bookmark_borderCounterurbanisation and the corona crisis – or why this is the right time to buy a rural property

Our house
Our house.
I started writing this blog post back in October, long before anybody had even heard of the coronavirus. I didn’t post it at the time, mainly because I thought it was going to be slow change that would take years to manifest itself, so time was going to be on my side, and I might as well spend a bit longer adding more details. I was wrong – the pandemic has accelerated a change that had probably already started but was moving at a glacial pace, and I suspect things will now start happening really fast: People will move out of the large cities, leading to a repopulation of the countryside and to huge social problems in the shrinking metropolises.

Let’s start with a bit of history: For the past decades, large cities have grown and grown in most countries (and the larger they were to start with, they more they’ve grown), and the small towns, villages and the countryside have increasingly been deserted (or turned into holiday destinations). Several factors have been involved in this process, including:

  1. It has becoming rarer to stay in a job till retirement. This means that it has to be possible to find an equivalent or better job if you’re made redundant, and that is of course much easier if you’re staying in a large city.
  2. The fact that most families now consist of two main earners means that it has to be possible for both to find a good job – again, that’s much easier in a metropolis.
  3. The long-term migration towards the cities has had self-reinforcing effects. For instance, most villages have lost many of their shops, schools and public transport links – in some cases, nothing is left. As a result, living in the countryside means driving a lot – and not just yourself, but also your children. And in return, the cities have got more and more facilities and jobs.
  4. The cheap and abundant food made available by globalisation has made it rather pointless to have the ability to grow your own food (unless it’s a hobby). In the same way, producing your own energy has not in general been done for financial reasons.
  5. Because of falling property values in the countryside, in many countries banks have become rather reluctant to finance the purchase of rural properties. On the other hand, borrowing money for an overpriced flat in a large city has been relatively easy.

This might be about to change, however. Property prices in the cities have risen to crazy levels – young families have to live in tiny flats and/or in remote suburbs.

Currently a two-acre property with a house in good condition less than half an hour’s drive from Odense (Denmark’s third city) costs less than a typical two-bedroom flat in Copenhagen.

Fast and cheap broadband even in remote locations has made it easy to work from home, and if employers allow their employees to work from home most of the time, it makes perfect sense to buy a bigger and nicer house in the countryside instead of living in a cramped flat close to the job.

For a long time, employers seemed to be resisting the change, fearing their workers wouldn’t get anything done from home, but the coronavirus changed that. Forcing so many people to work from home for several months has been an amazing social experiment, and the conclusion in many workplaces has been that most of the work actually is easier to do from home, but that it’s useful to meet up for a couple of days a week to have meetings and have a cup of coffee with your colleagues.

If that’s the pattern that will eventually prevail, it becomes very feasible to live two to three hours away from the workplace. In small countries like Denmark, such as change will suddenly make it possible to live almost anywhere (apart from a few islands); in larger countries, some areas might of course still be too remote. It all depends on how often you have to turn up at the workplace in person – if you only have to go there once or twice a year, there’s hardly anywhere on the whole planet that’d be too remote.

So what will people be looking for, apart from fibre broadband? Good home offices are of course now a necessity, preferably with sound proofing so that you can work no matter what your kids are doing. And the corona lock-down demonstrated the value of having a garden, so that you can get fresh air and exercise even if you’re confined to your own property – although that might be a one-off issue that will quickly be forgotten.

We bought a rural property on a 2 1/2-acre plot of land (heated by geothermal energy) back in September, and it made the corona lock-down much easier to cope with. It’s not even that rural – we’re less than half an hour from the centre of Odense (Denmark’s third city), and 15-20 minutes from my job in Bogense, and it’s much cheaper than a smallish flat in Copenhagen.

Even before the corona crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested we weren’t alone. But now things are accelerating – see for instance this article in The Guardian:

The destinations where London househunters have registered to search in increasing numbers since lockdown include the Sussex beach town of Worthing, Ipswich in Suffolk and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where populations are at least twice as spread out as in the capital. The biggest increase was seen by estate agencies in Aylesbury Vale, in rural Buckinghamshire, where in April 2019, only 28% of people signing up for viewings were from London. Since Covid-19, that number has risen to 44%. Its rolling fields are around 30 times less populated than the London average.

