Digital Nomads On the Steppe

In three months, on June 8, the world will gather in Astana for the Astana International Forum. The forum aims to bring people together to “chart a new way forward” through “greater dialogue” and to define “clear and actionable solutions” to the “challenges threatening our way of life.”

Quite ambitious!

Mark Beer OBE.

The Astana International Forum follows the World Economic Forum in Davos in January and the World Government Summit in Dubai in February, both of which were impressive gatherings, albeit in different climates. And what I have observed is that there is absolutely no consensus on the way forward for the world.

There is no effective dialogue (albeit there is plenty of monologue) and there is certainly no compromise or middle ground.

Take climate change. Governments have poured over $5 trillion into green energy subsidies in recent years, yet green energy only represents 2 percent more of the global energy mix than 20 years ago. The solution: some governments advocate spending more, others are heading back to coal.

In almost every sphere, governments are polarizing, and looking to defend national and sovereign priorities over transnational commitments. 

That’s not to say that governmental platitudes are reducing. Politicians still say what is needed to be re-elected or stay close to the center of power. On the international stage, ministers still say what the world wants to hear. But, in reality, nations are competing harder than ever for resources.

What does that mean for nations that have grown encumbered with inefficiency? That have organs of the state so bloated from years of incremental addition that they fail to deliver for the citizen? What happens to nations in which over 90 percent of the population are economically unproductive, and depend on state support? Or where over 45 percent of the workforce are employed by the state, with their salaries and golden pensions paid for by businesses struggling under ever heavier regulatory and tax burdens?

In those nations, taxpayers are growing weary of being taken for granted and are looking for an alternative.

Herald the rise of the digital nomad; a person who is both economically productive, and mobile. 

According to the Swiss foundation, Re-State, there are already 36 million digital nomads, representing $4 trillion of economic value (about the size of the German economy). They own their assets in a digital format, outside of the control of any nation and they are willing to break free of the geographical prison (their words) that they feel enslaves them.

They want to relocate to places that do not exert power through control, but rather which operate through collaboration. Nations that are willing to commit to delivery of government services of a high quality and good value, in return for which the nomad agrees to pay a set amount or rate of tax. And, should a government breach the contract, the nomad simply moves on.

What I found fascinating at the World Government Summit was the number of Presidents and Prime Ministers who spoke of their country’s commitment to the international order, whilst their Ministers of Economy spoke of their desire to attract talent and wealth from other countries.

Just look at the rise of countries offering digital nomad visas. Of the 52 countries currently issuing such a visa, quite a few are actually nice places to live – Bermuda, St Lucia, Mauritius, Seychelles and Dubai, UAE.

And what does that mean for the countries already struggling with the burden of an unproductive workforce, an unsustainable social care system, unaffordable state pensions and a declining tax income? Many feel that the best way forward is to limit the freedom of the digital nomad, and to build ever higher walls and barriers to keep them in.

Well, history is littered with the ruins of such nations and empires.

It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely and perhaps the same can be said for control and coercion. Governments can’t help but grow ever more dependent on control as the mechanism to deliver their objectives, forgetting that it is the people that control them, not the other way around.

The state belongs under the feet of the people, not over their heads.

As nations gather in Astana for the forum, I hope that the agenda allows for some discussion about the need for nations to do better. To better serve their citizens. To spend tax wisely. To encourage people to succeed and do well. To deliver high quality government services for a price that represents good value.

And to recognize that citizens, more so than ever before, are the customer and not the slave of the state.

The author is Professor Mark Beer OBE, Chairman of The Metis Institute, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network and an advisor to governments on transformation and preparing for the future.

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