I often tell friends that the single best thing about working in early stage investing is the number of startup decks you get to see daily, each describing a specific vision of the future. People eating meal replacements or renting clothes instead of buying, printing a toy than ordering one, and so on. These ‘postcards from the future’ are not always right. Well, they all clearly can’t be. But that isn’t the point. It is that, working in venture is to inhabit a world with multiple, sometimes even conflicting visions of the future, which to me is what is most enjoyable fact about working in venture capital.
It isn’t only founders who have ‘visions’ of the future. If you are an investor, you need a thesis about the future too – of trends, of behaviours, of markets. For, if you don’t have a thesis or a view of the future, how will you grapple with every single view that you get? How will you filter these incoming postcards? So, as an investor, what are my visions of the future? What do I think will happen in the next 5 or 10 years? Here, I am reminded of a witticism, attributed to physicist Niels Bohr, which goes like this: ‘Predicting is hard, especially about the future.’ Yes, predicting is hard, but perhaps it can be fun too.
So here is a weekly (hopefully, but realistically more likely fortnightly) piece that I plan to write on my visions of the future. Each week, I plan to take a particular industry (e.g., travel), or a trend or behaviour (say marriage), and share my thoughts on what I think could happen there the next 5-10 or more years.
Sometimes in all these explorations, we may come to interesting startup possibilities, but that isn’t even perhaps the purpose. The goal is to really think through on first principles, what the impact of technology trends and changing consumer behaviour will be. What could be the second order effects? What do they imply, for founders and funders?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- 'Little Gidding' by T S Eliot.
Mass elite migration
My first essay under this series deals migration, or specifically on what I call ‘mass elite migration’. Let us begin.
We live in a world where mass migration is an inherently negative word or rather, term. It happens to the poor or the dispossessed, or persecuted, often at a time of war, and religious strife, or even severe economic strife. It is a reactive event; as in the migrant would have rather not left his / her homeland, and it is only their need for survival that drives them to embark on long hazardous journeys.
Technology, especially the internet-connected smartphone, today makes it easier than before to plan and execute mass migration. It is easier than ever to coordinate with others in advance, determine the optimal route and then to organize resources, both before the route, and whilst on the route. Here is a picture, one from the many stories that pop up when you google ‘syrian refugees smartphones’.
We also live in a world where there has been an unerring shift towards nationalistic politics across several countries, typically led by a strong man who enjoys the support of a significant number of the population. Typically in such countries, there is also a large, though minority, slice of population that is middle class and educated that now finds itself unmoored from their country’s cultural and political drift. Sometimes they may also find themselves persecuted or discriminated against in terms of jobs. Turkey is of course the best example, but there are others, such as Hong Kong.
If we put together the above two elements, the ability and means to coordinate mass migration thanks to emergence of tech, and the desire of an affluent cultural minority to escape soft or hard persecution, thanks to a disconnect with the regime du jour / political majority, we get an oxymoron – mass elite migration – an intriguing possibility that a section of the economic elite of a country could choose to migrate en masse to a specific country / region. Such cases of mass elite migration have happened in the past. Examples include elite Hong Kong citizens migrating to Canada (especially Vancouver) in the late ’90s as the British moved out, or elite Iranians migrating to California (esp Los Angeles) in the ‘80s or even earlier in the ‘60s, Cuban elites to Miami. Recently in Turkey, the secular elite are beginning to move out as a result of Erdoganization, primarily to Germany where there is a large Turkish minority, but also to Britain and other European countries.
So how would mass elite migration work?
Imagine 5-10 years on, a country where a culturally and educationally elite minority find themselves more and more disconnected with the political and cultural atmosphere of their homeland. Perhaps this minority has a political party which represents them, or even if not, let us say they have a set of leaders representing them. At this point, these leaders could open discussions with favourable countries (host nations) for relocating en masse.
Such relocation could be to an existing city or an empty remote region which they agree to inhabit and develop. This could be a permanent move, or the region could be leased for a period of 49 or 99 years. Lastly this could be done formally, where the leadership of the minority approaches the host government, or informally, where the leadership coordinates elite migration into one or a set of geographies.
What does the host nation get?
The host nation gets (hopefully) younger, skilled, educated and economically active citizens who are able to generate economic output and create jobs. These incomes (of the minority in the host country) can be taxed and the tax can be used to subsidize the existing population of the host country. Additionally, a country with a vast unpopulated region – Australia, Canada come to mind – could use these immigrants to develop the region.
