8 Bricks versus clicks: planning for the digital economy – Digital Futures

8 Bricks versus clicks: planning for the digital economy

Andrew Gillespie, Simon Marvin and Nick Green


The hyperbole and speculation associated with the e-commerce revolution is no new phenomenon. Pioneering technologies from railways to automobiles, electricity to the telephone, have been greeted with an expectation that they will completely transform people's lives. Early readings of new technologies show a marked tendency to both exaggerate and simplify their impacts on society.1 The central question of this chapter is actually rather simple: how does e-commerce shape the physical environment of cities? The answer is less straightforward, but what we aim to do is take a closer look at e-commerce and better understand its environmental paradoxes.

There is little empirical research on the significance of e-commerce for towns and cities, and no well-developed data set against which we can benchmark the environmental implications in the UK or elsewhere. Worse, there are certain pitfalls along the way that we need to be aware of. The most prominent of these is the focus on urban dissolution. This is not the first time that a new technology has been hailed as the end of the city, nor will it be the last. Put simply, electronic forms of communication and transaction are seen by some as a substitute for face to face contact and physical movement. It is claimed that people will be able to live anywhere and negotiate all their needs and services through electronic media. The problem with such a view is that all the evidence points to the growing (rather than declining) importance of cities in the digital age. Cities have the densest communications infrastructure, in terms of both roads and electronic networks. The consumers of e-commerce services are much more likely to be located in cities and have access to the internet at work and home. The bulk of innovation in the development of e-business takes place in cities.

So it is reasonable to argue that cities are actually at the centre of the e-commerce revolution. Our analysis starts with a brief tour of the theoretical terrain, looking at debates about the relationship between the physical and virtual environments. We examine how this relationship has been addressed in UK planning policy, and look particularly at the implications of e-commerce for retail centres. We then return to the four scenarios which are mapped out in Chapter 2, and explore how they might be applied to an urban context. We end by examining the implications for national, regional and urban planning policy.

Physical and virtual environments

There are competing ideas about the environmental impact of e-commerce, based on different understandings of the linkages between electronic and physical flows and spaces. Urban sustainability policy is mainly concerned with physical resources such as water, waste, energy, goods, services and people, and how they move through fixed infrastructure networks. The associated environmental emissions and externalities can be measured, monitored and potentially shaped to meet environmental targets. Usually, the environmental problems created by these flows of resources are conceived of in physical terms, such as the ecological footprint of a household, building or city.

The electronic environment associated with e-commerce and telematics is in sharp contrast to this way of thinking. Information flows quietly, invisibly and unobtrusively through websites, cables, fibre optic wires, or the air around us, with insignificant direct environmental impacts when compared with physical movements. The telecommunications networks themselves are also hidden, often beneath the city, and have largely intangible physical effects in comparison to the construction and use of road networks. E-commerce services recreate physical functions in cyberspace and so do not have the same physical presence as the services and functions they replicate or displace. These new spaces are almost ethereal, and their environmental impact cannot easily be measured or monitored in the same terms that would be applied to the tangible city.

Nonetheless, there are parallels between electronic and physical cities. Telecommunications networks are often laid alongside roads, railway tracks, energy and water networks. E-commerce uses physical metaphors such as the ‘superhighway’, while websites recreate the layout of stores and facilities such as the ‘shopping basket’.

These electronic flows and spaces represent a major challenge to conventional urban policy. Superimposing a conventional physical view of the city on the electronic city is a fraught affair. In the physical city, the development and location of buildings and the management of transport networks are all tightly regulated. In the electronic city, an e-commerce provider needs no planning permission for a new retail or commercial development. This makes it extremely difficult to assess the indirect effects of telecommunications networks on urban environments.

There is a problem of context. Urban sustainability debates have focused on the physical environment, while making the assumption that the electronic environment is fundamentally benign, with few negative implications for the physical city. IT and telecoms companies have also promoted the view that the electronic environment can displace or substitute for damaging physical flows and spaces. The challenge for the future is to determine how urban environmental policy, which is firmly embedded in the concept of the physical city, can begin to cope with new conceptions of the city based on electronic spaces and flows.

The e-materialization of cities?

A central feature of the debate about the environmental implications of e-commerce is the concept of ‘e-materialization’, the substitution of electronic equivalents for physical products. Examples include replacing CDs with music downloaded from the internet as MP3 files, or the replacement of paper documents with electronic ones – the ‘paperless office’. This focus on the ability of e-commerce to substitute electronics and software for material products, electronic delivery for movements of goods by road, and websites for buildings, posits a future based on the gradual decoupling of the links between resource use and economic growth. The prevalent viewpoint assumes that there is potentially (if not actually) a high degree of congruence between the development of e-commerce and a more sustainable society. The e-materialization thesis draws upon a number of strands of evidence to support the idea that e-commerce displaces the physical environment, and these are discussed below.

