Back in the early 1990’s there was a graph which depicted energy use by sector which clearly showed how over time the UK’s energy use in the transport sector was steadily overtaking those of industry and domestic energy use. It begged the question, if transport is going to be the biggest energy use culprit in society then what measures can we take in the built environment to remove the need, if not the want, to be so mobile? That in a nutshell was the point of departure for a project BBM nicknamed, ‘Cityvision’. By the mid-1990’s, BBM were disseminating ideas to see if society was ready to start reducing energy demand and pollution but also improving quality of life. These were ideas where buildings and urban structure played a major role in supporting lower energy lifestyles.
Above: A very telling government graph discovered by BBM in the mid-1990’s depicted energy use by sector in the UK and clearly showed that the transport sector had grown from being the third biggest user to the biggest user of energy sometime around the late 1990’s as other sectors were reducing or stabilising. Source: DETR.
By the mid-1990’s it was clear that the growth of information technology and the arrival of the information age was going to play a big part in determining the cultural and economic direction of our future society. Surely then it made sense from an energy efficiency point of view to move information around instead of people? This can be illustrated by a simple carbon calculation of a passenger’s train trip from Brighton to London:
Date: December 2011
Posted by: Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark
Date: Thursday 21 October 2010 07.00 BST
This is the paradox, why expend (in this case) 2700kg of carbon per annum in simply getting an employee to a computer to do the work from? Yes, there is fear of isolation from the employee and fear of losing management control by the employer but such concerns can be addressed.
So Cityvision was generated within the practice as a vehicle for researching the wider implications of information technology on the built and natural environments with a view to achieving a sustainable society. The study revealed that there was enormous potential for I.T. to help reinhabit the city. This was a time when the 19th Century infrastructure of British towns and cities was creaking under the influx of car based transport and out of town retail and office parks were springing up at an alarming rate. Even by the mid-1980’s it was becoming clear that traditional town centres were economically struggling and inner city life was becoming congested, unhealthy and undesirable.
In more recent years, with London becoming such a successful magnet for business, Cityvision ideas may well play a part in addressing some of the intense transport and real estate stresses the capitol’s insatiable metabolism is causing. People would have more freedom to live outside of London, still work for business based there and not having to commute every working day. Of course much of the economic unlocking of the potential would lie with rail companies offering flexible train tickets to compensate for the days not travelled on season passes but their incentive would be a pronounced reduction in the demand for peak time travel – a good thing all round.
Creating a Hypothesis
When Cityvision was initiated, information technology was being used predominantly by large corporations to effect only the most obvious money saving efficiencies which either condemned people to work in isolated home working conditions or in architecturally vacuous ‘telesheds’ built outside of traditional town centres and reliant on car based transport. Warning of these problems, BBM’s study then produced a range of measures that aimed to redirect this technology for more socially and ecologically beneficial results.
The central thesis of the Cityvision study is that everyday commuting can be substituted by flexible working both in terms of time and place.
The Cityvision hypothetical premise was that thirty years hence, thirty per cent of the population might be teleworking to some extent and under such conditions what implications would that have on the built environment? To demonstrate the potential, a slice of London drawn from the business district out to a commuting suburb was used to demonstrate the changes to urban / suburban form. In the city, the major change would be a less pronounced ‘rush hour’, less congestion at street level and more office space changed into housing. In the inner city suburb, where population densities could support them, ‘community workstations’ would spring up to offer a supportive place to work remotely from the traditional office and where diminutive dwelling sizes would preclude the setting up of a satisfactory home working environment. In the outer suburb, purpose made or refurbished teleworking homes might turn dormitory neighbourhoods into tight knit local working networks, in turn stimulating fresh economic activity into ailing local centres.
The ideas of Cityvision were not just about reducing energy use. The project also took the opportunity to address the social and mental stresses involved on the individual and the family in supporting an overt commuting lifestyle. It was plain to see that with two working parents with demanding and long commutes that it left the family unit potentially less cohesive and the children more vulnerable to unwanted influences. How valuable then it would be if some of those lost hours spent on the train, tube, bus or in the car could be grabbed back? So part of the Cityvision idea was to find a better live/work balance as well.
Interestingly, at the time of BBM’s Futurehouse, which opened to the public at a Milton Keynes housing expo in 1994, and boasted a dedicated home working office, it became clear that social isolation seemed to be a real concern for people. Many could not see how they could use their home to work from, citing insufficient space, family distractions or simply that there was no substitution for face to face discussions. In fact during the soundings that BBM took at Futurehouse we discovered that it was only the visiting journalists, who already practiced a high degree of home working that could completely see the potential.
