Carl Rohde On Working Nomads And The Flexible City

Carl Rohde is a trendwatcher and the leader of a network of ‘coolhunters’ across the world. After many years of working as a professor at the University of Utrecht, Rohde started trendwatch agency Science of the Time.

Science of the Time produces scientific analysis containing large trends observed by his network of coolhunters. “Trends are sustainable developments which come up in a society”, says Rohde. “That is something different than a hype, which is brief and less crucial.” I spoke with Rohde about the ‘Pop-up City’, the new city dwellers, the so-called ‘working nomads’ and the demands of new hybrid lifestyles for the contemporary urban networks.

In The Economist of April 15, a series of articles was devoted to the so-called ‘working nomads’ as a rising phenomenon in cities throughout the world. Wireless communication increasingly changes the way people work, live with each other and deal with space. Laptops, wireless internet, online software services (like Google Docs) and advanced mobile phones are making it more and more easy to live and work location independently. Previously, all activities a person undertook in his daily patterns were linked to a burial space: home, workplace, car and bedroom. However, it’s a fact that an increasing number of activities merge spatially. A basis of another ‘daily urban system’ is created. Not only on a daily scale are many people increasingly independent of the bond with classical and specified spaces. Throughout life, many people are less and less linked to traditional concepts of places and matching personal and financial arrangements such as insurance, mortgages and pensions, which have determined the relationship between employment, income and housing during the last century.

Working nomads create a new lifestyle in which people have a whole different band with the world around them. This development will change the function of the city. Just like their namesakes in the desert, working nomads don’t have built permanent structures around themselves. They are moving from one oasis to another, untied to home and workplace. These oases are the places in the city where conditions are optimal for this new lifestyle. Places located around the major hubs of global networks of knowledge, ideas and economy: the world cities.

Is the story of the working nomads a trend of importance (a sustainable development) or just a bubble? It’s evident that this phenomenon of ‘dissolution’ of man and place is currently taking place in the larger cities in the western world. To determine whether this is an important development, it’s necessary to know for how many people the working nomad lifestyle is living. In case it’s a group of twenty percent of the population who deal with the phenomenon (this is a realistic prospect), then one can state this is a fundamental movement in which new concepts are needed. It’s certainly a sustainable development that will not simply disappear quickly. The supporting technical resources will be just expanding, so it will be there for a long time. It’s interesting to examine the importance of working nomad lifestyles for urban development. The need for mobile concepts will increase, especially in creative professions. Mainly in those professions people are experimenting with new relationships between work and private time and the house and the workplace.

This trend is strongly linked to another megatrend: the creative class. Precisely creative professionals have the possibility of living like a working nomad. Furthermore, they are fashionable and always looking for new incentives and impulses. According to Richard Florida’s publications, successful cities offer a continuous change and thus an interesting, experimental living environment. In the Netherlands there are a large number of cities that want to attract the creative class, like already Haarlem, Tilburg, The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht. Besides a megatrend, it is also a major policy hype. Rohde: “We must not forget that it’s a new and relatively small group of people who want the flexible and dynamic thing. There is a much larger other group of people: those other eighty percent. Many, many people are not waiting for mobile, flexible and rapid urbanisation. They just want to come home every day, conviviality, a cup of coffee in the same chair and potatoes at dinner time. They are very much attached to certain fixed patterns and habits. And that’s okay!”

What do the working nomads want and what can be their demands for the contemporary city?
“I’m one of them, actually. For example, I haven’t been home for the last three days. I love lighter laptops and wireless internet everywhere. But life in hotels isn’t really satisfying. It’s impersonal and it doesn’t feel like a second home. I think there are many working nomads in need of a place where you can feel at home, independent from where you are.” Science of the Time is a network of coolhunters across the world. “I’ve got loose ties with all these people, even with my employees who do analysis. We don’t have an office, everybody works from home. We have a strong server where everyone uploads his information.”

The employees of Rohde are location-independent. “That’s a trend in modern industrial relations. A job is no longer a commitment that leads to a gold watch at retirement. Many youngsters are freelance and hire themselves out for a specific project. ‘Location Independent Professionals’ aren’t tied to a fixed place in their daily patterns. They can work at home, in a park or in a cafe. But if they want to they can also easily work in another city: Berlin, Paris, Washington or New York. Almost all these new nomads move across the world. They often have a strong social life. This can be very tiring. That means there is also an automatic ‘countertrend’. It’s precisely this group that wants it slow sometimes, extremely slow, on a self-determined time and location. A whole evening hanging out with friends gaming and not thinking of what time it is. Or an entire morning of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. These slow concepts are a megatrend that you can notice everywhere.”

How can now this all be implemented in the current forms of planning?
“Those municipalities that like a creative city are unable give shape to this idea and perhaps they shouldn’t even want to do so. Trends are increasingly affecting the cities and what people expect from a city. The physical layout of cities has always been tied to permanent structures. These do not change along with society. Therefore, the challenge is deal with these traditional structures the proper way. The classic spatial organisation (between municipalities, developers, builders, architects and urban planners) doesn’t have concepts. You will see new developments around flexible forms of urbanism. Other parties start to experiment with the temporary dimension of urban areas. Dutch street fashion magazine CODE is running a temporary space project in Amsterdam’s Red Light District and Blend (another fashion magazine) is doing such a project in Rotterdam, in the area between the central station and the former Hofplein train station.”

In addition to flexible pop-up concepts and the shaping of the pop-up city there is a tremendous need to preserve traditional urban areas where we can refer to the past. Those places are crucial for our collective identity and are therefore of importance to the society. That proves the popularity of the classic parts of Amsterdam. The flexible city and the ‘slow concepts’ are conflicting topics. However, both types of device should exist side by side.