And of course, if enough people start doing this, house prices will start falling in the metropolises and start rising in the areas people are moving to. Once these trends become noticeable, the effect will start reinforcing itself, as people in the large cities rush to sell before the value of their property drops too far while trying to snap up a nice house in the new hotspots before there’s nothing left.

Some people will of course be left in the cities – the ones who can’t leave because they have a job there that requires attendance (shop workers, museum guides, bus drivers and many more), the ones can’t afford to leave, and the ones who won’t leave for personal reasons. But if the cities suddenly are filled with empty, decaying houses, boarded-up shops and transport links that get worse every year, it will potentially become a huge problem to prevent them from turning into dystopias.

Of course I might be exaggerating, but my gut feeling tells me the counterurbanisation movement will get stronger over time, not weaker.

For instance, I expect several other independent developments to strengthen the development, such as:

  1. Self-driving (autonomous) cars and drones will make it much less cumbersome to live in remote locations, because they can deliver your shopping, take your kids to football practice, or drive you home from the pub when you’re over the limit.
  2. Global warming will probably lead to a reduction in air traffic, so living near an airport will be much less useful, and living in a place you actually like will become more important. (So people might not only move towards less densely populated places, but also towards places with a nice climate – for instance from north to south within the EU.)
  3. Farming robots will make it possible for everybody to grow their own food, with very little effort. Most people like the idea of having fresh vegetables and fruit in their garden but can’t be bothered with the practicalities. Once robots take over the chores, most people will want to do this – if they have enough space. It’s just so much easier to be self-sufficient if you have a few acres of land than if you live in a tiny flat.

This means that the ideal property should tick the following boxes:

  1. Not too far from workplaces (perhaps two to three hours from major employers, but time will tell)
  2. Good connectivity (5G, or 4G mobile network and fibre broadband, for instance)
  3. Decent road connexions (that self-driving cars will be able to navigate).
  4. Not threatened by an increase in sea levels
  5. Plenty of land to be self-sufficient.
  6. If it also is beautiful and has a pleasant climate, even better.
Your home office could have a view like this.

In the long term, I tend to believe Paul Mason was right in his book Post-Capitalism, and that automation (AI + robots) will eventually erode the value of labour, leaving only land (and other physical resources) as valuable.

See for instance my review of the use of the Labour Theory of Value in Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism:

We might thus be heading for a situation where value derives from land (for living on, growing food on and extracting materials from) and energy (which ultimately derives from land, too). So an app or a book will be practically free, whereas a house, a gold ring or a trip to Barbados will still cost real money.

[…] [W]e’re therefore not heading for a future without money. Even if you tried, you’d get USSR-style black markets and corruption in order to get the most attractive house or the newest smartphone before everybody else.

I guess the real question is where people will get money from in the first instance if their labour isn’t needed. Landowners will be rich, but apart from them only people doing important work (such as building and maintaining robots) will be necessary. The rest can then to some extent make money by providing personal services to the landowners and robot builders and to each other, but it doesn’t sound like a very prosperous future to me.

If I’m right, people will never move back into the cities, and the people left there will struggle more and more, because they’ll have to buy food, energy, clothes and other things that people in the countryside will be able to produce themselves. This is pure speculation, of course, but if I’m right, the sooner you swap your inner-city flat for a large rural property, the better – the early movers always make a better deal that the ones catching up.

bookmark_borderMull of the future?

(Also published on Arc of Prosperity.)

highland village photo
Photo by kingary
I woke up to the crowing of the rooster and the smell of freshly baked croissants.

My butler minion gently opened the door to my bedroom. “Would you like your breakfast in bed, master?” “That’d be great, Bob.”

Bob buzzed in on his wheels and served the croissants together with a gorgeous cup of cappuccino. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect recipe, and I finally found it on a website somewhere in Italy. It was worth the hassle, though. People keep asking me for it, but I’ll not share it for any less than 1kg of scrap copper.

