Farming rice near Ubud, Bali. Photo by

Can digital nomads make meaningful contributions to local communities?

Theresa Wong
Jul 24, 2017 · 9 min read

Meet Katrin. A digital marketing professional currently managing social media for a lifestyle company, she decides to spend the six months a year working remotely. Her first stop is Barcelona, where she rents an apartment for 3 months. Then, she decamps for island life, spending the next 3 months in Bali — an exotic, tropical island in faraway Indonesia, where friends have reported back on all-year beach and sun, good, cheap food, and a tribe of remote workers like herself.

Co-working spaces in places like Bali are meeting this trend head on, becoming the gatekeepers of a growing global phenomenon of mobile workers. The fact that co-working spaces are increasingly being started in developing countries like Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand adds a new level of complexity. Many of these countries have large local populations operating on much lower incomes and standards of living than digital nomads are used to.

Take Bali, for example. An island of 4.2 million people, Bali attracts about the same number of tourists each year. In spite of its long-standing reputation as one of the foremost tourist destinations in Asia, tourism has both benefited and taken a massive toll on society and environment. Bali has a severe plastic and , and 60% of the island’s watersheds have been .

The mission

Based on a number of pilot collaborations with local non-profit groups, , a co-working space in south Bali, organised a in April 2017 to understand how to make digital nomads active participants in local communities. Digital nomads like Katrin land with valuable skills at the cutting edge of digital media, software, marketing, graphic design, and programming, and not forgetting — plenty of passion and enthusiasm. Nomads, however, are by nature transitory, and their time to volunteer, limited.

Community projects, on the other hand, grow out of a passion to tackle long-standing problems like pollution, youth employment, and marginalisation of minorities. They are often strapped for resources, both physical and human. The brief of the Sustainable Communities Hackathon was to come up with a framework to guide the way co-working spaces and local community organisations can mutually benefit from an exchange of skills and knowledge. (You can read more about the organisation of the hackathon and .)

The big questions

The hackathon began with an evening of problem-setting; community projects came down, some a four-hour drive from the hills, and talked about what worked and what didn’t. Participants got an evening to mull on these challenges, and then it was time to pitch.

Nine out of ten pitches turned out to be technological solutions — platforms, apps, visualisation tools for bringing digital nomads and organisations with needs together. This was not surprising; given that participants were digital nomads living and working in Bali.

Our group formed around the only pitch that wasn’t about creating a platform or an app. We wanted to design a framework that would answer this simple question: What principles make for effective collaborations between co-working spaces and community projects?

We sat down and brainstormed, turning the wheel back and back again until we drilled down to first principles. What kinds of experiences are digital nomads after? What are the responsibilities of co-working spaces? How do local community projects — from waste management to education for orphaned children — work with a group of people they don’t know they can trust? How different are digital nomads from tourists, really, if they ship in and out, glide past a slideshow of the local-exotic, learn the words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and then move on?

Can we learn from international development?

We came from different backgrounds, but with a common passion of increasing the quality of interactions between visitors and place. We are frequent travellers, and three out of five of us were living in Bali. One of us (Sarah Jones) works in international aid and has been in Bali the longest (6 years). Another (Melanie Green) is determined that the guesthouse she runs in Jimbaran Bay is part of the solution, not the problem. One of us (Samara Partridge) brought along her rich experience in corporate change management and strategy, while one (Jennifer Geiser) is on her post-graduation trip, exploring alternative ways of work. Another () is climate change and development specialist who has worked on rural development issues.

Two of us work in international development, so we brought with us experience of the failures and successes of certain models of development aid. But we also had this insight: development workers are the original digital nomads, traditionally parachuted in from mostly Western countries since the 1950s to bring ‘expertise’ to developing nations. Since then, the international development industry has done a lot to include groups that have long been excluded — women, cis-gendered, minorities, local experts — as well as learning how to make expensive aid-delivered solutions last beyond the lifespan of a project.

This is what international development has had to learn the hard way: that before we launch yet another technological solution, we first needed to understand the moral and ethical basis of our thinking. In today’s co-working world, a tech solution could be an app that served as a communication platform. In the 1950s, it was mega-dams. Either way, when you’re working with communities, you need to make sure that you’re doing more good than harm, advocating a solution that not only works but can be self-sustaining over the medium to long term.

Principles for working together

Here’s a list of what we thought were essential to Katrin’s experience as a volunteer nomad, as well as to community projects meeting their goals:

1. The key is in long-term relationships between co-working spaces and community initiatives

When asked, both nomads and community projects were able to come up with a list of benefits and limits to working with each other. For projects, nomads brought essential skills like social media marketing and event-organizing, and an ability to attract attention to the cause. However, nomads often had full-time gigs, and depending on personal levels of commitment, ran the risk of dropping deadlines or projects entirely. For nomads, projects sometimes expected too much, or did not provide them with information to do their jobs in a timely manner.

Our team felt it was very important that arrangements need to be first worked out between the co-working space and the community project of interest. Goals and deadlines need to be set by both, ensuring that the project is mutually beneficial. Digital nomads then come into the picture, filling certain roles according to their skills.

