Zoom Towns are not the answer

Zoom towns are not the answer

COVID-19 is affecting various areas of the country in very different ways. While many small towns and their residents face serious economic shocks, remote work has led some rural communities to experience a housing boom, with urban residents bidding far above sticker price to bring their families and newly remote-friendly jobs to the perceived safety of open space. 

We’ve been calling part of this trend the “Great Tech Migration.” And another name is now taking root: Zoom Towns, which NPR’s Planet Money defines as “places that are booming as remote work takes off,” mostly in small, rural areas. 

Some people might want to see this as the solution to rural America’s problems. That view has some merit: remote jobs and their freedom to work from anywhere could infuse needed tech talent into rural areas lacking those skills, reinvigorate housing markets and cultural amenities, and tapping into the benefits of less concentrated innovation. 

But it’s dangerous to think that Zoom Towns on their own will actually create inclusive and sustainable rural economies. Economic success is not just an infusion of money and people parachuting in. An influx of wealthy residents without a connection to their new communities could reify social inequalities, creating the same types of economic segregation too often seen in the current metro tech hubs. Lifelong residents might have different priorities than recent transplants and might also be shut out of the economic opportunities. Growth often does not trickle down, even in the rainy rural Midwest. 

So what can we do to harness the potential of remote work and a talent influx into rural America so that it benefits all rural residents? As we’ve consistently advocated, it will take a holistic ecosystems approach that offers pathways to economic opportunity for folks of all skill levels and backgrounds. The direct drivers of digital economy ecosystems will need to be built out to complement the new remote workers in town. 

Digital workforce development and support

Communities need training programs to provide workers with digital skills that support  the transition from learning to digital work. Building out these skilling opportunities is especially crucial now so workers who are unemployed or underemployed due to COVID have a pathway to sustainable employment. Currently, CORI is partnering with Udacity in select communities for the Future Is Digital Challenge.

Access to digital jobs

Communities need to connect capable workers with opportunities, including those from local tech employers and remote companies. New residents coming in with existing jobs are just not enough. Local institutions that have technology opportunities need to be identified—such as hospitals or banks—while simultaneously building relationships with new technologists to identify remote companies that are hiring.

Entrepreneur support and incubation

Communities need to provide mentorship, access to expertise, and training resources to support entrepreneur success, especially through an incubator or accelerator. One potentially incredible benefit of technologists moving to rural areas is increasing the talent density, which can spark entrepreneurship. Communities should be prepared to integrate new residents into ecosystems and encourage regular interactions where spontaneous ideas can translate into real products. We’ve already seen the power of rural entrepreneurship: Sho Rust moved home to Cape Girardeau, MO, from Los Angeles to launch Sho.ai, which has brought outside capital while also employing local talent. 

Access to capital

Attractive startups need to connect with potential investors, and communities need to leverage their networks and work with other communities to create a brand and scale to attract capital. Community-driven entrepreneurship only succeeds with this kind of capital access. When technologists moving in have connections to investors, communities should find ways to demonstrate how VC can make real social impact through regenerative wealth. 

Coworking, networking, and social spaces

Access to physical space is a critical piece to enable remote work and startups by making the digital economy visible and providing an area for knowledge sharing and collaboration. Physical spaces can also integrate new residents into the local ecosystem and drive shared benefits. For example, the Black River Innovation Campus in Springfield, VT, has seen an influx of coworking space users move into town, leading to productive idea generation and new opportunities for collaboration. 

In addition, we can use virtual connection to join rural communities to share successes on how they’re integrating new residents into strong ecosystems. And, of course, to make sure every rural community has the opportunity for a remote work bump, access to high speed broadband is needed, which we know is possible in small towns

The COVID-driven remote work revolution has shown that tech workers can do their job from anywhere, including in rural places, as long as there is connectivity. And we’ve seen a growing amount of anecdotes suggesting technologists have real interest in making this succeed. But, to make this happen—and to make it inclusive and equitable—communities will need to upgrade all components of their digital ecosystems. Only then will there be a rural Zoom boom that’s truly a boon. 

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