Tapping into the Gig Economy to Address Scotland’s Rural Population Crisis

Scotland is facing a population crisis.

As the Scotsman reported in 2018 Scotland’s rural communities face losing up to a third of their working age population by 2046, losing more than a quarter of their population within the next thirty years, with Western Isles, Argyll and the Southern Uplands among the worst affected.

“A report by the James Hutton Institute found that “sparsely populated areas” – defined as those where fewer than 10,000 people can be reached within 30 minutes of travel – account for almost half of Scotland, but just 2.6 per cent of the population live there.”

It’s not unique to Scotland. In Spain they are selling off whole ‘ghost villages‘.

Workers on Tap – Tapping into the Gig Economy

The answer is the ‘Gig Economy‘.

These refers to the overall trend of employment shifting more to contracting self-employed freelancers, a trend that the Economist described as Workers on Tap.

The Cloud is enabling the ‘On Demand Economy‘, exemplified by ventures like Uber taxis and Airbnb. These ventures disrupt traditional industries by overlaying a ‘digital mesh’ across cities to better harness their idling resources, like available accommodation for rent or freelance taxi drivers looking for work.

“Every week, new services launch that aggregate and organizes freelancer labor (those with excess time) to help those who have money but not time.”

On Forbes.com Abdullahi Muhammed writes how by 2020 half of all American workers will be freelancers. NACo provides a detailed report on the same trend.

Sites like Freelancer.com, Abodoo, Peopleperhour and Fiverr, among many others, all offer marketplaces where you can hire workers on tap.

For some sectors like tech it’s increasingly becoming seen as the norm for an employed engagement; many leaders recognizing simple ideals like how remote workers outperform office workers.

The Future of Work

It’s not a new idea, also back in 2004 Thomas Malone wrote about the coming Future of Work, and long before that the original visionary Charles Handy described how our employment will evolve to become ‘portfolio working‘. Malone said:

“Imagine organizations where most workers aren’t employees at all, but electronically connected freelancers living wherever they want to.”

Handy offers a blueprint for how to practically structure such a virtual team that we will implement, describing a ‘Shamrock organization‘.

Digital Enterprise Centres

Interestingly the trend does not dictate entirely individualized, work-from-home scenarios, indeed the key point for rural communities looking to attract this work force is that it works best with some office facilities, provided very locally.

Digital Enterprise Centres are ‘Co-working’ places of work, simply offices rented in small units to one person or more at a time, so that they can enjoy the benefits of those facilities but without having to pay for the entire place.

Their role as economy enabling hubs is key – While the Gig Economy is inherently about individuals working alone as freelancers, often via online virtual tools and booking methods, there is still considerable value in facilitating physical collaboration.

This is one of the key recommendations made by the Scottish Rural College, to unlock £2.5 billion in growth for the nation through better digitally enabling our rural communities, where they describe them as “Digital Enterprise Centres”, with the recommended action being:

“Establishing hubs in rural towns which businesses can use or visit for better connectivity, start-up workspace, hot-desk space and training.”

A key dynamic is of course connecting to the Digital Economy – These work spaces provide the ‘tools of the trade’, enabling new micro-businesses to participate in a variety of online digital markets.

We can see them as essential foundations for the Gig Economy, when you consider factors such as the challenges for employers looking to utilize them on a large scale, challenges such as helping to create belonging, through a better program of support for how managers can best support a gig economy workforce remote workers.

Coworking centres can contribute towards these goals as shared office environments are ideal for cultivating mentorship and support environments, and is also a sound business model in it’s own right – The gig economy has been driving an explosion in demand for coworking office space.

Conclusion – Quality of Life

For towns seeking to retain and attract young workers and their families this is how to do it.

This Sharemyoffice article suggests Rural Coworking hubs are the future of the rural economy, and they’re right, and in her Medium article describes why:

“Also if you work in a small team, the bonds made in rural coworking spaces tend to be stronger, since in these situations you normally live and work from the same place. Whether that includes, hikes and bike rides, swimming or surfing, skiing or rock climbing, living outside of the cites allows us to reconnect with the nature — which is what most of us need from time to time.”

Thousands are moving out of the cities to enjoy a better quality of life, and with Scotland’s rural areas like Orkney offering the very best of this across the entire UK, there is a uniquely powerful perfect storm of opportunity to promote Scotland as the best nation in the world for digital living and working.


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