2. Partnerships first, projects second

We need to view the relationship between co-working spaces and community initiatives as a long-term partnership. Even if projects are not ongoing, the relationship should be maintained so that information about changes flow between the two. This partnership could mean sponsored co-working hours for community project leaders and meeting spaces. Co-working spaces may be invited to take part in public fora or sit on the community project’s board. These aim to keep communication channels between the two healthy and build trust over time. This means that a co-working space could profit from hiring a long term engagement manager.

3. Projects and relationships are co-created

Often, in the rush of enthusiasm that characterizes some of the initial contact between co-working space and community group, a project is initiated without thought to due process and sustainability. As a result, time and effort spent by digital nomads on these projects have the potential to go to waste. When partnerships are priority and communication is strong, the needs arising from the community project (or indeed, vice versa) have time to arise as clear priorities. Projects can then be designed incorporating existing communication channels as well as a two-way learning approach.

4. Learning is two-way and iterative

The benefits to digital nomads from this experience can be invaluable. Nomads gain insight into projects that would be afforded to your regular tourist, such as a deeper understanding of how cultural, social and political norms define problems. Such experience can bring a lot to one’s CV, as well as an expanded view of problem-solving in non-Western environments.

We feel that in order to make sure projects undertaken in collaboration are of use and bring benefits to communities long after volunteer nomads leave, local staff should be trained not only take over the tasks, but be brought up to date with the skills and context (for example, social media marketing), so that they have the capacity to continue their journey of learning to connect and promote as technology shifts and their needs change.

5. As members move, there is potential for impact to ripple through the ecosystem, building collective intelligence

Digital nomads like Katrin gain a world of riches when they arrive in Bali not just with a three-month package at a co-working space, but a short-term role designing branding materials for a farmer’s cooperative looking to open a retail outlet. Katrin’s out visiting temples, but she also learns about the difficulties that farmers have had over the last couple of drought seasons, and the challenges of distributing produce, the legacy of Green Revolution rice seeds on modern small-scale farms, and why farmers are opting to be taxi drivers instead.

When she leaves, Katrin will have more than another notch on her CV — she will possess a deepened appreciation of the challenges of maintaining equitable food systems that will forever change the way she looks at food systems back in her home country.

Ultimately, we think that sustainable partnerships can help to build collective intelligence into this new emerging community of remote workers, and co-working spaces are a key part of this transformation.

The 4 ‘Co-s’

With the above criteria in mind, we came up with a vision we call the 4 ‘Co-s’ — particular apt when talking about co-working spaces and communities. Because it is trying to add value to its members, the co-working space takes the lead to assess community projects willing to work with it. We created an assessment framework, which lists questions such as: What is the organisation’s vision? Does it have a sound financial model? These give the co-working space guidelines on how best to structure the labour of their members, and to ensure that there is a foundation for the outcomes to be carried forward in the future.

Once the initial dance between co-working space and community project is established, they get together to create what we call a co-vision. Visioning is very important as both entities drill down to what’s important to both of them, and find a common frame of reference to guide their work together down the road. This vision governs their partnership.

For example, a new co-working space may be looking for a way to establish itself in the community, while the community project wishes to identity long-term donors to its project on starting a weaver’s cooperative in a district. While these goals may look like chalk and cheese, it is an important starting point. The two parties then work their way into a common vision through co-creation, for example, by creating a joint project that trains project staff in launching a social media presence directed at prospecting for grants, one that uses the up-to-date skills of the digital nomad towards a much-needed task for the project’s future survival.

Parties then identify co-benefits. It may be conventional to think volunteers work for the benefit of community projects, but there should be an honest reckoning of how each party will learn from each other. This may be an opportunity to add project sustainability as a core benefit. Projects that are designed to be maintained long after the volunteers have left are likely to have have longer-term benefits. Sustainability in terms of the character and terms of knowledge-transfer should be identified at the outset, not as an afterthought.

Lastly, co-learning is something we’re excited about, because it prioritises knowledge transfer both ways. This has great benefits to both sides long after the partnership is over. We believe that investing 10–20% of time in this partnership ensuring that project staff themselves are trained in project tasks themselves. Local staff learn the principles of social media marketing and how to fix code, rather than stand by and let Katrin take over its Instagram account or build a new e-mail distribution list for one month.

In summary, when guided by the principles of co-creation, co-benefits and co-learning, the co-vision of this partnership becomes oriented towards a set of clear values geared at longer-term impacts rather than short-term gain.

Concluding thoughts

We’d love to hear from you — are you a co-working space which needs a little strategic thinking about how to best work with local groups? Or are you a community project who could use some help in understanding what digital nomads and co-working spaces can do for you? Leave a comment here!

Special thanks to , , and partners for putting the hackathon together, and to the mentors for advice. Biggest thanks go to Team Sustainables for building this framework. This idea belongs to all of us.

Theresa Wong

Written by

Researcher and writer in sustainability, developing countries, climate change.

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