With the pandemic reshaping the way we work, many articles predict the demise of cities as startup hubs and promote the ascendancy of remote (and rural) tech capitals. While the technology-enabled exodus to remote workforces has been a blessing for companies operating under COVID-19 restrictions—and dramatically increased opportunities for disabled workers—don’t rush to that tiny rural town too soon. The attractions of cities are less enticing during a lockdown, to be sure. But in the long-term, metropolitan areas offer advantages that can’t be duplicated in fully remote settings.
The diversity of cities provides fertile ground for connecting with people who share similar passions and interests. Whatever your preference, whether personal or professional, cities have a large population of others who can spark and nurture creativity and innovation.
The suburban flight we saw in the 1950s and ’60s has reversed, led by younger people who value the amenities and attractions of urban life. Walkability and access to bike lanes and ride-share services allow reduced reliance on automobiles. Vibrant cultural scenes, restaurants, and retail are obviously big draws, which will become even more attractive on the other side of the pandemic.
Where people once retreated to suburbs when starting their families, many cities now have competitive and desirable schools—enhanced by nearby parks, museums, and child-friendly activities. As population density is increased, each individual’s carbon footprint is lowered. And there are huge economies of scale in areas like healthcare and public transportation.
Some cities are more suited to startups than others. While New York and London both have myriad startups, competition for resources from other industries (such as fashion, media, and finance) are increased. Smaller cities like San Francisco (where I live part of the year), Austin, and Lisbon hit the sweet spot in terms of their ability to offer the diversity of life for technology companies, while not being overwhelmed by bigger, more established concerns. It’s harder to create an amplified mindshare: We’re all about tech. A critical mass of similarly minded people helps to focus industry direction.
Companies that are city-centric also attract press coverage, which can be the difference between startup success and failure. A new business or product launched in a remote area is also far less likely to gain major media attention that is often crucial to investment capital. And while employees value the flexibility to work remote, junior employees especially are wary to be siloed in an area that doesn’t allow for networking and career advancement.
Still, not everyone can take advantage of the diverse opportunities offered by a city. People with limited education, or those working low-wage jobs to survive, might not have the means to advance into the tech ecosystem by way of, say, a coding bootcamp or networking opportunity. That’s why it’s crucial for cities to proactively address such inequalities.
While tech companies benefit from the advances that are allowing us to work remotely—I’m particularly excited about retreats and meetings in virtual reality—cities will remain strong and tech hubs are not heading for the hills. The biggest shakeout happened last year, with companies like Oracle and Tesla moving to Texas in ‘Texit’, and Goldman Sachs moving to Florida.
The simple reality is that tech hubs are not a zero-sum equation, and there will be multiple winners. The cities that continue to embrace a balanced approach to growth, culture, and affordability—while taking advantage of their respective unique offerings that make them special—will be a winning formula well into the future.
Vasco Pedro is the CEO and cofounder of Unbabel.