Living and working digitally from an island

Last month I had the privilege to speak at a small conference organised by AELIA a non-profit dedicated to promoting the expansion of businesses in the Greek islands. The event took place on the island of Amorgos in the Aegean. It was a meeting of digitally connected professionals who either combine their work with travel (digital nomads) or those who are based on an island or intend to be.

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Overall it was an interesting discussion and a unique opportunity to network with others who are exploring the same landscape. But as often happens, many thoughts occurred to me after the event. So I will take this opportunity to express them and maybe widen the debate.

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One subject that we touched on was the pros and cons of our chosen bases of operations. On reflection we rather glossed over these issues.

The gain…

The internet removes the need to be physically close to your customers and suppliers. So your location becomes more a matter of choice than necessity.

Working in the field of software development is hard on the brain and like other organs in the body the brain requires large supplies of oxygen and rest from time to time. Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen so an immediate benefit of living outside of a city is the access to clean air. The physical beauty of my surroundings and the absence of constant noise is also a great help in achieving those periods of intense concentration needed in my work.

For people with families and small children there is absolutely no comparison. Children in our village are free to roam without worries about traffic and crime. They become independent at an early age in a friendly caring social environment. Parents as a consequence are more relaxed and able to work and play without the pressures of the city.

Commute times: by the time I finally moved out of Athens I was spending around 2 hours each day in my car stuck in traffic just getting to and from the office. That’s 30 whole days of waking hours per year !!! Simply being free of that enormous drain on my time has given me back an extra month of LIFE every year.

Opportunities for relaxation and the simple enjoyment of life. When you spend a significant amount of your life in front of a computer the last thing you want after work is more screen time. Here you can walk, surf, canoe, sail to your hearts content. And there are many activities people organise amongst themselves particularly in the winter.

All of us agreed on this. But in our enthusiasm about our choices I felt we forgot to debate the downsides. So here goes…

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And the pain..

Your physical connection to the world is by ferry or if there is an airport, aeroplane. Just getting to and from the island is an expensive business. In the winter ferry services go down to a minimum and they are highly dependent on the weather. The more remote the island the more time you spend on the ship and the fewer ships arrive.

Although we are digitally connected there are times when it is valuable to hop on a plane and go visit the customer. Not everything can be done over Skype and a personal visit can make a big difference. At this point being far away from a hub airport becomes a major difficulty.

From my island, Paros it takes 4 hours on the ship to get to the mainland so practically that adds 2 whole days to every trip abroad. Of course it’s easier to fly and make the connection at the airport, but in winter the little plane that serves us may not arrive because of the weather. So there’s always the danger of losing the onward flight. Every trip is longer and more costly.

Island life not cheap. Everything you need apart from olives and lemons comes to the island on a ship. So everything has that basic shipping cost on top. Then we have the tourists.

Obviously tourists are a mainstay of the islands’ economy and here in Paros we welcome twice our permanent population as visitors each year. This places an enormous strain on the island’s resources and distorts the market. Prices go much higher in summer as the demand goes up. Renting a home or an office all year round is phenomenally expensive simply because owners see this as lost opportunity to rent by the day in the summer season.

Electricity and water supplies suffer too and nothing brings the digitally connected you down to earth as fast as a blackout. So for a reliable 24/7 operation you could be looking at photovoltaics and a satellite connection as a backup. You begin to see how the costs add up.

Secondary education is in poor shape. Although some students do make it to university quite a lot drop out of school early to work in manual trades seeing no point in completing their studies. Teachers struggle to survive thanks to the high cost of living so it’s hardly surprising that their motivation is low.

And don’t get sick either! If you need anything beyond the most basic of health care expect to have to go to Athens for treatment. Local facilities are fairly primitive.

Life in Paradise is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. It takes a certain kind of outlook on life to make these sacrifices.

What the digital economy can bring

The closed system of an island economy places strict limits on the number of people it can support. Local people are acutely aware of this. So any incomer needs to consider what extra resources he will bring in to support his presence. It’s no good thinking that we can all just arrive and expect everyone else to give us a share of the pie. That’s not going to happen.

So how to expand the income of an island? Islands will always be at a disadvantage when exporting physical produce or services beyond the basics. The additional transport costs will not go away.

Digital exports are an ideal way to resolve this issue. Products like software depend only on good network infrastructure for their distribution and practically there is little difference from being on the mainland. They can produce serious money from relatively small investments and create employment opportunities for locals and incomers.

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Changing the face of the islands

Right now far too many well-educated young people are faced with the choice of manual work well below their potential or to leave their islands in search of better opportunities.

We can reverse this trend using the digital economy. We can provide a solution to the over-dependence on tourism with its extreme seasonal variations and give the islands a steady income. We can bring gifted young people back to live in these islands, to raise families and bring life to the islands all-year-round.

The digital economy can work alongside tourism because unlike most industries it has very little environmental impact. Far less in fact than mass tourism with it’s sprawl of cheaply built rooms-to-let and umbrella-strewn beaches. The beauty of these islands will remain and still attract visitors. But visitors who are looking for the real thing not yet another Benidorm.

In ancient times Paros was a major producer of marble for the entire Hellenic area and the population was around 60,000. The empty terraces cut into the hillsides bear silent witness to those days of prosperity and production. Now the population is down to 20,000 permanent residents who work 7-day weeks in the summer in order to survive the winter. The same is true of other islands.

AELIA has brought us together, and together we can bring change.

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