Introducing the New Nomad
It’s a drastic change from the days of placing all of one’s eggs in a single basket – sticking with one company for life, remaining in a fixed location, and accumulating as many things as the pay packet allows. Today, it is about mobility and lightweight-ness. Working from hither and thither and not putting down roots, paired with owning a minimum number of earthly goods, is the more desirable way to roll. Reflecting this tendency are services that cater to the nomadic lifestyle, in environments both urban and natural. The question is: what can the creators of houses and products, the makers and sellers, and the politicians usefully prepare in tandem?
Somewhere in a coffee place just round the corner from paradise, sits a bearded guy, a girl with shiny running shoes, a woman with a laptop. With a soy latte on the table and noise-cancellation headphones on, she quickly taps-out a couple of WhatsApp messages, writes a blog post, views a YouTube channel, updates an Instagram feed, and makes an Etsy store purchase; meanwhile responding to clients, customers, and followers in New York, Rio, and Tokyo before heading off to the beach for a late-morning surf and a green smoothie to go.
[caption id="attachment_11903" align="alignnone" width="1980"] NeueHouse - Gallery Stairs - Eric Laignel via Rockwell Group[/caption]
Even though this might sound like a clichéd stereotype, there is certainly a sense of magic to the idea of the new nomad. The current generation of experts and professionals – designers, software developers, yoga teachers, baristas, and consultants of all sorts – celebrate their independence like no other generation before them. Without a fixed place to call home or a job to last a lifetime – just a backpack full of things and a bit of storage space for any remaining belongings, they carry with them only as much as is really needed. Some aim to own no more than 100 items – including tools, underwear, and toothbrush, to achieve the freedom of minimalism; they have no bags to check in at the airport and are able to move cities whenever the time is right. All that is required is a laptop (or tablet or smartphone or watch) and a Wi-Fi connection to allow them to jump from place to place and from project to project. In this way, it makes perfect sense to belong to a global community of likeminded people rather than to the immediate neighbourhood. Openness is a given and sharing is the default mode – way more natural than having a boss.
[caption id="attachment_11902" align="alignnone" width="1980"] Betahaus Barcelona by Gabriele Merolli[/caption]
A growing number of cities accommodate these new nomads both at the formal and informal level. The rise of bike rentals, car-sharing schemes, and Airbnb places on offer clearly proves the point, as do special co-working spaces like betahaus in Berlin or fast-growing chains such as NeueHouse or WeWork, with its 16 locations featuring workspaces, seminar rooms, and auditoriums. These have become the most likely sorts of meeting spots and vibrant starting points for projects, professional as well as casual. For those who need a workshop more than an office, the global network of Fab Labs and makerspaces is a key source. Working with 3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC mills, they also provide the opportunity to encounter others, which is just as important as the technical facilities. This idea has also been picked up by NEW INC, an incubator at the New Museum in New York where artists and designers meet technologists to explore common or new ground. A whole economy of services can be built from and around such places.
Other conceptual projects, like the futuristic vehicle Secret Operation 610 by Studio Frank Havermans and RAAAF, or the Walking House by N55, lend a completely new meaning to the concept of mobile home. Quoting the title of a publication by Foster Huntington, “Home is where you park it.” Other unusual forms of accommodation include My Plus One, where a visitor books an apartment and a local person for a guided tour in one of five major European cities, or urban camping grounds like Bivouac by Thomas Stevenson, which utilise vacant roof spaces in industrial and commercial buildings.
[caption id="attachment_11905" align="alignnone" width="1980"] Walking House by N55[/caption]
With digital services at their disposal, the new nomads arrive with a mind-set very different from that of travellers of the past. They know where to stay and where to go, before their feet ever touch the ground. They know the best magazine store, the best temporary concert venue, and their next guitar teacher. They also most probably have a couple of dates scheduled before they arrive. Almost as if they have always been around, as if they were locals – but they are not.
[caption id="attachment_11990" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Secret Operation 610 by RAAAF and Studio Frank Havermans, picture by René de Wit[/caption]
What started as an opportunity for the few seems now to have grown into a larger trend, not fully mainstream but big enough to be recognisable everywhere from Thailand to Berlin-Neukölln. The new nomads have become an economic force, a cultural opportunity as well as a social challenge. Industries that had been based on the idea of a stable, lifelong home and workplace need to reinvent their proposals. The pressing questions are: What do urban nomads need? How would my product be one of the 100 that they retain? Will they be taking the LoftCube by Werner Aisslinger – a 30 to 82 square-meter UFO home – along, and will they situate it on top of a building or somewhere in a park? Are they up for flexible or multifunctional furniture, even in the smallest of living quarters, or are they instead focused on smart baggage and clothing, bulletproof hardware, and extensive online Cloud services to take to their shared office space? Vast challenges have arisen for designers, architects, urban planners, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and politicians.
Talking about politics: also yet to be explored is the effect on society. Whilst we are all looking at those who are now arriving as refugees – for many good reasons, the impact made by the new nomads on the local infrastructure seems for the most part to be ignored. As a group constantly on the move because they want to relocate, not because they have no choice, the new nomads might bring a level of openness, flair, and happiness with them, but how much do they really care about their location? Do they actually connect with local issues? Are they part of a solution? Who do they vote for? Where do they pay taxes? Would they ever stand up, demonstrate, or fight against oppression? Would you meet them at the next Taksim Square, Tiananmen Square, or Majdan upheaval? Or only somewhere between the easyJet check-in counter and the Star Alliance Frequent Flyer lounge?
[caption id="attachment_11908" align="alignnone" width="1536"] BIVOUAC by Thomas Stevenson, picture Mark Romisch[/caption]
It is very likely that more and more people will be on the move – for a variety of reasons – more and more often in future. At a time in which established creative hotspots like London are afraid of losing their talent due to high rents and inflated living costs, places like Portland and Detroit offer a better and more appealing life than New York and L.A. The new nomads are the ones who take part in developing a new culture in unusual or unexpected places, often resulting in the first step towards gentrification. They are up for a new context, new ways of living and working. Meeting co-workers in a café or clients in an urban farm comes naturally to them.
The magic inherent in the nomadic lifestyle is obvious, but perhaps it deserves a more conscious, more concerned, more sustainable approach, as in literally designing places, products, and processes that will not just leave a mark but will create a positive and lasting outcome. Otherwise, the nomads might find themselves in the situation that Judy Nichols described in her book Tree Huggers: “If you can work anywhere, anytime, then pretty soon you’re working everywhere all the time.” Think about it.
[caption id="attachment_11910" align="alignnone" width="1600"] BIVOUAC[/caption]