Dematerialization of the economy

The first strand concerns the broader changes in the structure of the economy, supported by e-commerce, that are leading to a decline in the resource intensity of economic growth. Obtaining adequate data and ensuring comparability between countries is difficult, but several recent studies provide evidence of declining material and energy intensity over time, despite increasing GDP.

The 1999 report produced by Joseph Romm of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions is particularly supportive of the e-materialization thesis, and has been influential in shaping the debate about the environmental benefits of e-commerce in both the US and the UK.2 The report examines how e-commerce may be fundamentally altering the traditional relationship between energy use and economic growth, and how this ‘historic shift may benefit our economy and environment’. Its central argument is that:

‘Two remarkable, though seemingly unrelated, changes have taken place in the US economy in the past two years. The first is well known – the remarkable growth of the internet. The second is not well known – that in 1997 and 1998 while the US economy grew by some 8 per cent, US energy consumption hardly grew at all, about 1 per cent. Had the historical relationship between US economic growth been the same in those two years as it had in the previous 10, we might have expected 6 per cent growth in energy consumption.’3

The report takes a very positive view of the connection between the growth of the internet and energy trends. Consequently, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), a statistical and analytical agency in the Department of Energy, was asked to report on the potential impacts of computer use and the internet on electricity consumption. The EIA considered contradictory claims that the internet would result in substantial increases and falls in energy consumption, and specifically addressed Romm's assertion that between 1997 and 1998 the US economy exhibited substantial increases in economic growth with little growth in energy consumption. The EIA's response is that the drop in energy intensity ‘is almost entirely due to the decrease in the use of natural gas in the buildings and industrial sector’ because 1998 was warmer than 1996. As the EIA points out:

‘One would expect the change in energy consumption and intensity to have occurred over a much wider range of fuels and sectors if energy efficiency and structural changes were responsible for the lower use of energy over this two year period, which was not the case.’4

The EIA report concludes that current understanding of the relationship between the internet and energy consumption is limited; ‘at this point in time, it is too soon to come to any conclusions as to the precise path of electricity use resulting from internet and internet-based commerce.’

Substituting telecommunications for travel

The second strand of the e-materialization thesis concerns the question of whether travel substitution takes place. Evidently there is potential for telecommunications to displace trips in ways that have clear environmental benefits, particularly when teleworking or teleconferencing are substituting for a long commute. However, the evidence is more complex. Californian academic Patricia Mokhtarian has undertaken a great deal of research into the relationship between telecoms and travel. In a paper entitled ‘The Information Highway: Just Because We're On it Doesn't Mean We Know Where We're Going’, she reflects on the hype associated with the development of ICTs, and then examines in detail the commonly-held assumption that they reduce congestion and improve air quality.5

Like many policy makers and planners, Mokhtarian believes that telecommuting can have a positive impact on travel but ‘the question is how much of an impact, and what the indirect and system wide impacts will be’. To illustrate the complexities involved, Mokhtarian provides an account of the refereeing of an academic paper that attempted a rigorous empirical evaluation of two telecommuting pilot projects.6 The paper found that telecommuters travelled on average between 52–54 miles on regular weekdays, compared to 13 miles on telecommuting days, producing a 75 per cent saving due to the elimination of work-related trips.

‘We thought we had placed this result quite firmly in context. But when the paper was submitted for publication, one of the reviewers commented that it seemed generally well done and well written, but the claim that telecommuting would reduce travel by 75 per cent was too extravagant to be credible… We suddenly had visions of this number being pulled out of context and carelessly quoted just as the reviewer did: “telecommuting will reduce travel by 75 per cent”. So we inserted even more caveats – in the text, in the tables, everywhere we possibly could.’

The three caveats in the paper directly question the potential environmental benefits of telecommuting. First, the 75 per cent only refers to weekday travel by employed telecommuters, and excludes weekend and non-work-related travel. Furthermore, the telecommuters in the pilot project were not typical of the workforce, as they tended to live twice as far away from work as the average person. Second, the 75 per cent refers to telecommuters, not the whole population. The study estimated that in 1991 only 6 per cent of the workforce was telecommuting over one day per week, and that this saved only half a per cent in total vehicle-miles travelled. This saving was much less than the potential margin of error in the quantitative assumptions made in the study. Finally, even if the percentage of the population telecommuting were to increase, research evidence tends to indicate that new drivers would respond by filling the new capacity made available to them.

