The Discourse of New Technologies in Local Economic Planning
A Paper By Dr Alan Southern
Durham University Business School
This article looks briefly at a story which is unfolding about information and communications technologies (ICTs) in local economic planning. As planners take on board the strategic development of local economies (under the 1989 Local Government and Housing Act), there has been a broad consideration of ICTs as a tool for development. One result is the recent manifestation of all sorts of telematics and informatics strategy. A strong discursive element can be chronicled in this.
The term discourse (Foucault, 1972) is introduced here in the sense that there are a set of accepted and relevant concepts which have become socially legitimised, even taken for granted, which provide a knowledge (that is, a truth and accuracy) from which we understand the world (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982). This idea is introduced here to stimulate debate from these pages, based on a premise that a discursive formation on ICTs in local economic development is taking shape. The consequences of this is an allocation of resources and effort to pursue a particular type of local economy. These ideas are evolving from an ongoing research enquiry focused on ICT developments in the North East of England.
Associated with ICTs are visions of the future which involve new industries, new ways of working, new ways of learning, and new ways of participating in every day life. This is about an information age which is opening up before our eyes, based on the capacity to exploit a technological infrastructure spread across the globe (Castells, 1996; Graham and Marvin, 1996). In some places this discourse dominates over other forms of discourse which are also about economic development, such as community enterprise, large scale manufacturing or labour intensive public sector services. In these areas local governance agencies adopt a computopian vision which acts as an essential element in the era of new information technologies in local economic planning (Southern, 1997).
The computopian vision
The computopian vision is held by key actors in the local economic planning process. Many planners and strategy-makers in local authorities, Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), enterprise agencies, and Business Link, refer to the communications network as a feature of their local infrastructure analogous to the road or rail network. ICTs, they suggest, provide a sound form of communications necessary for the economic activity of the future. This development takes many routes: wired up business parks with state-of-the-art technologies, electronic public information points to empower local business and citizens, projects to encourage small firms to hook up to the information superhighway, initiatives to raise the IT skills of local people, dedicated centres for information processing such as tele-cottages, and so on. However, for this vision to build up into an accepted knowledge, from which to understand policy and strategy-making, it has to be based on a relevant history and offer a future potential.
Thus, the computopian vision of ICTs and local economic planning is rooted in a history of technology associated with a previous industrial era. In particular it is the technological advances associated with the mass manufacturing of the Fordist era which provides this history (see Allen, 1992 for an introduction to Fordism and manufacturing). It is no coincidence therefore that many local planners, feeling the fall-out from the Fordist past, turn to new technologies which provide an answer to help them restructure their local economy. Technology provides the relevance to the local economy (for instance producing long-waves of economic development or cycles of innovation for businesses, see Hall and Preston, 1988; Schumpeter, 1939) and becomes an enduring feature rooted in the social and economic characteristics of what went before.
Figure 1 (pictured left) demonstrates the enduring character of technology and local economies. There is a strong Fordist image associated with this as rows and rows of workbench personal computers are lined up in a manner analogous to a manufacturing production line. At the same there is captured a vision of the future: en-masse skilling for the information age. The image is from a University in one North East city, but in principle it is typical of educational establishments up and down the UK. This is because developing the next strata of labour with transferable skills in information processing, or specialised skills in software engineering, is a socially legitimate process and an integral part of the future.
The second part of the computopian vision is about the potential of ICTs. Local planners have an instrumental responsibility because they enable technology to be exploited in a distinct manner. One North-East telematics strategy outlines how to support people who are unemployed to retrain in IT, from this point they could set themselves up as self-employed to win work on a franchised or telework basis. This is about empowering the individual to take work from wherever it is available, operating if necessary in a global market place. Another document suggests ICTs will off-set the peripheral nature of their place to European markets and centres of decision making, while assisting in business trading, business networking and business competitiveness. The relevance of ICTs is tied up in its empowering capability and in this instance it holds a potential to break down boundaries previously constructed around the nation state.
There is strong evidence associated with the potential for empowering local economies. Castells and Hall (1994) for example have outlined the development of Silicon Valley, one of the best known high-technology economies in the world. This place has
The evidence of success here is so strong that foreign companies line up to be associated with it, key politicians visit in a pilgrimage to learn of its innovative secrets, the competitiveness of the world economy depends on its ability to reproduce those secrets, and future wars are rehearsed in the laboratories of the large, medium and small companies which make up the local economy.
Not every place in the world can lay claim to the social, economic and cultural framework of Silicon Valley. Even so, as planners and policy-makers understand places like Silicon Valley (see Castells and Hall, 1994 on this) they attempt to shape the future in a particular way. Examples of this include the political dialogue from key actors, such as in the 1994 report Europe and the Global Information Society (known as the Bangemann Report). This outlined an action plan of telematics research and development on a European wide basis. In the UK, both Labour and Conservative politicians have attempted to seize the high ground relating to the information society; while at a local level council leaders, chief officers and chief executives have sought to be associated with a visionary image of a new technological future. In other words they develop a rationale to underpin their computopian vision.
