Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Technology-led urban renaissance?

Interesting article in the Guardian on Monday on how the cities of Northern England have been revived in the last few years. The research paper, called How Fare Our Cities? by Professor Brian Robson discusses how there are still significant differences measured by GVA between the North and the South, and between the prosperous and poor neighbourhoods within the cities. Furthermore, although the big cities are prospering, there are still big challenges facing smaller industrial towns such as Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley, Barnsley as well as seaside resorts-- places where the economic rationale that once propelled the town has now disappeared.
As Professor Robson says, "the most realistic strategy for such places may be tied to their becoming dormitories for the cities but local pride and politics make that a difficult strategy to pursue. We know little about how to downsize old settlements without creating painful tensions and increasing polarisation; yet this is a prospect faced by an increasing number of one-industry, medium sized towns".
I wonder what the role of technology might be here in helping these places to remain viable. The problem for them is that their main source of employment is dying, but they are not big enough to effectively diversify. So how to attract new sources of employment? Or at least allow people to work, while living there?
Much has been written about the death of geographies thanks to the Internet, but this is now recognised as being overstated. The dream of teleworking from a tropical island paradise has not come true for most of us. The Internet does allow people to communicate from diverse places, however existing work cultures still largely require people to be attached to a particular place (the office). This is changing for certain job types and sectors-- including (but not limited to) sales, consultants, knowledge workers.
There are perhaps interesting avenues to be explored in persuading large employers from neighbouring cities to site satellite offices in the smaller towns, perhaps shared with other companies. The idea would be that people could commute easily to these satellites, work there (possibily hotdesking) and travel into the main office just a couple of times a week. The satellites would offer shared facilities for work-- almost a halfway house between working from home and commuting to the main office. The problem with working from home is that it can be distracting, but more often it's lonely. This would offer some social interaction, and opportunities for knowledge sharing. This idea is explored a bit further in a recent EU-funded research project called Sustainable Accommodation for the New Economy (SANE)
For development agencies, there are perhaps also interesting possibilities for funding certain collaboration technologies to help companies and individuals communicate across geographical boundaries. More likely these technologies would be used over short distances (research shows that most companies deal with suppliers and partners who are local to them-- the power of place to form and cement relationships). But they might aid in strengthening relationships and thus aid in the formation of virtual clusters.
Also possibilities to use communication technologies to strengthen community and 'sense of place'? Through participation-- social software? locational blogging? This post is getting too long... will have to explore this further another time...


Blogger Deek Deekster said...

Returning the blog-comment.

In my day job, I often make use of the technologies you describe here :) I too find it very interesting indeed. I like the pros and cons you raise here - home working leading to cabin fever I can vouch for... I find I am more efficient at work striking a balance between quiet and community.

But, I'm not sure that there is any optimum length for a blog post !

11:51 a.m.  
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11:19 p.m.  

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