The lesson Mokhtarian draws from this example is carefully phrased:

‘Don't count too heavily on the trip reduction benefits of telecommunications technology. Yes, they will be there – at the margin. But they will be counteracted and perhaps completely swamped out by impacts in the opposite direction.’

So how does this all come together at the level of an individual city or region? With considerable complexity. True, overall material production might become more efficient, but strong incentives to promote ecological benefits will still be needed, simply because there will be increasing demand for more movement. Looking specifically at e-commerce, the question for cities is how to ensure that the environmental benefits associated with restructured business processes are enhanced, particularly through increased efficiency of resource use.

Cities in the digital economy

Planning policy and practice in the UK has consistently attempted to concentrate urban development, and to limit sprawl through mechanisms such as new towns, green belts and planning-policy guidance from central government. The 1980s saw this planning regime put into temporary abeyance, and the location of activities largely determined by market forces, tempered only by the strength or otherwise of NIMBY reactions against new development in particular places. The results were a population exodus from metropolitan areas, a massive shift towards investment in new out-of-town retail facilities, and a marked decentralization of service activities from large cities to smaller urban settlements – a process examined recently by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) in their investigation of the changing geography of jobs.7

During the 1990s, however, the traditional objectives of UK planning were gradually reasserted, a process that has been accelerated since 1997 by the Labour government. These objectives, now cloaked in the new mantle of sustainable development, include facilitating an ‘urban renaissance’, strengthening the role of established town and city centres, and bringing about a closer balance between homes and jobs in order to limit the growth of commuting.8

Land-use planning is now trying to get to grips with the likely implications of the digital economy for urban areas. Here we examine the extent to which a digital economy is likely to contribute to more extended urban forms, and hence pose a challenge to a planning regime that is attempting to bring about more concentrated urban forms.

A new urban form?

Starting from the premise that in order to avoid transportation humans invented the city, some have argued that advances in communications technologies will dissolve the glue that holds cities together, in that more and more of the traditional roles and functions that first generated the need for urban concentration can be achieved at a distance via telecommunications links. However, cities seem destined to persist for the foreseeable future, due to their dense webs of face to face relationships, transactional opportunities, agglomeration economies; their abundant hard and soft infrastructures; and their social and cultural resources. Indeed, some are suggesting that electronic networks, far from undermining cities, are actually bolstering the role of major cities as centres of interpretation of the vast flows of information circulating instantaneously around the globe. As Tony Fitzpatrick, the director of Ove Arup, puts it:

‘cities reflect the economic realities of the 21st century. Remote working from self-sufficient farmsteads via the internet cannot replace the powerhouses of personal interaction which drive teamwork and creativity.’9

Even if the city as an entity is not threatened by the emergence of a digital economy, the spatial form that cities take does seem to be changing in significant ways as a result of space-shrinking technologies. These new spatial forms seem to pose marked challenges for our current planning paradigm. For planners, the superseding of the familiar ‘space of places’ by a new ‘space of flows’ poses both conceptual and practical challenges. How are urban inter-relationships to be conceptualized when they are no longer based on size and proximity, and are highly variable over time? How can the traditional tools of planning, such as land-use controls, be adapted to cope with flows rather than the static nature of land use and location? According to Borja and Castells, writing in 1997:

‘The new metropolitan city is best understood as a system or network, with variable geometry, articulated by nodes, strong central points, defined by their accessibility. Quality in the new urban-region reality will depend on the intensity of relations between these nodes, on the multifunctionality of the nodal centres, and their capacity to integrate the whole of their population and their territory through a suitable system ensuring mobility.’10

Similarly, Graham and Marvin contend that even if a ‘post-urban shift’ is not taking place, we do seem to be witnessing ‘a transition from traditional, core-dominated, monocentric cities towards complex, extended, and polycentric city-regions made up of a multitude of superimposed clusters, grids, and internal and external connections’.11

Although there are elements of this new urban form that are compatible with a concern for enhancing sustainability, it is clearly inimical to the preservation of the existing fixed urban hierarchy, as it depends on high levels of mobility and interaction across the whole metropolitan system. This has profound implications for pro-sustainability spatial development policies. In the specific context of The Netherlands, these implications have recently been explored by Hajer and Zonneveld. Their analysis is of particular interest because Dutch spatial planning is regarded as having been successful in achieving the kind of concentrated urbanization that current UK planning philosophy – encapsulated in the Urban Task Force report Towards an Urban Renaissance – is trying to achieve. Hajer and Zonneveld argue that a combination of new technologies and transport innovations means that the importance of proximity has been seriously eroded:

‘the network society immediately seems to undercut the axiomatic idea of “proximity” as an orientation for planning… It poses a direct challenge to the key planning concept of the compact city that, after all, uses spatial proximity as its organizing principle.’12

The planning concepts currently being applied in the UK embody very similar principles, for example in attempting to reduce unnecessary travel by locating jobs and residences closely together, and by steering development into existing urban centres. It is almost as if the sustainability principles that underpin current planning policy in the UK, most notably the desire to preserve traditional urban forms through land-use control measures, are attempting to reverse the reduction in the friction of distance that technological advances have made possible.

