light here. But you might see yourself in a completely different light: You might call yourself “Young, mobile, educated, open-minded”. In Europe we call these people the “Erasmus Generation” and I am one of them. So this articles serves as a critical reminder that we are not only a source of goodness but that we might also cause a lot of unwanted problems.

So, here is the sales-pitch: I belong to an extremely mobile generation. I am writing this from my 4th home country, having volunteered for the Erasmus Student Network for several years and I met people from probably over 50 countries. I have no idea, I never counted them. Everyone in this circle of friends is proud of their mobility and my social media feeds are covered with people flying to places or moving somewhere else. I got my girlfriend a “Cities Book” and we are looking at cities such as Toronto, Sydney, Vienna, Berlin, London and Brussels for our future home. She’s from Naples and I am from Cologne.

We have two groups of friends. Those that are like us and those that are not. Some shiver at the idea of going to another city or even country for more than a vacation. Others, those that have experienced an exchange (or two or three), aren’t surprised the least bit about the fact that the two of us don’t know which continent we will live on next New Years Eve.

We are all terribly proud of what we can do and for good reason. The amount of experiences we have is exhilarating. I want to believe that we are also less likely to follow propaganda against other minorities or countries. I would never attack another country and kill another human, solely because a politician (manager) of my current, arbitrarily defined organizational unit that we call countries doesn’t like another manager of another such unit. And those entangled political situations such as those visible in the middle east right now are so wildly in-transparent that again, I would never be convinced to pick up a rifle and shoot another person who, under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed meeting in a little Jordanian restaurant in a city I decided to spend time in.

Mobility and explicit pride and fostering of multinational and multi ethnic circles of friends therefore has many benefits. My arrogant claim: If everyone had friends in many countries and if everyone had lived in a handful of them, large-scale conflicts caused by the reasons we see today would be far less likely.

The dark side

But there is a dark side to all of this and I don’t think many of us see this side. If everyone is as mobile as we are, then cities and regions have to cope with a completely different scale of population movement. 200 years ago the large majority of people died within a small radius of where they were born. Surely, some individuals moved around almost as freely as we do today. But those were a small number of elite academics.

Now, let’s imagine everyone having the mobility I have described above. Moving around the country and the world several times a lifetime, following the current stream of people and going by what the (socioeconomic) environment offers us. AI is the big hype right now and London seems to be the place to be for that. All those that like AI therefore think about moving to London, if they are willing to jump continent they will want to move to San Francisco or Shanghai. Similar patterns will be visible for robotics, cloud technologies, genetics, etc. Any field of profession that largely relies on cognitive work and where network effects support many people of the same field to live close together to collaborate will be susceptible to this kind of pattern. The pattern is nothing new. Brain Drain has been discussed many times.

Now, let’s look at the loser cities. It is largely accepted that the countryside has a massive brain drain and that many people move to the cities. But what if your city doesn’t have a world-class university and if your local or national government has been entangled in a few years of internal power struggles or just missed an opportunity to jump on the train for the next big thing? If you increase mobility starting from the top, i.e. when education and mobility is correlated, those that are left behind are less educated and lacking a competitive strength that is needed for economic equality. Formerly, people moved into the city, but now we move to the best city. That causes system dynamics that may lead to large populations without any ability to compete with other cities. Examples? Look at Detroit, look at Greece.

cover for post Photo in Detroit by Jorge Flores on Unsplash

Me and people like me, those that take pride in their mobility, open mindedness and skill set, we are a major factor of this problem. If we are not happy with our city and its investments in our field, we abandon it. And while we have every right to do so, the ease with which we make that choice leads to unforeseen consequences.

Detours reveal unexpected insights

I would like to paint you a picture of what I have seen in the city of Naples over the last 6 months. I started my trip down here by reading John Hoopers The Italians and my experiences often mirror his (with some risk of confirmation bias baked in).

This city, which has been titled as the “oldest continously inhabited city in the world” has many charms but one problem: It’s stagnating and there seems no way out. The city with the longest history has a future problem. Italy has historically been described as divided into the agricultural south and the service oriented and industrialized north. Naples suffers massive public transport issues, it’s universities don’t receive funding because the region has no money and, intuitively, it has an aging infrastructure. Stadiums, churches and streets are crumbling, and the society is locked in a weird conflict between extreme local pride and embarrassment for its current state. There is little to no English proficiency here which seems to be due to aged teaching methodologies being applied all over its schools. People are strangely unaware of what happens in the world. Italians have been described as quiet uninterested in foreign news stories, with national and local news dominating the air-time. They watch a lot of TV, but every show is translated.

Apple built a Developer Academy in Naples, although it has been suggested to maybe have something to do with them owing a few hundred million in taxes to the Italians. Other than this though, I was to this day not able to find a group of people that talk about software engineering in Naples. The meetup calendar is empty, and people really just don’t seem to care. Everyone has a smartphone but digital is something that comes from somewhere else. Naples makes good cheese, good Pizza, good <insert-food-here>. They will never stop to stress this. But this does not generate enough wealth for some 3 Million people. So, Italy in general and the south especially sees strong migration from highly skilled people. “Milan is different”, “Milan has everything”, “I’ll go to Milan”. Many of the people I talk to say Milan is the place to be. They were educated here, raised here and they leave their parents and grandparents behind while going up north to find a future. Meanwhile, it stands to reason what is worse: Loosing all your youth to other parts of the world or not having enough funding to push average waiting times for much-needed public transport below 30 minutes.