“Master, what would you like for lunch?” asked Bob. “Perhaps a mushroom omelette? Tim found some lovely wild mushrooms in the forest this morning.” I grunted my approval. Tim is my foraging minion, and he always finds the best stuff. At least it sounded a bit more filling that the salads Bob has been feeding me for the past week – I guess my weight is back to where it should be. Not that Bob ever tells me.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked. “You’ve got dairy farm duty from 10 to 12, you’ve got a work meeting at 14.30, and finally you’ve invited your girlfriend for dinner at 19.00.”

I spent the next hour inspecting my home farm. The minions were zooming around me at the same time, collecting eggs, weeding the lettuce and cleaning out the pigsty. I love my home farm.

At 9.50 a car stopped outside the gate, and I strolled out and got in. Yukiko and Pierre, two of my neighbours, were already sitting in it – we do farm duty together. They greeted me with a cheery “Madainn mhath! Ciamar a tha sibh?” and we started chatting in Gaelic. It’s not our native language, and to be honest it probably would be easier to speak English together, but when the founders of our village decided to resurrect the village of Crackaig on the Isle of Mull, they decided that it should be Gaelic-speaking, so it’s now a requirement for moving to the village that you learn the language and use it when interacting with people. Fortunately language-learning is so easy these days – the linguist minions are just sublime language teachers.

At 10 o’clock the car stopped at the dairy farm, and we got out. The car zoomed away, either to park or to drive somebody else somewhere. My grandparents keep telling me that they used to drive cars themselves when they were young. It sounds like a really dangerous and wasteful way of going about it. Computers are obviously much better at driving than humans, and in those days every household had one or more cars, which meant that they spent most of the time being parked. Crazy.

Dairy farm duty is generally pretty easy. The minions do practically all the work, and all we need to do is basically to walk around and talk to the cows – humans can sometimes use their intuition to spot a problem that the minions have overlooked.

This was not one of the easiest days, however. It was time to say goodbye to two of the bulls and hand them over to the butcher minions. I walked with them up the hill, and then the minions led them away into a shed and did their stuff. The minions have perfected bovine psychology, so the bulls didn’t seem to feel any anxiety.

I’ve read that lots of people were going vegetarian or even vegan towards the end of the capitalist era. It was mainly a reaction against factory farming, however, so once people started repopulating the villages and producing almost all their food locally, they started eating meat again. This was reinforced by the realisation that microplastics were destroying the environment, and this led to a complete ban on the use of synthetic materials in clothing and footwear, and having access to leather thus became more important again.

The late capitalist society must have been pretty mad. Instead of feeding your food waste to your animals and letting your cows graze on unproductive stretches of grass, they threw the food waste into landfills and then grew cereals for the sole purpose of feeding animals which they kept in huge factory-like farms. Apparently they even killed many male calves at birth because it would be too expensive to raise them.

In our village most of our clothes are made out of wool, hemp or flax, and we mainly use leather shoes. That’s fairly typical for Scotland, but of course different materials get used in other countries.

I walked home after farm duty and then sat down to enjoy Bob’s delicious mushroom omelette.

Afterwards I stepped into the VR room to commence the work meeting. I’m part of a small team working on carbon capture technology to roll back global warming. We have created a virtual Greek olive grove as our work environment, based on Plato’s Academy. Lots of other people keep telling us that you want walls, chairs and blackboards in order to work efficiently, but we disagree. Sitting on blocks of marble dressed in a toga while munching on olives is great. To make it even more realistic, we’ve decided to adopt Ancient Greek as our working language. Yes, it’s mad, but we need a lot of creativity to come up with better ways to capture carbon, and creativity and madness are of course closely related.

It’s strange to think that schools for so long were mainly places to learn facts and techniques, when today they’re places to bring out everybody’s innate creativity. Of course you need a certain amount of knowledge and skills for your creativity to kick in, but at the end of the day computers are much better at every known task than humans – however, they’re still pretty bad at coming up with the new and surprising answers, and at dealing with new situations. So of course that’s what we humans have to focus on now.