New urban forms are coming into being, characterized by high levels of movement and mobility on the scale of extended metropolitan regions. Although the familiar urban hierarchy of small towns, larger towns and cities appears still to be in place, the functional relationships between the elements in this hierarchy have changed completely. Existing physical entities add up to something new, which is articulated by high levels of electronic and physical interaction, and which is only comprehensible on a region-wide scale. There are likely to be important conflicts in attempting to reconcile the network society with a planning paradigm that seeks to preserve traditional urban hierarchies and reduce travel.

The hyperlinked high street

While a digital economy is likely to recombine existing physical places to produce new urban forms, the possibility also exists that particular components of the existing built environment might be rendered redundant by processes of e-materialization. One obvious question posed by the recent growth of e-commerce is whether new forms of online retailing threaten existing retail outlets.

The answer to this question has great significance for planning, given that current policy in the UK is attempting to protect the existing retail hierarchy of high streets, town centres and major city centres, turning the tide against the massive decentralization of retailing that occurred during the period of laissez-faire planning in the 1980s. National planning policy concerning retail location was revised in 1996 to adopt a sequential approach to selecting sites, starting with sites in the town centre, then edge of centre – defined in terms of easy walking distance – and only then other sites that are well-served by other means of transport. Just as the tide begins to turn against the drift of retailing to out-of-town locations, is a new threat suddenly posed by the migration of shopping towards the internet?

Answering this question is far from straightforward, both because of uncertainty about how B2C e-commerce is going to evolve (even the most successful examples of B2C e-commerce, for example Amazon.com, remain highly unprofitable); and because even if e-commerce does grow rapidly, there will be no simple impact on existing facilities. As a recent report from the Retail and Consumer Services Foresight Panel notes:

‘E-commerce is only one ingredient in the mix of social, demographic and economic forces that are reshaping the high street. While it is possible that e-commerce could be perceived as being responsible for current trends impacting on the high street, it need not be seen as a substitute for existing retail. It may be complementary or involve novel transactions and services. The make-up of the high street could continue to evolve from retail towards a service sector orientation.’13

Established retail centres have already undergone considerable change in the wake of the decentralization of retailing to out-of-town locations, while enhanced competition from telephone banking has also impacted on their service role. If we look at the way B2C e-commerce is evolving, we find a long list of town centre retail and service activities that will be subject to competition from e-commerce over the next decade, ranging from food and book retailing to banking, travel and estate agency.

For most city centres and larger town centres, the competition posed by e-commerce to existing retail and service facilities is unlikely to be severe. However, for smaller town centres and high streets, particularly those that have already been detrimentally affected by out-of-town retailing, we can anticipate a more pronounced challenge from e-commerce that they will need to respond to. High streets will need to adapt by emphasizing their service and leisure (rather than retail) functions if they are to survive and flourish. The prosperity of their catchment areas will be an important influence on their fortunes, though here the effects are complex. On the one hand, a prosperous catchment area adds viability to the shift of emphasis in the high street towards leisure and dining out; but on the other hand, prosperous catchment areas are likely to witness higher levels of e-commerce.

The outcomes, then, are difficult to predict with much certainty, but already weak high streets and secondary retail centres are likely to suffer disproportionately from the advent of e-commerce, in that many of their businesses are already operating at the margins of profitability. Of particular concern are the rural market towns that provide retail facilities and services to their hinterlands. The range and quality of internet-based alternatives to these facilities and services may lead to relatively high levels of e-substitution, which could undermine remaining physical outlets.

From a policy perspective, the growth of e-commerce challenges existing planning policies that aim to protect the established retail hierarchy. There is also a contradiction in policy that needs to be addressed: if e-commerce is successful in reducing the number of shopping journeys, and hence contributing to transport reduction policies, is it likely to do so at the expense of the very existing retail centres that planning policies are attempting to preserve?