We have no system in place to help struggling cities! Some countries have systems in place to help individuals to receive social welfare checks but this is no solution… If we increase our mobility more and more, we will have stronger system dynamics, leading to stronger concentrations of winners in some places and losers in others.

Let’s trade players

If we want to continue the increasing mobility of people, something that I believe is just as much a right as speech or choice of friends, we need to be ready for an ever increasing difference between cities ability to compete with each other. There will be cities that are tech X cities while others will see almost nothing of this sector. Every city for itself must try to foster a network of people for new fields but if that fails and the new field is the source for a large part of global economic growth, adequate balancing mechanisms needs to be in place as to not punish those people who have worked in fields that now see a decline in demand. It is not fair for people in Detroit to be abandoned after having provided the US with their most iconic symbol of freedom for decades. London wasn’t home to all its bankers and AI specialists and San Francisco did not give birth to all of its software engineering talent. Yet they benefit greatly from those people.

There might be several models that could alleviate these differences: Financial support for under performing cities similar to schemes on national levels are the most intuitive and classical approach, although cutting out the middleman of the nation state might be a good idea.

I came up with something different that I believe might be worth discussing. Oddly enough, I just watched my first football match in a stadium last weekend. Football players switch their club by being traded. They get paid by their club but clubs can purchase players from each other. There is an obviously large mobility of players between clubs but there is also a similar two groups kind of structure. Some never change, some are very mobile. What if, just as with players, regions or cities are embedded in a similar system? If a PhD student of neuroscience who has been educated well and prepared for the future by a city leaves said city the day after her graduation, that city has just lost a large investment. And because of the flowing of human capital between regions, some regions have a larger loss than others who benefit greatly from the investment of others. But if each time a person transfers, a payment is transferred in exchange, the region that looses said person gains financial support to strengthen its position in a field that it might benefit from in the future.

Yes, this puts a price tag on every person who moves from place to place. Is this morally sound? To be honest, I have no idea. I am happy to hear arguments against this concept. The value would basically balance the persons future potential for value creation against the potential for cost inducement. Some might be worth more and some might be worth less. Obviously, it shouldn’t be possible to block people from moving because of their potential future costs (at least not more than is done today though borders, walls and immigration controls). It would however allow every region to benefit from bright minds that are originating from within its population, even if they end up moving to a place where all the others like them hang out at. It would give communities like Naples the financial freedom to invest into its strengths or to foster new strengths. It could create a tech community that doesn’t rely on a brand name from Cupertino. It could finally start having a subway line that runs past 10pm or reopen one of its largest churches which has been abandoned for over 20 years because no one has the money to clean it up. Or it could finally buy its Universities some computers so the librarians don’t need to manage everything with pen and paper anymore.

A path to follow

If a bright kid from the Greek Island Kreta turns out to have strong talent in the field of robotics, it will likely want to move to a place where its skills can be fostered. A lot of money lies in this field, surely more than in the production and sales of tomatoes and olive oil. This kid receives basic education and decides to move to Zurich when it turns 19. Zurich now educates it in the field and 4 years later it moves to Wolfsburg in Germany where it works for Volkswagen and generates millions in profit through advancements in production technology. How does Kreta benefit from this potential? Not at all. But if each time the person moved, a payment was performed between the regions, Kreta would have received compensation for the education and raising of said person and Zurich receives payment for its higher education investments. Even better, Kreta has an incentive to invest into its youth, because they have the largest potential to be both come up with new ideas that help the local region or, if they choose to leave, result in larger positive payment transfers. Now, this money can be invested in ensuring the local population remains pleased with the offers and the life quality of the region and it might (and should) even be invested to improve the regions attractiveness for its strengths, such as tourism, retreat opportunities or as a retirement destination.

Changing things, breaking things

The idea is fresh, raw and unchallenged. Break it, tell me why its wrong and let’s see if what comes out might be a compromise that is worth pursuing. I would be happy to hear if people agree and why as well.

The world is getting smaller in many ways. People like to reference the coach, train, car and plane as symbols to show how small the world is nowadays. But everyday life still happens in one city. Sure we travel around the world for vacation (although there are also arguments against that), but regular days happen in our cities and if our cities are systematically winning or loosing, that is something we need to compensate for. It’s easy for a software engineer like me to bitch about all the things that are wrong about my current city here in Italy. But then, I shouldn’t forget, most people here did not choose their city to have these problems. People didn’t decide to wait 30 minutes for their trains every morning. They didn’t decide to walk along the tracks because the train broke down again.

If we want our mobility and our pride, we might have to put a price tag on some things. So that those parts of the world that are being robbed of their bright minds get the means to ensure that this is not a permanent disparity. We trade goods and services, maybe it’s time we also trade humans. Oh that sounds so wrong. Not like the old days, please! But you get the idea!