Culture & Collectives: Digital Nomads

Jacob Waites
IDEO CoLab Ventures
8 min readNov 21, 2017


This year, CoLab has been exploring how smart cities can create digital platforms for people, industries, and technologies. A smart city is any city that uses real-time data collected about its inhabitants and activities to improve its functions and manage resources more efficiently. While smart cities have a rich and extensive history, we’re inspired by the current ability of data, processing power, and connectivity to deliver on their promise. So far, our explorations have touched on four key themes: Movement, Curation, Culture, and Synthesis. In this post, we’ll explore the concept of culture.

Stay tuned for the next part of this series coming soon.

For centuries, people have migrated to cities to find work, community, and culture.

A new city might become a permanent home, or it might be a stopping point on a search for a better life. This migration is nothing new — during the Great Depression, hobos crisscrossed the United States in search of work. The transformative technology of the railway system enabled a way for people to chart their own course out of economic hardship, and gave rise to a way of life that persisted in hobo culture for decades to come. Eventually, after the Great Depression and as early as the 50s and 60s, people started traveling to work not just because they had to, but because they could.¹ In a very different world than their predecessors, these people had stand-up jobs and families but still chose to live their lives in a manner that didn’t conform to the traditional office workplace standard of society, brought together by a “common disdain for convention.” ²

Today, many of us still move around in search of work, but connective technologies (i.e. the internet) also enable the work to travel with us, so we can work from anywhere. This has given rise to a new type of traveling worker, the digital nomad, who has no permanent home, but lives and works while perpetually traveling. This group covers a wide range of people, from the highly-visible $5,000-per-post Instagram influencer, to the English teacher who sees teaching abroad as a way to travel the world while also living on a modest teacher’s salary.

An example of the overly-romanticized vision of the digital nomad lifestyle, that doesn’t speak to the challenges that some traveling workers face.

The term digital nomad might conjure a clichéd image of someone working on their laptop from a beach in the Caribbean or from within a tent parked in a remote location, but a more acute picture might be the person being kicked out of a local cafe for sitting too long without ordering something. This highlights the digital nomad’s cultural problem of finding a place to work that’s receptive to a work style (and, by proxy, a lifestyle) that doesn’t fit traditional norms. (This is a challenge also shared by freelancers, students, and many entrepreneurs.)

Getting to know Digital Nomads

CoLab’s interest in digital nomads was sparked by our explorations of tech-enabled smart cities, which present new ways for citizens and visitors to engage with civic life. Given technology’s potential to isolate as much as it connects, we felt the need to make sure that smart cities maintain (or enhance) community for all users of a city, even those just passing through.

We began with a round of user interviews with digital nomads, researching their day-to-day activities, pain points, and the values they held close after choosing to live life outside of the office.

(We’ll focus on three key learnings below, but a decent primer on the digital nomad life exists here.)

The “essential” work/travel items of one of the digital nomads the CoLab interviewed as part of our user research. She admits the stuffed hedgehog may not be a “necessity.”

Nomads are nomads for a variety of reasons

For some, perpetual travel is a romantic privilege because they are paid well by tech work or they produce branded content as highly sought-after influencers, but some of the digital nomads we spoke to did not work in tech. Many digital nomads choose this way of life partly because of rising housing costs and lack of permanent jobs at home. Choosing a digital nomad life is still a first-world option, but not all digital nomads have the same level of privilege or opportunities.

Nomads need help staying connected

A common thread that we saw throughout our research was isolation and lack of community among digital nomads — many complained of loneliness or a lack of creative energy in their work environment, which often varied by week. There was also no set method of communication between digital nomads unless they were close friends or communicating with other nomads that were far away via invite-only Slack channels.

Nomads need to quickly learn the customs and culture of an area

Another recurring theme across digital nomads was a need to get familiarized with a local region’s customs very quickly, especially for those traveling internationally. This helps nomads avoid being taken advantage of in a new place, but also helps them fit in with where they are. Today’s resources make this possible with a bit of googling or watching YouTube videos, but information can be incomplete, inaccurate, biased, or not specific enough to address micro-regional differences.

We were struck that, though they’ve replaced the rail car with the coffee shop wifi, digital nomads face some of the same challenges as their nomadic counterparts a century ago: understanding local culture, finding friendly places to work, and connecting with their community. While the enabling technologies and causes of nomadic work have drastically changed, the inherent “otherness” has not.