Planning for a digital future

In a recent review of the relationship between planning and telecommunications at the European level, Dabinett and Booth conclude that ‘the role of telecommunications as a driver for change is only marginally integrated in current planning policy and practice’.14 Developments in the UK over the past three years with respect to regional planning allow us to gauge the extent to which this is true. Each of the regions of England has been involved in preparing new spatial development strategies, known as regional planning guidance (RPG), following extensive consultations amongst local authorities and other stakeholders.

The draft RPGs cover the period to 2016. Given the likely impact of ICTs over this period, it seems reasonable to expect that the following issues would be addressed in some detail:

  • the role of ICTs within spatial restructuring;
  • the importance of telecommunications infrastructure;
  • the potential contribution of ICTs to economic development;
  • the potential contribution of ICTs to rural development;
  • the implications of e-commerce for retail provision; and
  • the travel substitution potential of ICTs, within travel reduction strategies.

To assess this, we looked in detail at five of the draft RPG strategies: the south east,15 south west,16 north east,17 Yorkshire and the Humber,18 and east Midlands19 regions. A summary of our findings is shown in Table 8.1.

All five of the draft RPGs display clear and consistent evidence of the new sustainability ethos of planning, with a common emphasis on policies to reduce car travel and to concentrate development in existing urban centres. With the exception of the south east RPG, they have all begun to address the social and environmental issues surrounding the digital economy, though extremely patchily and from a very limited starting point. The following observations can be made concerning the nature of their engagement with these issues.

Table 8.1 Incorporation of ICT impacts into draft regional planning guidance

  • There is limited recognition (with the exception of the east Midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside) of the role of ICTs in contributing to the decentralization of activities, or in influencing the context within which spatial development is taking place.
  • There is some recognition of the importance of telecommunications infrastructure for economic development, but limited understanding of the market drivers that are producing spatially-differentiated levels of telecommunications provision. The influence of planning in the development of these infrastructures is seen as limited.
  • The potential contribution of ICTs to rural diversification and development, and improved access to services in rural areas, is recognized across the regions, although the mechanisms for realizing this potential remain largely undeveloped.
  • Although there is a strong emphasis on measures to reduce the demand for travel, there is little reference to the role of teleworking or the travel substitution potential of ICTs more generally.
  • With the exception of the east Midlands, there is remarkably little understanding of the extent to which future patterns of retail provision might be affected by the growth of e-commerce.

What is perhaps most apparent is that while awareness of these issues is rising, policy responses remain undeveloped. Planners, it seems, have neither the specialist expertise nor the mechanisms with which to influence the spatial development of a digital society. And yet, as William Mitchell has argued, perhaps the most crucial task for the planning community at this early stage in the development of the new economy

‘is not putting in place the digital plumbing of broadband communications links… but rather one of imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives we will want to lead and the sorts of communities that we will want to have.’20

Planners urgently need to seize the opportunity to shape these digitally-mediated lives and communities in ways that will contribute towards more sustainable futures.

Digital cities: four scenarios

The evidence suggests that unless the tendency of ICTs to generate movement is curbed, e-commerce will not necessarily contribute to wider sustainability objectives at an urban or regional level. However, this does not have to be the case. Through the intelligent and creative application of public policy, e-commerce could develop along a trajectory more closely aligned to sustainability. Here we identify how e-commerce could support urban sustainability by revisiting the four scenarios presented in Chapter 2. Although these are not explicitly focused on urban sustainability issues, it is possible to draw out some assumptions about the type of city that might exist within each scenario.

In each scenario we outline the vision of a possible urban future that is implied for e-commerce and sustainability. The scenarios enable us to build an understanding of the challenges involved in shaping e-commerce to support sustainability at the urban level. They are best understood as windows that provide different views of the city under various sets of institutional, social and economic conditions.

The city of CyberSpace

Deregulation rules the day. Global economic integration is pursued with increasing vigour, and cities find themselves the sometimes-unwilling subjects of intense competition with their counterparts elsewhere. As with any competition, there are winners and losers.

The drive to decrease costs is all-pervasive. E-commerce is used simply as a tool for increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of business, with little attention being paid to its wider social and environmental implications. Urban governance and public services, increasingly privatized, turn to e-commerce applications as a way of reducing costs. State provision of education, health and welfare declines and levels of service vary according to the user's ability to pay.

Notable too is the restructuring of the urban service sector following the rapid expansion of e-commerce in finance, retail logistics, entertainment, education and the health sector. Routine consumer purchases become increasingly automated as intelligent intermediaries source least-cost goods and services, and the retail sector shifts its emphasis towards demonstration and servicing. Again, it is the wealthy who benefit, as premium services are targeted at them, while the less affluent have access to a far lower level of services.

