Friday, 30 September 2011

the e-City

It's been a week of e-participation for me. Earlier this week, the majority of local authorities in Scotland took part in the #whatwedo experiment, including my own the City of Edinburgh Council. Their corporate Twitter account is outwards facing mainly - they'll interact with you if you badger them enough (like me). But the neighbourhood team twitter feeds (my local one here) are a really good experiment and I've had some good conversations with them (looking forward to the Calder Road being resurfaced anytime soon *ahem*).

I also discovered twitter widgets, so here's one which includes the #whatwedo feed:

Although, just looking at this, clearly the hashtag has been hijacked by people are bit more disgruntled with local government than me!

I also had a really interested meeting yesterday with Ella Taylor-Smith at Napier University (@EllaTasm). We chatted about eparticipation, which I'm interested in, particularly if it opens up new avenues for inclusion and/or exclusion.

This got me thinking. Essentially now, we have two cities. We have the city of the built environment and the digital city that mirrors it. Like the built city, the digital city has fixed points - telephone exchanges, grey boxes, wifi hubs, server farms, mobile cell transmitters - and mobile traffic, like me with my smart phone. Like the real city, the digital city gets congested, when you're thrown out of your mobile cell because it's over capacity, or your internet connection slows to a snails pace at 8pm when everyone's using the iPlayer. Like the built city, it also has inequalities. People like me at work have a ridiculously fast internet connection, whereas others will struggle to ever afford an internet connection, or will be too geographically remote to get a decent connection. 

This makes me think what is the planners role in the digital city? Is it just to get involved in the built bit? Give planning permission for phone masts and telephone exchanges? I'd hope not. Planners could be much more active in promoting the digital city and visioning new, exciting possibilities and offering the capacity to achieve these. 

To switch the question around slightly - does the internet need planners? The original ethos of the internet - basically an equitable free-for-all - suggests that it should not have planners. Surely we're the mercenaries of capitalism that control everything? But given the internet is now so dominated by commerce, and issues such as bandwidth strangling, are coming to the fore, I really think that there might be scope for positive planning in the internet. Using the planners skills to protect the equitable free-for-all from the encroachments of capitalism and not just leave it to IT guys building server farms.

I'm thinking off adding a vague, vision-y, class on "planning digital infrastructure" to a course I teach in 2013. What do you reckon? Am I onto something?

Edit: speaking of


  1. Me and @Localopolis had this twitter conversation about this:

  2. I've heard lots of phrases bandied around - Digital Britain, the Race Online, Rural Broadband etc. etc. - but I'm not close enough to know whether anything is actually occurring, or if people are just saying words at each other.

    Can I point you in the direction of @johnpopham and his can't get online project (, who also has a project bubbling away about free wifi access in hospitals, and @cyberdoyle who gets very evangelical about internet access, fibre to the home, and rural broadband.

    I wanted to say "The internet doesn't need planners, but goverments' use of the internet does." - but I have since remembered ipv6, which seems to be only occurring very slowly despite the fairly urgent need we have for it now we're running out of ipv4 address space.

  3. Have a look at for more 'digital city' ideas!

  4. This sounds as though it's probably quite closely related to the "net neutrality" stuff that's been going around, which is pretty much about whether limited bandwidth is prioritised fairly or according to who pays the most for their content to be fast.

    It strikes me that planning the digital city would require much more regulation of the internet than we have at present. I think people tend to be wary of this because it seems rare for policy-makers to understand the technology or how it is used, leading to stupid rules... Plus, experience of such things so far is that the entertainment industry arrive and say "here, let us explain what the rules need to say"...

    I can see this attitude changing, though. At present I think regulation of the net is seen as likely to further the corporate interests of the entertainment industry, but in future we may welcome it as a way to protect us from the monopolies/oligopolies of the social network giants... I think there's a risk that over the next decade the net becomes much less open as everything passes through a few portals such as Facebook and the like - effectively private internets-within-the-internet.

    Or did I miss the point? Were you talking more about physical network infrastructure?

  5. @impeus and @swaldman - you've both completely got my point. I'm getting at both physical infrastructure and the technical infrastructure. What planners' do is accept there is a limited resource (land) and try and find the optimum allocation of that within the economy. I think "planners" of the net could be at the vanguard of net neutrality if it was positive, interventionist planning, not just doing what entertainment multinationals want.

    I was thinking this might be a role for planners, as opposed to IT and systems people, because of the political and social implications, but also because the net is spatial and things do need to happen - like the IPv6. This could be encouraged by web "planners" in the same way as spatial planners promoted highways in the 1950s. Hopefully with fewer long term problems...

  6. David McAllister3 October 2011 at 16:06

    From reading some of the comments, it sounds like the entertainment industry and multinationals will become the real estate developers of digital space, requiring regulation and guidance from benevolent e-planners :)