Today’s nomads face small problems compared with the extreme misfortune of the original hobos, but we were still inspired to think about how smart cities could help connect rather than further disenfranchise people. What if their was another means for these digital nomads to communicate with each other?

Visual Code, Invisible Meaning

Fortunately for us, a real-world communication method already exists in the history of our freight-hopping forbearers, who developed a visual code for communication among themselves, developing the symbols below.

The original Hobo lexicon (source)

The symbols were usually simple, consisting of 2–4 scratches, and most could be drawn in a single stroke. The symbols would provide directions, tips, or warnings for other hobos who knew their meaning.

What’s brilliant about this system is that much of it was recorded in plain sight, carved into post outside a house or scrawled on the wall of a building, but it only had meaning for people who were part of hobo subculture and spoke its visual language. Looking at a hobo symbol, it’s easy to imagine the traveling worker who just had such a strong experience they felt compelled to physically carve it into a nearby wall. You can almost picture the situation he’s referring to — see the symbol for “Kind woman lives here. Tell a pitiful story.” (Though we’ll never quite understand why the symbol for “free telephone” looks like a duck.)

A railrunner scratching hobo call signs into the wall of a building. These symbols were used to inform other hobos of everyday learnings for the next person who came along that knew how to read them. Illustration contains an image in the public domain from “Social life and customs” -Colonel Albert S. Evans

Translating Today’s Code

To help create community and connection among today’s nomads, we set out to create an updated lexicon of hobo signs. Much of it focuses on the intersection of data and modern-day data needs, plus the ability to be visible only to a relevant sub-community of people.

In this new era, our research pointed to wifi signal strength, upload speeds, and the patience of cafe owners as some of the inside information most valuable to today’s nomads. The outcome of our efforts became more of an artistic statement or manifesto, pointing to a system for connecting like-minded individuals through attachments to ideals that lie in certain geographic areas.

Our updated symbols for today’s digital nomads.

This exploration helped fuel the concept of a “Digital Nomad Collective,” which helps different communities use data to navigate smart cities. Nomads could label real world places with symbols from the lexicon to create digital geotags of the same information that only other nomads could see through a digital interface in our Lenscrafter prototype. Our lexicon also included a rudimentary code of ethics and tenets among nomads in a region. For these, we emulated the hobo code of ethics, creating into a modern day version for digital nomads.

Our hope is that this project will inspire this new type of worker to connect and thrive in the communities they move through, sharing their connection to the city with their transient compatriots.

At CoLab, we believe in the power of collaborative innovation. If you have ideas about how to put the Digital Nomad Collective into practice, thoughts about digital nomadism in general, or just want to talk, comment below or say hi on Twitter. We look forward to seeing what others do with this project.

Shoutout to the true hobos!

Lest we seem oblivious, we should note that traditional hobo culture is alive today. Moreover, we want to reiterate (what anyone knowledgeable about hobos will tell you) that the term “hobo” shouldn’t be pejorative! There is still a strong, though dwindling community of hobos across the US, that even meet up every year at the national hobo convention. Even millennials are hanging up traditional life to try out hobo life for a bit (for better or worse). Our interest in hobos is meant to celebrate their culture and build on their rich history. We encourage you to take a trip to Britt, IA to learn more!

[1] A quote from The Hobo Handbook, A Field Guide to Living by Your Own Rules — 2011 — Josh Mackdiscusses how hobo culture resurged in the 50s and 60s as a method of pursuing freedom and the refusing the life of a traditional workplace. “Hobos did not completely disappear, however. Though fewer in number, there were still people who refused to settle down and who saw the railroads as providing an unparalleled opportunity for a nomadic life of adventure. […] In the fifties and sixties, the Beat Generation took a piece of the rails as their own, adding an intellectual and spiritual twist to the American romance with the railroad that made hoboing somewhat of a rite of passage.” p.41–45

[2] On the difference between the more rugged and disadvantaged hobos gone by in comparison to intellectual hoboes laying the foundation of a new age Hoboes and Vagabonds: The Cultural Construction of the American Road Hero — 1992 — Jeffrey S. Brown“It is in the sharing of certain aspects of lifestyle and vision — a common disdain for convention, a common antipathy for authority, a common recourse to the road.” p. 98



Jacob Waites
IDEO CoLab Ventures

Interaction Design Lead at IDEO and Creative Director at Foremost. Big fan of tacos