After work I started getting ready for dinner with my girlfriend, Salome. I was going to bring her some flowers from my greenhouse, but in the end I quickly 3D-printed a pair of golden earrings for her using a traditional pattern from Guatemala.

Salome and I were going for sushi in a neighbouring village modelled on a traditional one from Hokkaidō. A lot of people said at the time that a traditional Japanese village doesn’t really belong on the Isle of Mull, but I must admit that it’s really nice to see something completely different without travelling more than 10 km. In fact, the idea is spreading. More and more villages get the builder minions to rebuild everything in some exotic style – just on Mull we’ve now got places that look like they belong in Bavaria, Viking Scandinavia, Māori New Zealand, and the Shire (from The Lord of the Rings books).

Over dinner we discussed whether we should go on holiday to Paris at some point. The old centre is supposed to be stunning, but like all other former cities it’s surrounded by enormous areas of crumbling ruins that still haven’t been converted back to villages and farmland.

At least the former cities aren’t dangerous in Europe. However, in many other parts of the world they never nationalised the land like they did here, so people who didn’t own any land were left practically destitute when the value of labour dropped to nearly zero after capitalism collapsed. They’re now typically living in the skyscraper ruins and trying to make a living selling personal services (mainly sex) to everybody else. It’s horrible, and we’re so lucky in Europe where we introduced a universal basic income early on and then nationalised the land and gave everybody the right to borrow a plot for the rest of their lives.

Of course it would take a while to get to Paris – flying is completely prohibited for holiday purposes – but we could sail there or take a sleeper car, and that’s good fun in its own right.

We took a boat back to Salome’s village. Life on Mull is pretty good.

bookmark_borderTesla’s model doesn’t work

Testing the Tesla autopilot (self driving mode)
Testing the Tesla autopilot (self driving mode).
It’s been revealed that the first person ever has been killed in a crash by a self-driving car:

The 7 May accident occurred in Williston, Florida, after the driver, Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio put his Model S into Tesla’s autopilot mode, which is able to control the car during highway driving.

Against a bright spring sky, the car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway, Tesla said. The car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer, “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”, Tesla said in a blog post.

In spite of this, I still believe self-driving cars will take over. However, it does highlight one fallacy, namely the idea that a human driver can be expected to supervise a near-perfect self-driving car.

Just think about it: If your car has been driving perfectly for a whole year, would you find it easy to keep your eyes glued to road and your hands to the steering wheel, just in case the car’s computer has a nervous breakdown? Wouldn’t you start playing with your smartphone, eat a sandwich or even doze off for ten minutes?

What this accident shows is that Google’s model (where the car is fully autonomous and the passengers don’t have access to a steering wheel) is correct, and Tesla’s is doomed. If a car is driving on its own, nobody should pretend that a human is ultimately in charge.

bookmark_borderNo normal person will ever own a self-driving car

Google prototype self-driving car
Google prototype self-driving car.
A few things I’ve read recently have convinced me that the average punter will never own a self-driving car.

The main reason for this is that they’re going to be significantly more expensive than an old-fashioned car, mainly because of all the sensors. As pointed out recently in the New York Times, “[a]dding self-driving technology — at least as it stands now — into regular passenger cars could make them absurdly expensive for anyone without the cash of a Silicon Valley mogul. Until recently, the laser sensor used on the Google car project cost $75,000 [£50,000].” Even though that price is clearly going to come down, it’ll always be more expensive to produce a self-driving car than an old-fashioned one.

The additional costs mean that they need to be used much more than normal cars in order to recoup the cost. HGV lorries might (as mentioned in the article linked to above) adopt the technology first, because it means a lorry can then be on the road 24/7 with only one driver, which mean that the additional cost will be recouped quickly.

Normal, old-fashioned cars are just not used enough to make it worthwhile to make them so expensive. According to the RAC, the “average car is parked at home for 80% of the time, parked elsewhere for 16% of the time and is only on the move for 4% of the time.”

