Debate 10 - Paper 2

E.Com and the design of the City

Alexander Reid, Director General of the RIBA and an expert on the impact of telecom and IT on our cities and communities

I did my PhD, about 30 years ago on the impact of telecommunications on travel, and one of the reasons I did that was because there was a view around at that time that telecommunications would substitute for travel, by people doing their business more rapidly at a distance, and therefore, there would be less demand for travel, and that would translate into the relocation of work in cities.

I have interpreted the title of the debate as the impact on cities in the plural, rather than the square mile of the City in particular.

After the work I did in research, I came to the conclusion that the simple notion of the substitution of telecomms for travel was really quite mistaken. That is because there is hugely more potential for travel than is actually realised. When you introduce telecommunications, and one of the major effects is that it undoubtedly increases the awareness for travel, and actually calls forth more distant relationships which then need more travel to sustain. So that, if you take the example of a British company with the benefits of telex and telecommunications can start exporting its goods more readily around the world. That will create the need for the people in that company to go and visit those countries and for their customers to come and visit the UK. Certainly the conclusion I came to at that time, and I would stick by it, that other things being equal and left to itself, improvements in electronic communication will actually stimulate a greater amount of physical travel by increasing the number of relationships, increasing the distance over which those relationships are run, and therefore encouraging more travel.

Having said that however, I don’t think it is right to look on it as having no impact at all, because what I believe it does do is to open up policy options that would not exist in the absence of telecommunications. For example, if the government decided to introduce road pricing in order to restrict the use of the motor car in London. I think in the absence of telecommunications that could have a very damaging effect. But with the existence of telecommunications you can of course mitigate any negative effects by providing people with alternative means of doing their business. So my personal proposition is that improvements in telecommunications actually open up feasible policy options which did not exist before - it creates opportunities which policy-makers do not need to take advantage of.

I should add that one of the reasons why people, at the time, thought telecommunications would have a great impact on the layout and design of a city and the location of work was because the previous technology - the railway and the motorcar - had undoubtedly had a huge impact on the shape and the growth of cities and the location of work. So I think there is a rather linear type of thinking, that if all of those technologies changed where people lived and where they worked and the physical location of things, then this new technology ought to change it as well.

I would argue that you have got to draw a distinction between what I would call place-related technologies and non-place-related technologies. Coal, steam, canals, cars, roads, these are place-related technologies that have an absolutely direct impact on places, by requiring land and planning, and by requiring to be close to other places. But a technology like radio or television broadcasting, which are of course non-place related. Although it has had a very dramatic effect on people’s lives, in terms of people’s home lives and their knowledge of the world, I would suggest they have had very little impact on the physical infrastructure. Whereas the car, for example, created whole new suburbs and cities, the radio did not because you did not actually need a new road or house to take advantage of the television.

I would put the telephone and indeed the internet into that category. I think these are non-place-related technologies which serve the whole country and which do not have immediate and compelling impact upon the physical infrastructure. In fact I think you can go further and argue that those telecomms technologies, rather than being forces for change of the infrastructure actually avoid changing the infrastructure because they enable changing economic and social activities to fit into and to adapt to a rigid structure. So, for example, a bank today, on its particular site, and it is growing. There are all kinds of physical limitations on knocking down the adjacent buildings and grabbing the space. But the existence of telecomms means they can go open some back office in Bristol, say, and shoot the data back and forth. I think in that sense, far from IT and telecomms actually driving physical change in the city and the infrastructure, I think they can be seen as means of avoiding change.

I don’t mean this in the negative sense, because another observation I would offer is that I do think that we do have an extraordinary financial and emotional investment in the physical status quo. It is no accident that when a bank in London moves stuff out of a back office, it doesn’t move it into some greenfield in Hertfordshire or somewhere, but it moves it to Leeds or Bristol. Places that are as like as possible to London in their labour markets and support facilities and infrastructure and transport. Cities are not just financial places. I do not know whether anyone has calculated the trillions of pounds that has been invested in making the country the way it is, is so enormous that I think the sensible thing to do wherever possible is to run new things around this structure rather than knocking it down and starting again. I do believe that telecomms facilities this.

I would also add the point about the emotional investment, because I believe the emotional investment in the infrastructure far exceeds the financial investment. It is very interesting, and rather cheering, how attached people become to their physical surroundings. I would suggest that 90% of people would be deeply upset if you actually changed things physically close to where they live, or work; and therefore finding scope for moving the economy along and achieving change and innovation within what has become an almost fossilised physical structure has become quite a challenge. I think electronic technology has a tremendous role to play here.

Having said this, I don’t think there will be no correct and observable effects. I would suggest that we will see changes of various types. We will see change in what we should call the building blocks of cities. I think organisations will, on the whole, break into smaller units, through specialisation and outsourcing. I think they will have more frequently shifting relationships, and I was interested in the point that Judith Mayhew [in first paper] about one exchange going to another and more or less just throwing one switch. With telecomms now, a company could be taken over by another or divested. The telephone directory will change but the buildings need not be. So I think there will be more rapidly shifting relationships. Going with that, I think there will also be more rapid shifts in the use of space - as employment patterns change more quickly.

I would have thought too, that a more bohemian kind of culture, where the great big hierarchical sort of teutonic organisations will begin to crumble in the new dot-com world, and it will be more like working out of dramatic companies, which I understand is great fun.

So I think there will be some changes in these building blocks.

Another thought I would offer is changes in expectation. I think as more and more people use the internet, and use a kind of parallel world here, and one of the things that I think is fascinating here is the creation of these second world - so that we all have our habitation on this earth, but also our habitation in cyberspace. Indeed, the language is reverting to traffic and land-grabs and portals and even the people who run the biggest auction site for domain names are of a real estate origin. They began as estate agents who took to trading domain names and they now have over 900,000 domain names registered for sale. So I think one of the things the internet is creating is this fascinating alternative of a second world. It is really rather fun. People used to say maybe we will get to Mars. It always seemed to be a rather dubious proposition. The climate and the cost were never very tempting. But now we all have got cyberspace there. One effect of this which has only just occurred to me is that our experience of cyberspace is that it may effect the expectations we have of the city. The thought I would leave with you is as your bus draws along very slowly through Piccadilly, for someone who is using the internet fairly regularly, there are two possible reactions. One is to say that I really don’t mind this bus crawling along, because the urgent things I need to do I can do, I can do quickly on the internet. I have to say that I think the opposite is more likely. I think that people who find that they can get to California or Hong Kong on the internet, will find it even more frustrating that you cannot proceed down Piccadilly at more than 11 miles an hour. And so I think that our urban experience or cyberspace with its instant reactions and with its bewildering choices, and including the accidental choices with the fun element. I can we will be looking for all of that in the city.

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