23 March 2006

The Information Age City: A bourgeois utopian dream

Many cities are aspiring to be a World Class, Creative (1), Global (3), High Technology or an Information City. While these terms can be considered theoretical constructs, they can also be seen as utopian ideals. The promise of the transformation of the declining Industrial City to a High Technology City or the achieving of any of the other classifications (i.e., World Class City) is beneficial to a relatively small group of any urban population (e.g. bourgeois). The unemployed, working urban poor and the under-employed are not inspired by the same vision. In fact, the persual of the realization of these types of cities could be leading to further urban despair. Academia has devoted numerous articles and books related to these topics mostly relating to an attempt to categorize and describe them. What is missing is a discussion on how this will benefit those that are not part of the new bourgeois.

This plethora of terms and conceptual models to describe the emerging new urban forms are indicative of the difficulty of describing the transitional phase that cities are undergoing in the developed and developing world. (The urban form terms of the Edge City and exurbia are directly related to this evolving urban structure.) For the purpose of this blog, I will use the term of the Information Age-High Technology City (IAHTC) as defined as one where most of its residents work in fields that are related to education, consulting, banking, services, computer programming etc. (information) and those that work in high technology industries such as computer manufacturing, medical equipment etc. (technology) (2). Those involved in the arts and design (AKA the Creative Class) would be considered as elements of both in some cases. This new city type is intimately linked to the concept of the New Economy.

While the IAHTC is a definition of a new urban form, it has also been developing into a pseudo-utopian concept. It could be pseudo-utopian because it is often compared to the Industrial Age City which is portrayed as grimy, polluted and repulsive. These cities would become the centers for the New Economy in this capitalist future. However, these concepts are immature, vapid, and inadequate to fully address what is happening in the interconnected global urban environment. These terms have given kudos for the academicians and journalists that coin them. They are rallying flags for city boosters and consultants who profit by devising plans based on these ill-formed ideas. Nevertheless, in this bandying about of terms and the proclaiming of this new bourgeois utopia, the vast majority of residents of cities are ignored. There is no ‘city on a hill’ for them. The new office buildings, the research parks and the residential enclaves for the Creative Class are visible reminders in the urban landscape that they are excluded from this new utopia. The abandoned factories, the deteriorating neighborhoods and vacant land filled with ruble are what are left of their vision and hope. This is acutely present in some of the old manufacturing centers such as Chicago, Detroit. Liverpool and Manchester. All over the world, the urban poor are acutely aware that they are out-of-synch with the world economy. Those that are proponents of these utopian dreams purposely ignore this segment of the urban population.

Topics such as the Global City, Information Age City etc. glitter and sparkle. It is little wonder that academicians (including myself), businessmen, economists politicians and the media are drawn to these subjects. However, the nature of this discussion has been superficial. There needs to be much more inquiry into these issues besides developing lists of Global or World Class Cities or any other variety. I think that there is little doubt that urban areas in the world have entered a new phase. Now, what we collectively must do is to further analyze the consequences of the Information Age on all segments of urbanized populations.

1. R. Florida, 2002, Rise of the creative class, Basic Books.
2. D. Neumark, D. Reed, 2004, Employment relationships in the new economy, Labour Economics 11. 1– 31.
3. Wikipedia, 2006, Definition of global city, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_city

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