There are three elements to computopian economies. There are the levels of ICTs activity, there is the extent to which this is co-ordinated and there is the strategic vision held by the co-ordinating and local governing body.
Table 1 provides an indication of the types of ICTs activity which are being co-ordinated under a strategic umbrella. The aim is to harmonise a number of projects, very often with separate funding criteria, in a manner which increases the overall effect on the local economy.
Table 1: The types of ICTs activity being co-ordinated for local economic development
It is important to note that many local areas have development of this sort taking place. However, it is the greater levels of co-ordination and strategic vision which make a local economy computopian, creating a difference from other types of local economy (see Southern, 1997).
A number of partnerships have emerged in the North East to govern the implementation, operation and consequence of ICTs in local economic development. Co-ordination is beyond the scope of a single organisation. It is significant that high level officials are involved, such as council officials, chief executives, and even Members of Parliament. Whoever takes the lead role require the co-operation and participation of agencies such as local authorities, Business Link, TEC, English Partnerships, the regional government office, representatives from private business and so on. This provides a political and economic legitimacy, important to the bodies who fund and pump-prime projects (like central or European government), and it cements the social and cultural relationships that exist within an area. The partnership approach to development is important as it enables a broad-church of local actors to buy into the new vision.
The various forms of ICTs initiative underway create a holistic vision of an information society, and providing that the partnership harmonises activity in a successful way, it produces a decisive image of a local economy where ICTs interweave the many aspects of economic and business activity. One local economic strategy suggests how as a result of modern telecommunication network the place involved was
This is typical of the discourse that the partnership buys into. The development in ICTs will support the local economy by changing business processes; it will change supply chains, stimulate self-employment, will make small firms global and will level the playing field between trans-global corporates and medium sized firms.
There is much more to this than rhetoric. The discourse of new technology in local economic planning is wound up in the search for new inward investment and bids for public funds, stimulating new economic activity and promising a new image of the future. The discursive formation which is taking shape is about a particular knowledge of the local economy: where it is presently situated and where it should be going. It provides a system of meaning based on a social network which draws on previous discourse, such as those beliefs and images associated with a Fordist past. This is not a random process. The partnerships emerging are doing so to govern the development of ICTs in a regular and systematic way (Foucault, 1972).
Tangible development of telecentres, electronic village halls, commercial call centres, public information points, small firms using the Internet, skills centres and teleworking are in progress. In fact, as Castells (1989, 1996) has consistently argued, it is the shift in the nature of the material basis of society - towards an informational and networked paradigm - which is the fundamental outcome from the rapid and profound developments taking place in ICTs. The importance of this in terms of local economic planning rests with the role of key governance actors who, in their efforts to exploit the nature of technology, will write the script for development and be faced with the positive and negative consequences from implementation.
Overview of research
In this article I have introduced another aspect to the debate on the information society by suggesting a new discursive formation is taking shape around ICTs in local economic planning. I have not sought to present a negative argument but tried to view ICTs from a different theoretical position. There are other similar discussions taking place (see Castells, 1996, or the journal City referenced below). My view is based on current research which explores ICTs in local economic strategy. In this work I look at the way in which ICTs strategy takes shape: the rationale behind this type of development, the partnership approach to development, the funding processes involved, and the way the information society is manifesting from the view of its local governance. In the North East of England cities, towns and rural areas are adopting strategies to exploit the perceived opportunities of global networks in the informational society. This is a planning and strategy making process which is leading to a complex and uneven pattern of ICTs development in local economies.
June 19, 1997
Note: I am indebted to a colleague of mine, Francis Greene, for providing a thorough critique on an earlier version of this article.
For more information on this work contact
Durham University Business School
Mill Hill Lane
Durham DH1 3LB
e mail: Alan.Southern@durham.ac.uk
Some current web sites in the North East
Northern Informatics http://wamses.unn.ac.uk/
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Castells, M. (1989) The Informational City, Basil Blackwell: Oxford.
Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.: Oxford.
Castells, M. and Hall, P. (1994) Technopoles of the World, Routledge: London.
Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. (1982) Michel Foucault Beyond Structuralism and Hermenutics, Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hemel Hempstead.
Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, Routledge: London.
Graham, S. and Marvin, S. (1996) Telecommunications and the City, Routledge: London.
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Southern, A. (1997) Re-booting the Local Economy: Information and Communication Technologies in Local Economic Strategy, Local Economy, 12 (1), pp 8-25.