It is not only social concerns that suffer. The environment does too, for this is a highly transport-intensive, hyper-mobile future in which e-commerce stimulates the growth of urban freight and global logistics. Transport use grows, supported as it is by low energy prices. Cars, by now zero emission, remain the most popular means of transport through the use of ever-more-effective telematics, and this boosts the effective capacity of the road network and offsets congestion problems. Rapid growth of freight and air transport, again driven by e-commerce, requires major investments in transport infrastructure and telematics. Some significant gains in efficiency are stimulated by the development of B2B e-commerce in the urban economy, but this is against a background of increasingly intense competition as markets become more transparent and business seeks out the cheapest goods and services.

The city of DigitalIslands

In this scenario, economic instability and political problems over economic integration lead to a reassertion of national regulation and a slowing or even reversal of globalization.

Cities become less international in outlook, and focus instead on servicing markets at the national level. Social polarization continues, as the search for efficiency gains and cost reduction favours premium customers and bypasses those on lower incomes. The affluent enjoy increasingly automated routine services, and are targeted by a limited number of trusted national brands. For the less affluent, intermediaries support the development of buyers’ clubs for those who seek bulk discounts but are excluded from home delivery because of the low value of individual purchases.

Socio-economic differences between and within cities are exacerbated. This is a world in which high levels of growth in core regions and pockets of affluence associated with e-commerce and the new economy coexist – probably unhappily – with ‘black holes’ of deprivation, in which services are mediated by charities and voluntary groups.

The environment fares badly, as this is a heavily car-dependent future with weak planning controls, except in privileged enclaves that defend their own environmental and economic interests. Public transport infrastructure receives little investment. Congestion continues to increase, although the use of telematics increases road capacity for the affluent. Road freight increases but there is lower growth in air freight due to reduced levels of international business. In summary, this is a socially and spatially segregated city with high-value enclaves connected to one another through smart hi-tech highways.

The city of CyberSociety

In this scenario, social and ecological values play a much larger role in shaping international integration and economic management. Cities support radical economic, social and technological transformation within more managed global trading systems, which are designed to reconcile growth with equity, fair trade and the environment. E-commerce applications are harnessed for explicit social and environmental goals at an urban level.

Within the e-economy, networks are more open and some form of universal internet access is applied through global regulation. There is selective migration of services to e-commerce. Rapid growth in B2C e-commerce coincides with high levels of investment in sustainable transport infrastructure. B2B e-commerce is used to reduce environmental impacts through improved supply-chain and life-cycle management. Internet conferencing and virtual reality tools are used to reduce business travel.

Government makes extensive use of the web in participative policy making and service delivery. Social and environmental drivers shape innovation, research and development. Rapid technological change and high levels of investment in public transport decouple the linkage between economic growth and transport/energy intensity. In summary, this scenario sees the dissemination of clean technologies, the reorientation of the transport network, and the creation of new social contexts for alternatives to the use of the private car.

The city of NetworkedCommunities

This scenario envisages a world characterized by communitarian values at a local and regional level. Dissatisfaction with the process of globalization leads to a renewed emphasis on local governance, with increasing stress on self-reliance and autonomy at a local level.

Powerful metropolitan regions develop but maintain strong links with other cities both nationally and globally, largely through ICTs. E-commerce is used to support and strengthen communities and smaller, localized markets. Production–consumption relations are managed through web-based technologies that facilitate local exchange.

There is a limited migration of services to e-commerce, as local markets already provide most services. Internet technology is used to support local coops, e-barter and e-LETS. E-government focuses on the universal provision of information, health and education services. Reduced levels of transport result from declining trade, lower demand for mobility and higher energy costs. There is also greater emphasis on reducing the need for travel, through car sharing, traffic management, planning measures and sustainable home deliveries. In summary, this vision strongly reflects the localist and self-reliant policies often contained within urban Local Agenda 21 strategies.

Scenario-based planning

The scenarios are useful conceptual devices that develop particular configurations of social and economic change, and then describe the type of city that would exist within that wider context. However, like any technique of conceptualization, they have their limits. They are neither forecasts nor predictions in any formal sense. Nor are they futures that can simply be selected in terms of which is the most desirable. However, used with due caution, the scenarios can tell us three things.

1 The first is the multiplicity of pathways along which e-commerce could develop at an urban level. The scenarios illustrate how particular configurations of social organization and regulation can shape the objectives and direction of e-commerce, its use by business and government, and its impact on low-income users and the physical environment.

2 At the same time, these different pathways of e-commerce development coexist with varied visions of urban sustainability, each of which is simultaneously created and supported by particular ICT applications.

