What does it mean to be a local? To be a part of a community? When I was in Montepulciano, Italy for a month, I went to the local butcher shop for fresh meat each week, was at the co-working space every day that overlooked the piazza, and made fast friends at my favorite restaurants. By the time I left, I had made lifelong friends with some and with others I would be quickly welcomed back into the fold. Yet when I was in Petoskey, Michigan for a year, I made a few friends, and would be recognized in a couple of places but I would feel like an outsider coming back in. Compare that to a warm welcome in Italy, how do you define what it means to be a local? Do you have to live somewhere for 3 months, 5 years, or more? Or is it based on the connections you make?
When my parents came to visit Ryan and I in Florence, I felt like a local taking them to all of my favorite places. I knew where to find the best leather purses for my Mom and I, we had lunch at our favorite spot at the market, and could easily navigate the narrow streets of the city. Yet I was only there for 2 months since we were working and traveling as digital nomads.
What triggered this post is that I was talking with a business incubator in Chapel Hill about what they do. While the program they offered was pretty standard, I am always curious about how organizations that serve the entrepreneur community think about digital nomads. Most know the term but are not targeting them or offer services for them in particular. (Digital nomads could be a mix of solopreneurs, working remotely for a corporation, business owners, or freelancers. It’s such a wide range that most of them would simply call themselves entrepreneurs.) To the incubator, community is defined as those in the geographic area. There is no right or wrong here, simply different perspectives and definitions.
With an estimated 1 billion digital nomads by 2035, there is a growing community of digital nomads as well as a subset creating products and services for other digital nomads. The entrepreneurs that define community geographically do not really have digital nomads on their radar and vice versa. That is what I find fascinating, is the intersection of the digital nomad and local entrepreneur community. At the end of the day, we are all entrepreneurs, it’s how we are defining our communities that is separating us.
I want to touch on the idea of destination marketing as well and how cities can attract digital nomads as it’s all connected. The circle is getting closer and closer together between how we live, work and travel. Some cities like Ann Arbor already have it in their economic development plan to attract digital nomads to the area, but many do not. As more of the workforce becomes virtual and can work from wherever, people will want to explore. How do businesses and communities balance that? What does it mean for how we define community and what a local is?
The local entrepreneur and startup scene is a great way to bridge the gap. There is a need for businesses to understand what it means to become virtual or work with virtual businesses and that it’s not as intimidating it sounds. While there is also a need for those who are virtual to understand how the local economy operates and how they can be more involved. Each has something to offer the other. Also, the digital nomad community is only going to continue to grow, we need to start thinking about what that means for businesses and organizations that serve businesses.
The reason I am pontificating on this is that I see this us vs them mentality when I talk to people who work full time in an office vs digital nomads as well as these unanswered questions. Often the first response from those in an office is “Oh I can’t do that!”. But you can! Then for the digital nomads, they tend to stick together and may not be active in the community they are living in.
After all, the true definition of community is a feeling of fellowship with others, at the end of the day we all have that in common weather we are working in an office or from a co-working space in a new city.
How do you feel about what it means to be local and a part of a community in this ever changing world?