With countless high streets being slowly colonised by charity shops and discount stores, the future looks bleak for many UK town centres. Can technology provide the answer?
The past four decades have seen a massive centrally-planned public spending spree in the noble cause of regenerating the UK's 'failing' towns and cities. But despite the billions of pounds that have been sunk into shiny new buildings, housing renewal schemes and anti-poverty programmes, all too often the investment has failed to deliver the desired social and economic impact.
Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard University, is the author of 'Triumph of the City', which revels in the sub-title 'How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, healthier and happier'. Glaeser says: "Cities matter because they magnify mankind's greatest strengths. They help form the chains of collaboration and creativity that are behind everything that mankind has been able to do. Mankind's greatest talent is the ability to learn from each other, and we learn more deeply and thoroughly when we're face-to-face."
But Glaeser's optimistic vision of city living is tempered with a sharp dose of reality, particularly when it comes to assessing the strategies that have been employed to turn around our towns and cities in the recent past. "New sports arenas and the like are enormously expensive," he says, "and [they] distract city councils and mayors from the core business of providing a brighter future for the children of their cities through education."
Regeneration specialist John Houghton goes further, arguing that the traditional model of regeneration is broken. "The poorest neighbourhoods have been regenerated and renewed again and again over the past 40 years - without being fundamentally altered," he says. "Places that lost their economic rationale in the 1970s are still struggling to redefine themselves. Some of the places hit by riots in the 1980s and 1990s were struck again in August 2011.
"The failure of regeneration and renewal inevitably means that thousands of deprived neighbourhoods, home to millions of people, are in need of urgent assistance," Houghton adds. "Still living in damp and over-crowded houses. Still excluded from an ever tighter and more demanding job market."
And as central and local governments seek aggressively to shrink their debt burden, public services and financial support for the poorest communities are set to be cut deeper. Without a new approach, the prospects for urban regeneration seem likely to worsen.
Is technology part of the problem?
Technological innovation is widely seen as the gateway to a brighter future. But could the onward march of the technological revolution be part of the problem for our failing cities?
Most obviously, there's the decline of the traditional high street. Culpability for the ever-increasing number of streets lined with charity shops and boarded-up units is usually laid at the door of the increasingly ubiquitous out-of-town retail park, but online retailing is also growing fast - it pushed past 12 per cent of the total market in 2011 and is expected to have gained another percentage point in 2012 - and has to shoulder its share of the blame. Is Mary Portas, the high-profile government advisor on the health of the high street, merely shifting the deckchairs while town centres sink beneath the waves?
Then there's the issue of social networking groups replacing real-world communities, particularly for our young people. Will the exponential growth of Facebook and online gaming combine with increasing anxiety about safety in the real (outdoor) world to feed both the obesity epidemic and the proliferation of banal electronic interactions at the expense of genuine human face-time?
Perhaps schools are next on the hit list. Schools are currently at the heart of our communities, but when an electronic tablet can teach you to read without the need for a teacher and when you can have free access to online lectures by the world's greatest thinkers, what is the future of expensive institutions that dragoon our young people to sit trapped behind desks on a model that has changed little since Dickens's time?
As David Puttnam puts it: "If all you do with technology is use it to support existing methodologies and practice, then why, and on what possible basis, would you expect new or significantly better results? It's the equivalent of putting the man with the red flag back in front of each automobile and simply encouraging him to jog a little more quickly."
He adds: "In truth, merely 'digitising' old practices means simply seeking to get the same or similar results - but that bit faster. I've long been suggesting to anyone who'll listen that those who wish to drive educational improvement would do well to consider what a major, positive 'disruption' in learning and teaching might look like; that is to say, what advances could a bold and enlightened 'digital pedagogy' achieve, as opposed to simply settling for a 'digitised curriculum'?"
Digital Dead End
It's well recognised that digital exclusion is a major challenge for people living in deprived communities. Half of all people without Internet access in the UK live in social housing, and if you can't get online, your energy bills will be higher, you can't post your CV electronically in search of that elusive job, and an increasing amount of online health advice is inaccessible to you.
Writing in her 2011 book 'Digital Dead End', the US academic Virginia Eubanks argues that to put our faith in the power of technology to bring about a better world is to engage in a kind of magical thinking: a technological utopia will come about simply because we want it to. She cites as an example the fact that high-tech employment for women in her local YWCA community effectively amounts to data-input roles that pay just $7 an hour. In this work environment, every keystroke is monitored. The state offers strictly limited benefits in exchange for high-tech monitoring and surveillance of lives, families and communities. The modern-day workhouse?
In his 1895 proto sci-fi novella 'The Time Machine', HG Wells famously envisioned a world 800,000 years in the future where humanity has evolved into two separate sub-species: the elegant, peaceful, fruitarian Eloi and the malevolent, ape-like, troglodyte Morlocks. Needless to say, Wells' story didn't end well for humanity. His writing may have been informed by his somewhat unorthodox political beliefs, and society has since changed in ways even he could not then have imagined, but Wells' fable is still seen as a warning of the consequences of economic and social division growing out of control.
Can technology help close the gap?
Maybe the divide is not so unbridgeable. In early 2012, as part of its global programme, the not-for-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) delivered a number of Motorola Xoom tablet computers, together with solar charging systems, to two isolated Ethiopian villages where most of the children had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on it. OLPC simply left the children to interact with the tablets.