3 Finally, these scenarios are not mutually exclusive alternatives, but different pathways that coexist alongside each other. The challenge for policy is to slow down the negative trajectories and accelerate the positive, to bring e-commerce and wider urban sustainability objectives into better balance.

The e-commerce challenge to sustainable cities

In our view, e-commerce is a major challenge to the development of more sustainable cities and regions. Although the dominant rhetoric tends to focus on the environmental potential of ICTs, it is only that: potential. Over-confident perspectives ignore well-researched empirical evidence that ICTs tend to have a more complex, synergistic relationship with the physical environment.

The challenge for urban policy is to develop a new understanding of the role of ICTs within the changing physical fabric of contemporary cities. As the market begins to mesh and interweave building and transport networks with ICT infrastructure, so urban policy needs to keep pace through the parallel planning of electronic interconnections, physical places, and transportation networks.

Policy makers have not found a way of looking at planning, transportation and ICTs in an integrated fashion. Even in the urban white paper published in November 2000, discussion of sustainability, planning, transport and ICTs remain disconnected from one another.21 A fuller understanding of the urban significance of ICTs will require three shifts in our conventional understanding of the city:

1 a move away from one-way, linear conceptions of how technology impacts upon cities;

2 a recognition of the complex, subtle and contradictory relations between ICT-based and face to face interactions within and between cities; and

3 a realization that physical movement and ICTs, interpersonal and electronic interchanges, affect one another in complex feedback loops.

Urban and regional ICT policy needs to be based on three principles. First, strategies for embedding ICT networks into government, libraries, schools and working life need to engage much more directly with the place-based lives of the individuals, groups and organizations who will use them, if they are to contribute more to the UK's urban life. Second, conventional planning initiatives such as development plans, district plans and transportation strategies need to incorporate ICTs within the planning process. They can no longer concentrate exclusively on face to face interactions and physical transport flows, while ignoring the whole realm of electronically-mediated communication and exchange. Finally, there needs to be a more critical engagement between urban planners and the e-commerce and telecoms industries. A new style of planning is needed: one which brings together different stakeholders to collaborate in the creation of digital cities, recognizes the active role of ICTs in the construction of physical and electronic spaces, and acknowledges that, even in the new economy, ‘the power of place will still prevail…. Sometimes we will use networks to avoid going places. But sometimes, still, we will go places to network.’22

Notes and references

1 Kraemer, K L (1982) ‘Telecommunications/Transportation Substitution and Energy Conservation, Part 1’, Telecommunications Policy, March, pp39–99

2 Romm, J (1999) The Internet Economy and Global Warming, The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, Version 1.00, December; http://www.cool-companies.org/ecom/index.cfm

3 ibid

4 Hakes, J E (2000) ‘The Potential Impacts of Computers and the Internet on Electricity Consumption’, Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy, February 2

5 Mokhtarian, P L (1996) ‘The Information Highway: Just Because We're On it Doesn't Mean We Know Where We're Going’, The Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice, Vol 2, No 1, pp34–42

6 Mokhtarian, P L, Handy, S L, and Saloman, I (1995) ‘Methodological Issues in the Estimation of Travel, Energy and Air Quality Impacts of Telecommuting’, Transportation Research 29A(4), pp282–303

7 Gillespie, A (1999) ‘The Changing Employment Geography of Britain’, in Breheny, M (ed) The People: Where Will They Work?, TCPA, London

8 DETR (2000) Our Towns and Cities: The Future – Delivering an Urban Renaissance, London, November

9 Fitzpatrick, T (1997) ‘A Tale of Tall Cities’, The Guardian, February 6

10 Borja, J and Castells, M (1997) Local and Global: The Management of Cities in the Information Age, Earthscan, London, p158

11 Graham, S and Marvin, S (2000) ‘Urban Planning and the Technological Future of Cities’, in Wheeler, J, Aoyama, Y, and Warf, B (eds) Cities in the Telecommunications Age: The Fracturing of Geographies, Routledge, New York and London

12 Hajer, M and Zonneveld, W (2000) ‘Spatial Planning in the Network Society – Rethinking the Principles of Planning in The Netherlands’, European Planning Studies, Vol 8, No 3, pp337–355

13 Retail and Consumer Services Foresight Panel (2000) Clicks and Mortar: The new store fronts, DTI, London

14 Dabinett, G and Booth, C (2000) ‘Perspectives on Spatial Planning and Information and Communications Technology (ICT)’, State of the Art Working Paper 1, SPECTRE Project, CRESR, Sheffield Hallam University

