De-urbanisation? How tech could repopulate the countrysides.

Disclaimer: there are more questions than answers in the following article. I want to start a conversation, with myself if no one else. I say a bunch of stuff which you should consider as untested hypothesis.

I’m currently in Japan, visiting the closest thing much of Japan has to a rural area — a small town tucked like many in the crevasse of a mountain range, joined by others like it like pearls on a string of small roads that wind along rivers, underneath the mountain peaks and highways that cross above.

Not a great photo but illustrates the previous description pretty well. This is the carpark of a “last supermarket” — you encounter less modernity as you drive into the moutains.

I’m not seeing many young people. Two generations of young people have sought to move into the major towns and cities, leaving behind grandparents and great grandparents (because they live that long). If the trend does not reverse most of rural Japan will have no one living in it and no one visiting it.

A deserted house in Odai, Mie Prefecture, Japan.

It is sad to see beautiful old buildings, many already in various states of disrepair, and wonder who would take care of them in twenty years, or whether they would eventually be swallowed into the surroundings. While this will probably happen, I can’t help but dream of a future where at least some countryside communities are reborn.

Compared to my home country Australia, rural Japan is extremely rich. It’s completely reasonable that some people would want to live there. There are efforts governmental and organisational, being made in Japan to get young people back into the country. Check out the “Japan Organisation for Internal Migration” (you’ll need to translate the site) which serves as a hub for this movement.

Contributing Trends

The main question for rural futures is financial. How might living in such a place be viable? There are some current trends, riding on technology and mostly meaning some kind of decentralisation, that will help.

Accommodation / Sharing

AirBnb is one real and obvious way rehabilitating country residences could become profitable. Creating a residence that travellers (even form Japan) could stay in, might be very profitable, especially as land is not expensive and properties dying for renovation and plentiful. In my experience small towns and villiagers are very welcoming and accepting of visitors. We’ve stayed in such places, such as the Tea Field Villa in Odai.

Education

As education started to become accessible to the middle class, cities have flourished. The eventuation of non-institutionalised locationless education is essential for a thriving rural future.

The coming revolution in digitally empowered education will mean it’s easy to be compensated for expertise — unlike now where education is mostly institution based. Future training could come from anywhere as individuals are empowered to share their unique expertise. For example as a music producer, I recognise there is potential to monetise the streaming of making music. Likewise any people with expertise in particular crafts or software might find ways to share that value. There is huge room for innovation in democratising and decentralising education and the kudos to whoever first effectively matches students and teachers in a dyncamic needs-based context. Some of the base technology around micro-accreditation is already fairly stable (CMI5 and blockchain), but tracking activities is still an issue. It will likely need to be accompanied by a universal API for tracking one’s own activities.

Traditional Industries and Crafts.

If rural living is to be viable, it can’t be a bunch of individuals riding on a local infrastructure. It needs to be contrinbuting, invested individuals participating in a local eonomy, at least in part. Simply selling one’s service online do little to reinvigorate an area.

Rural work and the creation of physical products could work well in Japan where cultural goods are valued highly, for example Japanese rice (which is unique), Japanese Tea, ceramics and other produce. I imagine if such things become rare, their value will rise which might increase the desire to learn their production.

If you think times are too tough for craft-ware to validate their expense, think again!

There is even the option to digitally enhance the production of local crafts. Etsy is a site where indepdant producers can sell their wares — at the premium they deserve. They will be bought and paid for via the website and delivered by traditional post or courier. The existence of this hilights the viability of small, remote, craftware businesses.

If you’e not sure of the value of handmade craft products, consider that recently at the Finders Keepers markets which consist of hundreds of independent creators selling their work, I bought a tea cup for $50. You can buy traditional Japanese products for similar prices in Brisbane.

A young local takes on the mission improving the quality of the neighbourhood experience by opening the small, quaint Cafe めがね書房. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction and inspiration that comes from experiencing the integity of someone’s creativity or impassioned labour.

A Deteriorating Urban Experience

Cities could also start to force people out. Quality of life for the middle class in cities like my home city or Brisbane is falling — property prices have more than doubled in a decade while wages have barely changed. People are travelling an hour to work. The urban experience, in general, is deteriorating. This trend could slow urbanisation and make alternative livestyles more attractive, assuming they become more viable.

Travel Technology

Imrpoved travel technology could facilitate a future where we don’t have to choose between the country or the city. Work related travel will be far less needed (thanks to AR and VR) and any travel will be accomplished in far less time, making it viable to live outside cities but work within them. The current era will probably be defined in the future by the necessity to travel hours, or migrate, for work.

Remote Work (AR & VR)

The remote collaboration of the future will be less like an advanced skype group chat and more like sitting with your co-workers — empowered by VR and AR. It will become preferrable to work in companies from a remote location — producitivy will be enhanced by the same VR experience that allows the remote collaboration. There will be little time lost in transit.

Invigorated Rural VS Industrial Production Zones

The worst future for any rural community is that it rather than evolve into something more dynamic, it is replaced by industrial or raw-commoddity production wastelands that do little more than serve the needs of the cities by means of industrial zones and monocultures.

Not all rural communities can or will be saved. Places close to city centers that present an opportunity for dynamic local economy might thrive. With reinvigorated local cultures and a diversified economies, perhaps future generations will not need to migrate to cities.

In countries like Japan and China whole generations of people have felt obliged to move away from their historical homes. I really hope the dichotomy of barren wasteland, industrial hell holes and unbearable cities will end in the next 50–100 years, and I think with some conscious direction, techology can empower this transition.