Week 10: Sustainability, Mobility and Utopia (Miriam Harvey)

Elliot and Urry (2010) start their book ‘Mobile Lives’ by defining a broad scope for mobility as an “ever-increasing movement of people, things, capital, information and ideas around the globe”. They state that “the argument of the book is that … the increasing mobilization of the world … affects the ways in which lives are lived, experienced and understood” (ix-xi).

Elliot and Urry look at the “complex interplay between mobile lives and mobility systems”. Mobility systems are defined as being “from the car system to air travel, from networked computers to mobile phones”. Of particular interest (to me) is how these systems change people’s lives. Elliot and Urry observe that:

“Life ‘on the move’ is the kind of life in which the capacity to be ‘elsewhere’ at a different time from others is central. … Such mobile lives demand flexibility, adaptability, reflexivity — to be ready for the unexpected, to embrace novelty”.

Ten years after Elliot and Urry published their book, the world is experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic. In early April 2020 it was reported that “half of the world’s population” were subject to “compulsory or recommended confinements, curfews and quarantines in more than 90 countries or territories” (Sandford, 2020). Elliot and Urry’s future scenarios, such as a “a worldwide reconfiguration of economy and society around ‘local sustain-ability’ (2010:142) no longer appears as extreme and improbable as it would have pre-Covid-19.

Local sustainability (Elliot and Urry, 2010: 142-147) is presented as a Utopian vision, with a “’Happy Planet Index’”, but it presumes that there is only a physical existence and no other forms of communication. The ‘digital network’ scenario (Ibid. 147-150) is an alternative but not considered as complementing ‘local sustainability’. In current times, the size (distance) of individual’s physical circle has contracted at the same time as an increase in mobility via digital communication devices and platforms. For example, MPs are now participating from home in Parliament (figure 1) or Cabinet (figure 2) sessions, and in this way they have demonstrated new combinations of physical and network mobility.

UK Gov virtual PMQ session

Figure 1: BBC image of UK Parliament’s PMQ session operating with MPs participating via screens. Source: ‘Prime Minister’s Questions goes ‘virtual’’ on 22 April 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-52390054/coronavirus-prime-minister-s-questions-goes-virtual [accessed 2 May 2020]


Tweet by PM Boris Johnson on digital Cabinet

Figure 2: Tweet by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the first digital Cabinet meeting (31 March 2020). Source: https://twitter.com/borisjohnson/status/1244985949534199808 [accessed 2 May 2020]


MPs are obviously not the only people working from home, with the Office of National Statistics (ONS, 2020) reporting an increase of home working from 12% to 49% for adults in employment. If this number is reflected across the country, there will be a lot of people questioning why they need to return to time consuming, expensive and polluting commutes post-Covid-19, if they can work just as well (or better) from home. Some aspects of Elliot and Urry’s ‘local sustainability’ scenario may yet become a possible future.




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

ONS (2020) quoted in UK Government briefing 1 May 2020. Available from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/882862/2020-05-01_COVID-19_Press_Conference_Slides.pdf

Sandford, A. (2020). Coronavirus: Half of humanity now on lockdown as 90 countries call for confinement. Euronews. 3 April. Available at https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/02/coronavirus-in-europe-spain-s-death-toll-hits-10-000-after-record-950-new-deaths-in-24-hou [accessed 2 May 2020]


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