Because of this, a self-driving car only really makes economic sense if it’s being used as a taxi, so it’s no surprise that Uber are very interested in this area — they already have put self-driving cars on the road in Pittsburgh.

Even if some crazy individual were to buy a self-driving car, it would be a bit silly to park it when they’re not using it rather than letting it make some money on its own working for Uber or similar. Only multi-millionaires will buy a self-driving car and then leave it in the driveway.

So we aren’t going to replace our old car with a self-driving model. Instead, we’ll simply start using self-driving taxis more and more until we don’t see the point in owning a car any more. It probably won’t be long before young people can’t see any point in getting a driving licence, but I imagine companies like Uber might need to introduce subscription services covering all you transportation needs for a fixed monthly fee in order to tempt current drivers to give up their car.

The move to self-driving cars is of course going to be bad news for the majority of car manufacturers. If normal people don’t buy cars, there is absolutely no reason to have so many brands and models to choose from. It’ll probably be more like the situation in the aviation industry, where companies buy hundreds of planes and then decide how they want them to look.

bookmark_borderSelf-driving cars

I just discovered that Google have realised some videos that really show how revolutionary their self-driving cars will be. Have a look at the blind gentleman in this one, for instance:

It just demonstrates that the current discussions in many countries (where politicians are still in favour of having a human driver in each car who is legally responsible) are awfully silly. What kind of court would hold a blind man responsible for an injury caused by his car? Also, what if there’s nobody in the car (it might for instance be parking itself)?

It’s interesting that reducing the number of traffic injuries seems to be one of the things that are really motivating Google:

Personally I’m really looking forward to getting a self-driving car. It’ll be great to be able to do useful or fun things instead of watching motorway traffic, and it’ll be wonderful to be able to take the car home from a pub or sending the car up to school to get the kids.

I do wonder how self-driving cars will be furnished after a few years. Will they look like old-fashioned train compartments, where the passengers face each other across a table? Or will they look more like a living room, with comfy couches and a telly in the corner? Or perhaps like a caravan, with convertible beds and other useful things?

Also, will people actually want to own self-driving cars or will they just use them as cheap taxis? That would have the advantage that you could send for very different models depending on your journey, e.g., a tiny office-like car for going to work, a bedroom-like car for going to the 8am meeting in London, or a car full of toys for collecting kids from nursery.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that once self-driving cars become ubiquitous, they will dramatically change the way we live.

bookmark_borderAnother way to build cities



A House on Stilts
Originally uploaded by Steve Dinn

Fitting cars into cities at the same time as houses and people seems to be a really hard task.

Has it ever been tried, I wonder, to create a new town or city by designing the roads and parking spaces on an empty field, and then put in pillars and build the houses and green spaces on top of these?

In this way, cities would appear to be entirely traffic-free — there would just be gardens and lawns with pretty paths filling up the space between the houses — while the roads would be very straight and efficient, and quite safe too because of the lack of pedestrians on the roads.

It’s possible that it’s more expensive than I imagine to build houses and gardens on stilts, but apart from that I cannot see any problems with my idea.

Has it ever been tried?

bookmark_borderHand luggage



easyJet Titles
Originally uploaded by WexDub

A few years ago, the low-cost airlines started charging for checking in suitcases in the hope that people would start travelling with hand luggage only.

They seem to have been too successful: When I travelled to Paris yesterday with EasyJet, they asked for volunteers to have their hand luggage checked in for free, and the terms & conditions threatened that they had the right to check in your hand luggage if the plane is too full.

However, given you’re only allowed one piece of hand luggage, it’s likely to contain valuables, such as passports, tickets and laptops, and I wouldn’t be a happy bunny at all if they chucked my computer into the hold.

Surely the whole system needs to be redesigned. As I’ve suggested before, one solution could be to abolish checked-in luggage completely, let passengers carry all their luggage out to the plane, and then let them put the big items into the hold themselves, just as people do when they’re travelling by coach.

Alternatively, redesign the planes, abolishing the hold and increasing the luggage space available in the cabin.

Surely even EasyJet and Ryanair can come up with something better than the status quo!