The Futurehouse experience suggested that a more plausible basis for teleworking was not to take it to an extreme of a home working prison but to allow people the means to chose where and when is best for them, their families and their employers to do the work. Some days they would make the commute, for instance for all important team discussions and project reviews and other times, when for instance they need to ‘get their head down’, they might well be better off working from home.
The community workstation idea was worthy of further exploration as effectively a new building type. It would be a fusion of open plan and cellular office spaces, meeting rooms (all for rent by the individual), a community centre, crèche and café. Ideas for the inclusion of a pocket gym were also part of an exciting mix of facilities to support a busy and congested urban life all contained within a single time saving wrapping. The facility might best be pursued as a public building with a range of revenue generating concessions, such as the gym, crèche and café.
BBM approached a number of London boroughs with the Cityvision ideas in the mid to late 1990’s with a specific goal of getting a community workstation built. The London Borough of Greenwich was sufficiently interested to fold-in some of the ingredients into a telematics training hub. After an initial study to look at some possible sites within the Council’s property portfolio, it was decided to refurbish a Napoleonic era building within the former Woolwich Arsenal and as such it would become the first part of a much wider regeneration of the Arsenal site. The Woolwich Teleservices Centre, as it became known, had as its main directive to provide I.T. training to local people (from areas of quite pronounced socio-economic deprivation) with a view to improving job prospects.
The work on the Woolwich Teleservices Centre was partly why BBM were invited to work on the Greenwich Millennium Village where their vision for future working and environmentally benign lifestyles formed part of the competition winning entry. BBM, working alongside HTA Associates and veteran urban masterplanner, Ralph Erskine suggested a ‘Teleservices Centre’ (essentially the original community workstation idea rebranded) be adopted as the focus of the entire development and was to be accommodated at the centre of the main public space within the proposals. Regrettably without an organisation to run the facility, the Teleservices Centre remained an idea.
Cityvision in 2014
“Shifts in commuting patterns, costs and convenience, and property prices, will be the major drivers of change.”
Tomorrow’s railway, Forum for the Future
Above: How much has come to pass? This image was prepared in 1998 to suggest a greener and healthier urban life with flexible working, information technology and sustainable transport solutions at its heart. Image: © BBM
Twenty years on, or two-thirds the way through the Cityvision thirty year hypothesis, the information age has made home working and flexible working a reality for many. In 1994 only a few universities and large multi-nationals had teleconference facilities but in the last decade we have seen the introduction of Skype and FaceTime bringing video calls to people’s computers and smartphones. The arrival of the chain coffee shops in the 1990’s capitalised on the mobile working potentials of laptops and mobile phones which they supported through the provision of Wi-Fi connectivity, carefully designed seating and cleverly tuned acoustics. The result has seen the working environment being extended into a café setting but instead of the worker paying rent for a space, it is the consumer buying the right to sit down through the purchase of coffees and snacks.
In recent years one particular subset of ideas out of Cityvision seems to be gaining traction in the commercial sector, that of a combined rentable office space and crèche. In particular it is mothers looking to get back into work, who could do with being close to their children and not having to spend unnecessary time enduring a daily commute, who have really taken up the idea. Third Door in southwest London started in 2010 around the same time as Brighton’s Officreche. Both are private ventures and both provide comfortable flexible office space and meeting rooms in combination with superb childcare facilities. In the case of Officreche the location is also within about five minutes walk of Brighton Station. Third Door is now opening a second location.
Perhaps there is a small percentage of people now teleworking some of the time but in places like London, the Cityvision effect is negligible in terms of reducing demands on the infrastructure and real estate. London is one of a handful of global cities which is experiencing a phenomena where success breeds more success and seemingly all young and ambitious professionals feel they ought to live and work there. It is a trend that has been coined, “agglomeration economics”. London however is at risk of sinking under its own unaffordable accommodation bubble with young people are unable to get a foothold on its property ladder either through buying or renting and where many workers who provide key services are simply moving out for a less congested and less financially stressed life. It is not hard to see how aspects of teleworking could help.
Comstation; The Saviour of the Commuter Belt?
In the late 1990’s, BBM realised that although on paper it should be possible to make a business case for setting up community workstations in the inner city areas of the major conurbations, the target market for teleworkers might be most helpfully exploited in the commuter belt towns. If the train operators could also be brought in to provide these remote working platforms as part of their service offering, many of the commuters or employer’s financial reservations about adopting modes of teleworking should melt away. BBM’s next evolutionary idea from Cityvision which met these very particular constraints and opportunities was coined ‘Comstation’ and is the subject of the next chapter.
Ian McKay Dip Arch RIBA