The rise and rise of the city!

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Are we focussing enough on the role of cities as prime drivers of social and economic hope and growth, rather than as sinks of deprivation and division?

In terms of communications delivery and policy the historic debate has often crystallised into comparisons between urban and rural; the advantaged and the disadvantaged; the under-served and super-served. Comparisons which looked at rural areas as very dispersed communities and cities as very concentrated communities.

The rush to the cities

But we are at a very significant point in human development. At the beginning of the  21stcentury humanity is 50% urban; by 2050 we will be up to 70% urban.

An urbanised world means that cities need a stronger, separate and particular focus if they are to thrive. This is particularly true of British cities, where the requirements of the digital age needs to be threaded through and bounced off an often crumbling Victorian and early 20 century infrastructure.

In an interview published in the winter Journal of the RSA, Dr Benjamin Barber discusses the concept that, at a time when we face problems that need global solutions, then we should be looking to cities and their leaders – and not national governments for the answers.  (Dr Barber’s book, If Mayors Ruled the World, will be published later in 2013)

In researching his book, Dr Barber found that because of their local character and size, cities can lead in creating effective informal networks and cross-border solutions.  And “because of their local character and size they are much more democratic than the corporate institutions that are their competitors in international networking. “

And to make this work, there needs to be much faster and coherent digital networks in place to generate alignment between commercial, social and public sectors.

Smart city movement

And it is this fast and coherent connectivity which allows things like the smart city movement to be effective – and for example allows Amsterdam (an old city) to set a target to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2025. That’s twice the European objective. 

But as Leo Hollis writes in the New Statesman (A tale of the City Told by your Phone, January 2013), if we accept this growing  international significance of the city, then  “As a result who owns the virtual information space of the city will be as important as who owns the actual fabric”.  It is connectivity that gives us the ability to understand and mediate the city.

And this is the key issue. If cities are prime movers for mankind’s future, it is important that they are democratic movers. And already the cost and complexity of technology is disenfranchising.

Building an inclusive society

How do we ensure that our cities, including the smaller ones, provide the access and training for all groups in society to contribute to an increasingly digitally-driven democratic process? Increasingly, many groups do not have a real voice on  new on-line and broadcast media; collectively they tend to be not as engaged in what is becoming the mainstream.

Pre-digital work on civic engagement, particularly in America (cf ”Why People Participate in Politics and  Social Life Life”, Eric M Uslaner, University of Maryland) stressed that access to and engagement with networks was the key.  And now those networks have got more complex and perhaps more impenetrable for many.   Leo Hollis argues that as the internet becomes increasingly free, then it is also ever more controlled by digital gatekeepers – “The corporatisation of the virtual world may just be the biggest threat to face our cities”.

Where happens to rural communities?

A final word from Benjamin Barber.  If just over half the world’s population lives in cities, then just under half don’t. And what mechanisms – perhaps different mechanisms - do we need to ensure that they are not digitally and democratically disenfranchised in world driven by the cities?

Graham Creelman is a member Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for England.

The Ofcom report: Markets and  Interventions:  improving the availability of communication services in the UK will be published later this year.

1 Comments

Seeking Input

Graham Creelman wrote a memorandum to the Advisory Committee for England (ACE) that jump-started our discussion of cities as a stronger focus for ACE and the Nations Committees of Ofcom. This has been viewed as a complement to current studies at Ofcom of the geography of communication infrastructures across the UK, which highlight some of the urban-rural differences in access and infrastructures. If we zoom in on cities, which we hope to do, we expect to see some gaps in infrastructure development but also in the wherewithall and skills required for inclusion in urban and other digital networks of such importance to the economy and society. ACE and all the committees hope to identify those from business, industry and academia who are thinking about cities and communication infrastructures and services. Let us know about your interests and share your views by writing or blogging your comments on this site. I'm hopeful that Graham's blog will be as stimulating as his first memo on cities.