Week 10: Sustainability, Mobility, Utopia and Sensing Cities

This week’s example comes from the news that Barclays boss Jes Staley is rethinking the “long term location strategy” of the bank’s offices. (BBC News, 2020)

Since the Government guidelines around social distancing, around 70,000 Barclays employees are working from home, doing jobs which were once undertaken in large communal buildings in London and other major cities. Staley told reporters that the bank was now being run by staff working “from their kitchens” which has led him to re-evaluate how much office space was really needed.

Staley said that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”

Elliot and Urry, writing a decade ago, already began to foresee some of the large-scale societal changes that would occur from individuals using more digital technologies and increasing mobility in their daily lives. Their example is of Simone, who travels as part of her job, and is reliant on miniaturised internet-enabled devices to access information quickly and frequently when in different locations. (6: 2010) The thousands of people, including Barclays employees, who have set up themselves to work from home is an example of this mobility happening on a larger scale; with the change being from communal office to various employee households, rather than individuals moving across urban environments.

Elliot and Urry have made some predictions about what the future looks like based on our current lifestyles, many of which are like Simone’s. The first is Perpetual Motion, a “hyper” mobile society who are “always on” i.e. devices switched on, connected to the internet or location enabled. (141: 2010) Devices are used to manage personal finances, tenuous and distant social relationships and privately-owned companies are leading the way in an ever-expanding transport market. The line between ‘work’ and ‘not work’ is blurred, fluid, and stress has reached epidemic levels. Using the example of the Barclays employees, households are reliant on ubiquitous technologies embedded in every room for work, study, and play, with the line between work and play no longer blurred but completely saturated within one another. Staley’s phrase, “from their kitchens” provides unsettling imagery of families perpetually connected to their devices with none of the perks of international travel, or even seeing friends and family members.

Scenario three; Digital Networks, plays a bigger role then maybe the authors anticipated. (147: 2010) Transport is pre-defined and integrated into larger networks run by smart-enabled devices. In person meetings are rare, even discouraged, save for video conferencing which is sold on its similarity to human interaction. This third scenario plays out after carbon becomes scarce, and in return for a comfortable life, individuals’ privacy is traded and instead of personal freedom are sold security products. Elliot and Urry’s predictions are based on a future ravaged by global warming and a scarcity of natural resources but, given the hindsight we have now, is it possible to visualise a future shaped in this way by a global pandemic?


BBC News. ‘Barclays boss: Big offices may be a thing of the past’ <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52467965> accessed 29/04/2020

Elliot, A. & Urry, J. 2010. Mobile Lives Oxford, Routledge

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