Cutting edge of the city

October 10, 1997

Newcastle, once the setting for postwar urban mismanagement on a grand scale, is nurturing a technology-led revolution in the study of cities and responsive ways to manage their regeneration.

Simon Marvin, director of the Centre for Urban Technology (CUT) in the department of town and country planning at the University of Newcastle, is leading a cross-disciplinary team of researchers whose project is to address the deficiencies of present urban planning paradigms.

The centre was established in early 1995. It aims to understand the changing relationships between technical networks - water, energy, telecommunications and transportation - and the spatial, economic, social, and environmental development of contemporary cities.

The CUT team's perspective is shaped by what they describe as the invisible revolution fashioned by the privatisation and convergence of the public utilities.

They perceive that traditional technological and institutional logics underpinning the provision of water, power, light, transportation, and telecommunications are being radically remodelled. Shifts towards liberalisation, privatisation and the application of telematics technologies are forcing technical networks to the top of urban agendas. Advanced telecommunications are being applied across every aspect of urban development, including the management of all network infrastructures.

All this begs a cross-disciplinary approach, emphasised in Marvin and colleague Stephen Graham's ground-breaking book Telecommunications and the City (1996).

Marvin says that the team's different perspectives - sociology, cultural theory, geography, town and country planning - help to slice the city into a series of lenses that can then be honed and reassembled to highlight previously hidden structures.

CUT has secured more than Pounds 500,000 from a wide range of sponsors including the Economic and Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, European Commission, Department of Trade and Industry, Department of the Environment, local authorities, development agencies, trade unions and large commercial companies such as BT, Mercury and Nuclear Electric.

The cross-disciplinary approach, successful in attracting funding, has also revealed the convergence of energy, information and water utilities. "We can see that the utilities are blending," Marvin says.

But developments like smartcard-based energy metering bring both promise and threat. "For 'best user' groups, there is the chance for two-way communication using the smart card with the telecoms structures underpinning this development," Marvin explains.

"Card development also offers the chance to address environmental issues, for example, energy conservation by better demand management. In the water utilities, efficiency of the networks are being addressed. Leakage can be identified by meters in the net. For the first time, source of loss can be identified. The network, previously hidden and to some extent unmanageable, is revealed and becomes manageable."

Graham says: "All utilities are adopting this model. Signals are clearly given on usage; regulation of usage and appeals to the green sensibility combine with consumer pressure to deliver a better service. Utilities are following the supermarket model by buying in and creating super-databases that allow them to target groups and base levels of service around the data collected."

Demand side management offsets need for new investment. Water utilities can avoid the huge cost of building a new reservoir by containing demand and re-educating consumers to use less. Identifying leakage has the same result. Both management and consumer benefit.

"Groups are using their collective clout to engineer savings, to strike better deals," Graham says. "Housing associations and Saga are two examples. There is a new identity: the collective user. This new user also knows how to take advantage of telematics, the acquisition of knowledge and the exploitation of individual skills to negotiate a better deal."

But the downside of this revolution in the utilities is becoming increasingly obvious. Marvin says: "The use of telematics is fashioning different types of relationships. Best user, the top 20 per cent, are heavily targeted for beneficial services. Research gleaned and branding helps to expand the service at the same time as the bottom 20 per cent are increasingly disengaged by using smart metering, for example. The pre-paid card service is up to 40 per cent more expensive per unit."

The bottom 20 per cent of users are targeted as low priority for the utilities. Marvin cites cases of fires caused by people unable to access energy from utilities and burning open fires in homes with no fireplace, grate or chimney.

"We are also seeing group exchange of kettled hot water and baths on a borrow and return basis. Candles are often used as a form of lighting. Smart card users are juggling access to the utilities and developing coping strategies."

This includes self-disconnection as Marvin explains: "Technology can be used to hide the problem. Utilities companies are innovating faster than the watchdogs."

In a proposed study of smart metering in Liverpool and Newcastle, the researchers will use geographical information systems to compare the locations of smart card recharge points and poverty areas in the cities.

This information may give local authorities greater bargaining power in their development negotiations with utility companies and could help them resist the global trends towards dislocation and polarisation starkly profiled by the fortress housing developments in the Los Angeles suburbs.

Telecommunications and the City (Routledge). Hardback Pounds 50 ISBN 0-415 11902 2, cloth Pounds 15.99, ISBN 0 415 11903 0.

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