Lauterbrunnen Valley, on the skyline the Breithorn (3780 m)

The largest labor force migration in history is underway, driven by urbanization, global communications, low-cost labor, business growth, and technological innovation. This transition began in Europe and North America in the late 18th century at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and now encompasses most of the world. Figure 1 illustrates a pattern that is being repeated worldwide. In this pattern, labor migrates from agriculture into higher value occupations such as manufacturing, where the transitioning region usually has a cost advantage, and later into the services sector as manufacturing industry is lost in turn to newly developing regions. This transition is still underway in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and South America, and may be receiving new impetus from forces such as climate change and political instability. It seems likely to reach a fluctuating equilibrium during the 21st century.

Figure 1: The transformation of the US labor force during 1800–2050. Figure courtesy of Jim Spohrer, IBM Corporation.

The UN Population projections (UNPD 2014) to 2050 suggest that 66 per cent of the global population will be living in urban spaces. However, among developed countries the proportion will be much higher: 83 per cent in Germany, 97 per cent in Japan, 80 per cent in Switzerland, 88 per cent in the United Kingdom, 87 per cent in the United States of America, and so forth.

While “urban space” ranges from small towns to mega-cities, what it does not include is “rural space”. If this pattern shown in Figure 1 is reproduced worldwide, by 2100–2150 the global rural population will be trending towards the single digits. It cannot reach zero, since someone has to be in these rural areas to produce food, but automation and alternative methods of food production will continue to erode even this baseline.

Thus at the other end of the pipelines of urbanization are small, rural towns and villages left behind by those choosing an urban life. What will happen to these communities? What will be the critical mass required to sustain the local economy and the local society? Can anything be done to slow or reverse this exodus from rural life?

I take Switzerland as an example of this process, as it has struggled with these questions since it began the transition to an industrial economy in the early 19th century. This struggle concerns particularly the populations of its mountain valleys and the country is therefore an interesting object of study. While farming and forestry have deep historical roots in Swiss culture, in fact the valleys of the Alps and the Jura have been a challenge for many centuries as such land is limited in the populations it can sustain. It is therefore not surprising that Switzerland with 1.5 births per woman has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates.

Switzerland emerged since the 13th century as a loose association of cantons and re-constituted itself in 1848 as a decentralized, federal republic with a weak central government. This was also the period of the development of the railways. The cantons quickly recognized the danger the rail networks would pose if they were simply developed outwards from major cities. The result would be increased centralization of the economy and of political power, which they wanted to resist. As a federation, the cantons had and still have considerable economic and other rivalries and so each canton placed emphasis on protecting its local industries. As one result the Swiss watch industry prospers today primarily in quite remote villages and small towns in the Jura mountains.

The federal government therefore adopted and maintains a policy of providing access via public transportation to even remote villages, although in the most remote communities this may be a limited service. A similar pattern of constrained deployment was seen in the development of the mobile telephone and Internet networks, in which rural access was given equal priority to urban access.

The country is famously mountainous with only 46 per cent of the territory being suitable for habitation, agriculture, and industry. Hence migration out of the mountains places pressure on a precious resource. Nonetheless, mountain populations have declined and urban planning policy places emphasis on infill and higher density. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office’s (BFS 2000) map of population change shows considerable decline in the valleys and growth in major urban centers.

Farming and forestry have been the primary rural industries and symbolize mountain culture. Hence Switzerland subsidizes some 70% of agricultural production compared to 35% in the European Union as a whole. Nonetheless farming remains a very hard and, in some ways, unrewarding way of life and some 1,500 farms are lost each year.

The advent of Alpinism and Alpine tourism in the late 19th century created a new industry and encouraged both private and public investment in infrastructure. Tourism, mainly focused on the Alps, remains healthy despite the strong Swiss Franc and contributes about 3% to the national GDP. In Canton Bern, it accounts for 8% of GDP and 10% of employment (JGK 2015).

Figure 2: Bobbin lace-making — <<kloeppeln>> — was a traditional handicraft intended in part to provide employment for women in rural villages. But power looms produced more consistent and cheaper products and Swiss lace fell out of fashion in the 1930s.

Other attempts have made been to sustain new industries for the mountain populations. Bobbin lace-making (Fig. 2) created employment for women well into the 20th century, but has since disappeared as an industry. The prevailing view is that only tourism and subsidized farming remain economically viable in the medium term. Both of these are now challenged by climate change, whose effects include declining snowfall, especially at lower altitudes, which reduces opportunity for winter sports, increased risks of flooding during the snow melt, and a reduction in the attraction of the Alps as a tourist destination as the spectacular glaciers retreat.

