Going Borderless & Hacking Time Zones
This story is part of a series of design fiction that explores what a new era of public service could look like in 2025, five years after COVID-19. Learn more here.
“It’s complicated.” That’s Sander’s stock answer whenever anyone asks him about his visa. As a citizen of Estonia and an in-demand journalist, Sander has had just about every kind of visa you can get: student, working holiday, employer-sponsored. These days, Sander works for a London-based firm at a studio in Singapore — and his visa expires in three weeks.
Back when he went to grad school in the Netherlands, Estonia wasn’t a member of the EU. Now, of course, Britain isn’t a member of the EU. Over the years, that has caused some serious headaches. But the biggest headache of all? Time zones. Right now it’s 9:00 a.m. here in Singapore and Sander has all his renewal paperwork ready to go. In the past, he might’ve had to fax everything over to an embassy in London and wait for them to fax it to another embassy in Tallinn, Estonia. The problem with that is bureaucratic offices all run on an old-fashioned schedule: eight to five, Monday through Friday. Total nightmare. And at the moment, it’s 2:00 a.m. in London, and 4:00 a.m. in Tallinn.
At least, that’s how it used to work. Even after the vaccinations, a lot of people didn’t want to work in an office ever again. And two years into the new era, 35% of work-from-home employees prefer “non-traditional hours.” Sander’s in luck, because both Estonia and the UK have teams of superstar public servants who are self-proclaimed night owls — and even in the wee hours of the morning, they’re ready to rock.
The governments leading the new era realized long ago the advantages of asynchrony. Whether it’s big business or the public sector, never having to roll out the “Closed” sign makes a lot of sense — and employees who work their preferred hours are happier than those who don’t have a choice. This has given rise to a fluidity of public services, which makes it easier for people to be borderless and follow their dreams. At the same time, it enables governments to collaborate on services even as they compete for talent, and meanwhile seamlessly collect taxes on the money those dreamers earn abroad.
Sander logs into OnePortal, the intergovernmental service platform, and instantly connects to Madge, the agent in the UK, as well as Darja, Madge’s Estonian counterpart. The lingua franca, for the moment, is English, and the three of them banter as Sander scans and uploads his renewal forms. He watches as two official stamps materialize in real time, first Britain’s and then Estonia’s. Sander’s visa is approved.
“You’re all sorted, love,” says Madge. “And it’s a good thing too, my shift’s about to end.”
“Really?” says Darja. “ Mine’s just beginning.”
How might we give both residents and public servants more access and more choice?
Where to go from here
There are numerous ways to take this profoundly unusual year as a chance to permanently transform. Governments at national and local levels that embrace this “reset opportunity” will emerge stronger. It’s time to listen to people, learn what has changed in their lives, and find new ways to address their needs.
These six provocations are more than hunches; we believe they will be critical territories in the new landscape of leadership. Read more about the visions behind these questions:
6. How might we give both residents and public servants more access and more choice?