15 Government Office for the South East (2000) Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the South East (RPG9), Guildford; March

16 South West Regional Planning Conference (1999) Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the South West, Taunton; August

17 Association of North East Councils (1999) Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the North East, Newcastle; December

18 Regional Assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside (1999) Advancing Together: Towards a Spatial Strategy, Draft Regional Planning Guidance, Wakefield; October

19 East Midlands Regional Local Government Association (1999) Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the Spatial Development of the East Midlands, Melton Mowbray; November

20 Mitchell, W J (1995) City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn, MIT Press, Cambridge

21 DETR, op cit

22 Mitchell, op cit


by Peter Hall

FromPeter Hall <p.hall@ucl.ac.uk>
SubjectBricks versus clicks

The first point is that no one really knows anything about all this; neither the academic commentators, nor the hapless entrepreneurs who (as ever in history) have hopelessly oversold the new technologies to gullible investors. We can say that e-commerce is changing the world, and will continue to change it. How much, and in which ways, is extremely difficult to gauge.

The second point is that the chapter rightly focuses on the impacts on urban function and urban form. There is no firm evidence at all that the digital economy will cause cities to empty out or disappear. Key texts by the chief evangelists of the digital economy both end with that conclusion.1 In this sense, the authors of Bricks versus Clicks are simply repeating the conventional wisdom. The reasons are evident. First, the production side of the new economy is highly networked and highly agglomerated, as the classic example of Silicon Valley classically shows. Secondly, consumption is also agglomerated, because a high-income, high-consumption economy depends very much on direct personal experience, even shared experience. This is why shopping malls and rock concerts and theme parks and package holidays continue to flourish. Indeed, e-commerce may encourage face to face commerce: CD purchasers may go to a concert to see the original, and web surfers may go to look at the product in the mall.

Here, it is important – but also extremely difficult – to distinguish carefully between influences and time periods. Decentralization of people and jobs and services did not begin with the digital economy, or even with Thatcherism. The first out-of-town (more accurately edge-of-town) stores opened in the early 1960s; Sainsbury opened their first superstore in Peterborough at the start of the 1970s. True, Thatcherite policies from 1979 onwards gave the process a boost, but it was already well under way. Nor is the networked economy, with its space of flows, a new phenomenon of the 1990s; it was alive and well in Victorian London and Birmingham, as Alfred Marshall discovered in the 1890s. What is new is its relative resurgence, after its partial eclipse in the era of Fordism from the 1920s to the 1980s. But the precise point, already underlined, is that invariably the network economy was and is spatially-bounded. Toyota outside Derby draws on just-in-time suppliers, but the majority of these are in the adjacent West Midlands nearby. And the decaying high streets of smaller towns (not all of them, but some) were in trouble long before the digital economy; larger town centres are a bigger threat to them, far more than e-commerce.

So trends roll on, in the long term, with surprising consistency. And so far, there is little evidence that e-commerce has affected them much. This poses the question: do we have to worry? What is all the fuss about? The authors develop four scenarios. The first two are supposed to represent trends, the second pair to represent the injection of policy. My problem is understanding how some of the reactions would actually come about. For instance, in scenario two, economic instability and problems with economic integration lead to more national regulation and a slowing decline in or even reversal of globalization. Maybe, but how? Perhaps between the EU and North America. But within the EU? And what about the WTO? Likewise, in scenario three, ‘Cities support radical economic, social and technological transformation within more managed global trading systems, which are designed to reconcile growth with equity, fair trade and the environment.’ Very laudable, but it sounds rather like the local economic policies of the early 1980s. Which cities are ever going to do this, with what powers and what resources? How would they seek to assert themselves against the forces of globalization? The same problem occurs with redoubled force in scenario four, which implies a total transformation of values and power structures.

The authors issue a disclaimer: these scenarios ‘are neither forecasts nor predictions in any formal sense. Nor are they futures that can simply be selected in terms of which is the most desirable.’ But, if they are none of the above, then it is difficult – at least for this reviewer – to see what purpose they serve. Scenario building always presents the same problem: it essentially involves writing history backwards with the benefit of hindsight, in that it requires that we trace out a logically consistent and plausible set of processes and their interactions. And then, if we are interested in policy, it means that we have to inject just so much variation, of the right kind, as would be plausible in the concrete historical circumstances. If politics is the art of the possible, then scenario building is the art of predicting the possible. My problem is that some of these scenarios seem to go right outside those bounds, unless the authors are logically assuming a cataclysm of 1930s proportions. And they are nowhere asserting that.

1 Gates, W (1995) The Road Ahead, Viking, London; Mitchell, W J (1995) City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass