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Friday, January 19, 2007

Being a genius has some advantages. As fellow genius Scott Adams recently pointed out, one of those advantages is the ability to solve the world's problems.

Today's problem, which I have solved, is not that of the world at large, but rather one faced by millions of people who live and work in my home-town: Johannesburg.

The problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to both live in relative comfort, and put in a full day's work. There are several reasons for this.

1. Cost.
While a very large number of people work in and around Sandton, the property in that area is prohibitively expensive. It's simply not an option for most people to live there. Indeed, property anywhere within Johannesburg's Ring Road is generally expensive, becoming more so the closer you get to Sandton. First-time home-buyers (such as myself) struggle to find anything within the ring road, and must instead look to the far reaches of Gauteng (or else Joburg's notorious slums) for something affordable. That is not desirable.

Also, the rise in petrol and food prices of late have dramatically increased the cost of living and commuting in Johannesburg.

2. Traffic.
Because there is such an exodus of people commuting to and from Sandton every day, Johannesburg's world-class road network is overburdened. There is no public transport to speak of, which means relying on Taxis (which I don't consider public transport, since they are privately operated) or one's own car.

Despite how expensive cars have become, low interest rates and increasingly popular residual purchasing options have resulted in an explosion of new cars. There are simply too many cars on the road.

So what's the answer?

One word: telecommuting.

The technology has been around for some time, but has experienced several leaps and bounds of late. Joburg's telecoms infrastructure has expanded to allow anyone to access relatively high-speed data connections wirelessly through GSM. Even Telkom are slowly coming to the party, by gradually lowering prices on their DSL offerings.

Entry-level notebook computers have been falling in price, and now that they've dipped below the R6000 mark, they have become affordable to most credit-card wielding South Africans.

So dramatic have these changes been, that according to my calculations, it is now significantly cheaper for someone like me to buy my own laptop and HSPDA card, paying for my own data usage and electricity than it is to drive to and from the office every day (taking into account not only lost time and petrol, but also vehicle wear-and-tear and the probability of accidental damage to my vehicle).

Of course this idea won't appeal to everyone. And it won't be practical for everyone either. Some people's jobs require their physical presence in order to meet with customers, handle papers and monitor staff. However, even these concerns can be mitigated.

With digital imaging and storage technology becoming more accessible and efficient than using paper documentation, the advent of video-conferencing via cellphone and tightly-measured, performance-based employee incentives, an even larger percentage of people will be able to work from home or satellite offices.

And for those of us still stuck in the mode of "You can't have a meaningful and constructive working relationship without meeting a person face-to-face regularly", there's no reason why we shouldn't still go into the office from time to time... even several times a week. But instead of being stuck in the "nine-to-five" traffic race, visits to the office could be purpose-driven, with people being present only when necessary, thus avoiding the worst of the traffic.

(Some anecdotal evidence for your consideration: even though I have served aboard the USS Dauntless for several years now, I have never met most of the crew in person, or even spoken to them on the phone. My entire relationship with most of them is via email and other online-conferencing technology. Although we're not running a business together, we have been able to successfully run a fan-club chapter.)

Taking into account the fact that the technology exists, and is affordable for even smaller companies or individuals, there is simply no excuse why should have to put up with all this wasted time and money. I'm embarking on a campaign to convince my company to start implementing telecommuting, and I recommend you do the same with yours.

There you go. Problem solved. No need to thank me.