Emigrant Cities and Charter Cities
Such artificially created cities handed over to a different ethnic group than the host country (this is a mouthful, so let us call it Emigrant Cities) is somewhat similar (though in fact not), to the concept of Charter Cities, proposed by 2019 Nobel Economics winner Paul Romer. Romer proposed Charter Cities as a way to supercharge growth in less developed countries. Such poor countries, he suggested, could create ‘charter cities’ governed by the laws (or charters) suggested by or that of a developed country (so as to create trust and rule of law). These charter cities would be inhabited however by local citizens of the underdeveloped country. Say Togo sets aside a Charter City under French governance, where people from Togo can migrate or reside in. Hong Kong from 1898-1997 is a case in point.
The key difference between Charter Cities and my suggestion of Emigrant Cities is that in the Charter Cities, the laws are that of the Sponsor country and the city inhabitants are from the local populace. In the case of Migrant Cities, the laws are of the host nation, but the city is inhabited largely by emigrants.
Please note that there are many factors that I am glossing over including the internal politics of the host nation, objections from the political leadership of the immigrant’s country, logistical challenges (will immigrants get a fair price for their homes and land when they wish to move?) and so on.
Could this really happen in 5-10 years?
Rather than take a punt on the above question, I would hazard that a good way to look at this is to classify such mass elite migration into two types.
- Strong – en masse migration and setting up an Emigrant City. This is essentially what I have covered above.
- Mild – coordinated semi-mass migration into select cities / geographies. Here the leadership / early adopters start moving into select geographies, and the rest follow.
Clearly, the mild type of mass elite migration seems far more probable. In fact when we look at Turkey, or Venezuela (where most of the elite have fled to Spain or Colombia) or several countries this is indeed what is happening. It is never going to be shouted out loud though.
Second order effects and implications
It clearly makes sense for a mayor of a large city to encourage / canvass emigrants to her / his city. After all the city will benefit from stellar talent and a widened tax base. Since countries with elite restive populations typically also see considerable student brain drain – as education abroad becomes the pathway to migrate – it makes sense for these mayors or political leadership of cities / countries that want to attract such talent to partner with leading universities in their country and work hand in hand strategically to attract the best talent from a country. What if you announced select scholarships or expanded / special work permits to boost emigration to your country or city?
One way to avoid / overcome objections from local residents of host countries is to delink citizenship of these emigrants from franchise, i.e., they can reside but not vote. The only vote they have is with their feet. Conflating the two (residence and franchise) is one of the reasons (though not the only one) as to why there has been anti-immigrant anger. This is how the middle-east the large emigrant population (though a considerable number are blue collar), which is often bigger than the native population (88% of Qatar’s population are migrant workers).
At what point could startups exploit opportunities in this space? Of course, if you look at startups like Crimson, ApplyBoard and closer home Leverage Edu which help make it easy for students to apply and attend international colleges, which is effectively the first step to migration, then we already have presence in this space. I have joked with Akshay Chaturvedi, the founder of Leverage Edu, a Blume portfolio co, that he is in the MigrationTech, not the EdTech business:-)
At what point could there be a large player emerge aggregating demand from wanna be migrants, a sort of HelpMeMoveToX.com. Once enough demand is aggregated, there are interesting opportunities to partner with universities, real estate developers or agents, travel companies etc. This is of course the mild type of mass elite migration.
The ultimate full-stack version would be when HelpMeMovetoX moves from merely assisting / supporting paperwork, and / or helping coordinating with immigration authorities of host nations to actually committing to $X tax dollars in turn for a certain number of square kilometers and then setting up the right mix of emigrants in this zone / city. This is one way we could see the strong type of mass elite migration emerge. This type of arrangement may not be hugely attractive to the richer countries, but could enthuse smaller less-developed countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America to sign up. Of course, that then begs the question as to whether emigrants would really want to go to such a country.
Unbundling or rather decoupling of benefits is a key tech-led trend that is underway today, e.g., Cooked Food historically subsumed nutrition and taste. Today you can have soylent or a protein bar out of a packet to take care of your nutritional requirements, and keep ‘cooked food’ for taste alone. You can increasingly decouple benefits or attributes. To me, that is a useful framework to view the concept of mass elite migration, i.e. how do you really decouple yours and your community’s trajectory from that of the nation?