Switzerland seems to delight in infrastructure investments. The maintenance, operation, and continued development of the mountain railways, especially the mammoth projects for rail tunnels through the Alps, create good jobs. The efficient and heavily subsidized operation of the railways also enables commuting from the mountains into large towns and cities, which has a side benefit of reducing urban sprawl or rather of exporting it into the mountains. In the region of Lake Geneva, which is highly constrained by surrounding France, former mountain vacation villages, such as St. Cergue, have re-invented themselves as dormitories.

Mountain villages must also be defended by infrastructure against avalanches in winter and from flooding when snow melt is at its peak. The cost of maintaining these defenses is highly subsidized, but a community’s share may nonetheless amount to 10% of its budget. The warming climate is also increasing the risk and frequency of rock slides as the Permafrost recedes to the interior of the mountains, leaving the surface rock only loosely bound together.

Bahnhof Lauterbrunnen in the narrow, sheer-sided Lateurbrunnen Valley — The crowds are merely passing through the little village on their way to the Jungfraujoch station.

Today the cantons can afford to subsidize such defensive infrastructure, but ultimately the costs of protecting marginally sustainable communities will become questionable. Already the cantonal governments have begun to draw service infrastructures such as education and healthcare into the larger towns and cities, increasing the difficulties of raising a family and of supporting the elderly in the villages. Despite the important role that mountain culture has played in Swiss history, one can foresee a tipping point beyond which these mountain villages become “places left behind”.

In general such places pose a long list of problems:

· Those leaving are predominantly the younger, better educated, and more motivated, who could have become local community leaders and entrepreneurs.

· The remaining, older population increasingly requires social and medical services and no longer has descendants to help. Such services are typically provided by the educated, younger people who are leaving. Such services are more expensive and time-consuming to provide in sparsely populated regions. With a decline in multi-generational households, the elderly cannot maintain a residence and need new, shared facilities.

· The loss of population leaves “hollowed out” places and abandoned buildings that would benefit from consolidation or re-densification to bring the population closer to public and private services and to reduce future dependency on traveling, but which are often opposed by the residents on grounds of social capital.

· Local shops and services become uneconomic and close down, further increasing the dependency on travel. Public transport itself requires increasing subsidies to counter declining use. A related issue is the effect of under-utilization of infrastructure; for example, water systems with reduced flows need to be flushed to prevent them from silting up, which is an additional waste of water.

· In areas with natural hazards, such as rock falls, avalanches, or flooding, the costs of constructing and maintaining defenses become harder to justify. In mountain valleys, this can mean not just the evacuation of a single village, but of the entire valley.

· In extreme cases isolated communities may become unsustainable and the remaining population must be relocated to a nearby town with severe impacts to social cohesion.

· A related issue is the decline in value of residential and commercial property, often the primary assets of the community members, which creates a further decline in equality.

· The fixed costs of operating and maintaining infrastructure and services must be borne by a smaller tax base.

At present Switzerland is relying on subsidies to slow down this process, but no one see a permanent solution. The disappearance of these communities, not only in Switzerland, but around the world, would represent a major loss of cultural heritage, but also a loss of access to the natural environment. These communities have important, non-economic roles as gateways through which urbanites re-connect with the natural environment. Urban lives are progressively detached from the natural environment. We spend our lives in climate-controlled offices to which we travel in climate-controlled vehicles from climate-controlled residences. The natural environment becomes something we glimpse through the windows, if it is indeed visible.

If we are to sustain our connection to the natural environment through recreational visits, we need these outposts of rural life. Without them we face the need for expeditions into abandoned wildernesses beyond our urban boundaries. We need these “places left behind” to sustain our humanity.


UNPD 2014, World Urbanization Prospects, 2014 revision, UN Population Division, [Online]. Available 21 August 2015:

BFS 2000, Growth Rates of the Permanent Population, 2000, Swiss Federal Statistical Office, [Online, German]. Available 21 August 2015:

JGK 2015, 2030 Cantonal Development Plans, Canton Bern, 4 September 2015, [Online, German]. Available 9 September 2015:

Dr. Harrison is an IBM Distinguished Engineer Emeritus and a co-founder of the Pivot Projects.