There Will Be No Middle Ground in the Tussle for Brains and Bucks
Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow for applied research and foresight at Newcities
A year ago in this space I argued, “We are all ‘global nomads’ now”, and in the last few months both governments and the talent mobility-industrial-complex have finally begun to sit up and take notice. While the Omicron variant may have temporarily slammed shut borders after they had been gradually reopening, it’s also further loosened the grip of employers hell-bent on summoning their charges back to the office. As return-to-office deadlines recede forever into the future and companies drop their threats of remote work pay cuts, the opportunities for knowledge workers to pursue geopolitical arbitrage are becoming more concrete. Simultaneously, the biggest technological trends of the last year — “Web3” and “the Metaverse” — point to new possibilities for virtual citizenship that Estonia’s e-residents could have only dreamed of when the country’s pioneering program launched seven years ago. Where do these developments converge? Let’s begin.
Digital nomad power — immigration as a service
Barbados inaugurated the world’s first nomad visa in July 2020. Eighteen months later informal counts tally more than three-dozen nations offering one-year visas for remote workers, with the largest concentrations in Europe and the Caribbean. Argentina is poised to be next, with Buenos Aires boasting its combination of a warm climate, bucolic boulevards, relative safety, and — most of all — a weak currency to attract 22,000 nomads by this time next year.
In this regard, Argentina’s pitch is somewhat similar to that of Portugal, which is moving swiftly to become the nomad’s base of choice. In November, the nation passed one of the world’s strongest remote worker protection laws, forbidding employers from contacting staff outside working hours and from remotely monitoring their work. Labor minister Ana Mendes Godinho explicitly described the law as a safeguard and a selling point for nomads, laying the foundation for a comprehensive legislative framework to meet their needs.
The ardor is mutual as Portuguese cities consistently rank among the top destinations on sites such as Nomad List, which has since spawned the first immigration-as-a-service (IaaS?) platform, Rebase, designed to streamline residence applications and tax requirements for a heavily discounted rate of just USD 849. For that price, applicants receive an onboarding call, paperwork consultation, and tax advice (with the option for additional packages) to apply for non-habitual resident status typically through a “golden” (D7) visa.
Rebase promises that while Portugal is the first, it won’t be the last of the nations it offers. The site is indicative of the sea change happening in global talent mobility. Whereas before the pandemic employers had to push talent to accept foreign postings and offer support, now workers exert their own pull, challenging companies to support them wherever they choose to live — or else suffer the Great Resignation.
After speaking at Worldwide ERC’s Global Workforce Symposium in Chicago late last year — a confab for talent mobility professionals — I was approached by executives from multiple enterprise software firms debating whether to make their B2B offerings available to consumers. Needless to say, my answer was “yes”. Just as online banks such as Zopa were a boon for independent workers more than a decade ago an emerging Infrastructure as a Service tech stack offers the promise to be similarly transformative across borders.
The future is virtual, and geographical borders are losing their sway
Looking further ahead, the explosion of interest in cryptocurrencies, blockchain, non-fungible tokens, and their catchall term “Web3” over the last year points to extra-territorial possibilities for one’s virtual self. In October 2021, for example, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin ruminated on the idea of “crypto cities”, nodding to Miami and Nevada’s Reno as examples of cities experimenting with fundraising and governance on blockchain, but also imagining new forms of control divorced from terrestrial loyalties.
In a similar fashion, angel investor Balaji S. Srinivasan has spent much of the last decade advocating for cloud-based communities of like-minded individuals who should eventually commandeer local government or use Web3 tools to virtually secede altogether. In December last year, he and Move author Parag Khanna suggested that nations trapped between the USA and China in their thawing cold war create a new “aligned movement” of nations with interoperable crypto-citizenship. What might this look like?
For a hint let’s turn back to Barbados which last April appointed cryptocurrency pioneer Gabriel Abed ambassador to the UAE…and the Metaverse. In November 2021 Abed announced his government had formally acquired a plot of virtual real estate in Decentraland, the leading blockchain-based virtual world platform.
Speaking in December at a virtual panel I hosted on behalf of NewCities Abed speculated on potential partnerships with other nations to create e-residency partnerships with interoperability between trading blocs. “This opens up the door for Barbados to no longer be limited by its geography,” he said, “and levels the playing field by saying any nation may now participate because their size is no longer an issue. The creativity they bring to the table is what really matters.”
While Abed declined to offer further specifics, the intent was clear — 2022 will be the year nations either commit to luring international talent through the latter’s platform of choice, or the year they fall behind permanently in the arms race for talent. There is no in-between.
This essay was first published in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q1.