The aim was to see if the children could teach themselves how to read, just by messing around with the preloaded educational apps and games. OLPC's founder, Nicholas Negroponte told the MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference: "I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid opened the box, found the on-off switch...powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android."
One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word 'Lion'. Negroponte says that more time and further testing is needed to "come to a conclusion that the scientific community will accept" but given that a hundred million six and seven year olds currently have no access to schooling, the potential of this approach is encouraging.
Creative solutions often spring from adversity - in the western world just as much as in sub-Saharan Africa. Derry-Londonderry in Northern Ireland has seen more than its fair share of conflict over the past 40 years, and its emergence from strife was a factor in it being chosen as the UK's first City of Culture in 2013. As part of a year-long programme, Derry-Londonderry will push the boundaries of creativity within education in order to forge a new culture of learning for a digital age and a new role for schools within communities.
Senior cultural programmer Martin Melarkey explains: "In 2013, the city has a chance to show exactly how the curriculum can be taught through creativity and the creative application of digital technology - how writing a song or composing a poem for podcasting, taking a digital photograph or making a video, drawing a digital comicbook or animating a story, can revitalise subjects that are currently failing to engage many young people."
He adds: "The aim is to galvanise schools to become hubs of creativity at the heart of their local communities, opening their doors after hours for arts-based learning programmes catering for young adults, parents, the unemployed and senior citizens. This will allow the city to tackle underachievement; provide a second chance for those who have never benefited from a creative curriculum; and get the community involved in creating art, learning digital skills, publishing their own images, poems, video and music on the Web, and sharing their stories around the globe."
Local and global change
As they move beyond an education environment, young people increasingly need to be given the tools to grasp a new work paradigm that is both global and local. Damian Collins, one of the 2010 intake of new MPs to the UK parliament, is chairman of the Conservative Arts and Creative Industries Network. Collins sees the next phase of the Internet as being the use of digital technology to support small-scale local manufacturing and production.
As he puts it: "People can already make cakes in their own home and sell them on Facebook. With the right technology anyone will be able to design, produce and sell products at a price that allows them to compete with national retailers. The biggest trend in start-up businesses is young people setting up online businesses, initially working from home. But quite quickly these new businesses need to come into a shared environment where a number of different small businesses can become inter-reliant, and where they can access mentoring advice.
"At a very basic level you need to be able to sit down at a shared desk and work on your laptop for free. Then as you progress you need to move into your own space, on easy-in/easy-out terms. There needs to be a programme of seminars and networking events to make sure people get together and share ideas. The Google Campus at Shoreditch is a great example of this."
Google's Campus opened in March 2012 and is already the UK's largest tech start-up hub. It's located right at the heart of the Shoreditch/Old Street high-tech area - London's so-called Silicon Roundabout. Matt Brittin is CEO of Google UK. He says: "Google is a start-up that's all about technology and we thought that, rather than making investments, why not provide seven storeys where start-ups can try to be successful and bring people together?
"And so we've got 100 start-ups already working from the building. The most important thing is people coming together; in this area of London there's already a lot of start-ups and the Campus is a hub for more of them to come. A lot of it is about sharing ideas, mentoring each other and also providing access to skills and finance. In the long run, if more people use the Internet to be successful that's great for all of us who are online."
The pioneers of regeneration
Even before the arrival of high-tech businesses in the mid-1990s, the Hoxton/Shoreditch/Old Street area of East London had become a haven for artists, most famously the pack of YBAs (Young British Artists) led by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Gavin Turk.
Back in the 1970s, it had been the Wapping and Butler's Wharf areas on either side of the Thames that had been a magnet for artists - the likes of Derek Jarman and Andrew Logan, who'd been attracted by big tall warehouse spaces, abandoned after the docks had closed. But as Wapping became increasingly fashionable, the property speculators moved in and rents quadrupled almost overnight. Artists migrated north to'the watering holes of Hoxton and Shoreditch, chasing cheaper rents and disused industrial buildings. And where the artists went, other creatives followed - architects, designers and high-tech start-ups, all in search of a creative edge and an authentic sense of urban cool.
Of course the Hoxton model can't work everywhere; the blend of ingredients needed to attract the right mix of entrepreneurs, thinkers and creatives to kick-start the regeneration process is an elusive one. But there is an opportunity for other places to get in on the game. As Collins says: "Creative people always tend to be looking to move on to the next place. The East End became the focus many years ago when photographers moved from Chelsea to Hackney. Then Brighton became hugely popular with creatives, but now property there is as expensive as London."
There's intense competition among run-down places to lure the next wave of migrating creatives; and a growing appreciation that a wide range of conditions need to be right to entice in the herd.
Already the regeneration pioneers of Hoxton and of Brighton are raising their heads and sniffing the air. "East," they murmur, "Eastward, to the fresh fields of Walthamstow, and onward to the edge, the last of England, where the skies are big, the broadband is enabled and the rents are low - to Hastings; to Folkestone; onward, my friends, to Margate!"
* Nick Ewbank is a leading authority on creative urban regeneration. He was founding director of the culture, education and regeneration charity The Creative Foundation and steered its ground-breaking project to revitalise the failing seaside town of Folkestone. He now runs Nick Ewbank Associates, a consultancy firm'advising local authorities, universities and other clients on fresh approaches to tackling urban decline, particularly in coastal areas.