The Role of the Internet in Levelling Up the UK
The UK Housing and Communities’ policy paper on Levelling Up the United Kingdom (February 2022) is organised around
The UK Housing and Communities’ policy paper on Levelling Up the United Kingdom (February 2022) is organised around specific projects and initiatives in particular nations and regions. I assume the assumption is that this will help focus attention on further local initiatives. However, in each area there is discussion of access to mobile wireless signals and high-speed gigabit-capable broadband coverage. It is clear that the digital divide in access to the Internet has been narrowing over the years, with the major challenges being access in the deep rural areas (Farrington et al 2015). Moreover, as the Levelling Up paper indicates, access to high-speed broadband has experienced significant growth since 2019 (see Figure). Many areas want connectivity to develop even more rapidly and believe that governments across the UK’s nations and regions should do what they can to incentivise and capitalise on access to this infrastructure. It could be one of the most important infrastructures for supporting the levelling-up agenda.
 . However, in each there is discussion of access to mobile wireless signals and high-speed gigabit-capable broadband coverage. For some years, the digital divide in access to the Internet has been progressing well, with the major challenges being access in remote rural areas (Farrington et al 2015). The Levelling Up paper indicates that access to high-speed broadband has experienced significant growth since 2019 (see Figure). I realize that many areas want connectivity to develop even more rapidly and believe that governments across the UK’s nations and regions should do what they can to incentivise its diffusion. It could be one of the most important infrastructures for supporting the levelling-up agenda.
On the one hand, no communication infrastructure will level up the UK. Broadband or next- generation wireless networks are not silver bullets. On the other hand, new information and communication infrastructures can enable improved access to information, collaboration, services, and technologies in ways that enable more individuals, businesses and industries, and government agencies to redistributing people and facilities in ways that could support levelling up in very significant ways. Take the recent experience with remote education and more people working from home during the pandemic as an illustration of the surprising potential for communication infrastructures to support the redistribution of education and work in ways that align with the levelling up agenda.
Historically, there is reason in the UK to be modest in any expectations of virtual communication being substituted for real face-to-face communication. The substitution of virtual, online media, for real — face-to-face — meetings has been studied since the 1960s, when AT&T’s Bell Labs began development of a video telephone. In the US, the 1973 gas crisis drove more research into the potential of substituting telecommunications for travel, such as through working from home or in decentralized remote offices (Nilles et al 1976).
Similarly, in Britain in the early 1970s, there were early efforts to use new communication technologies, like video conferencing, to move work out of central London. This was a time when congestion was perhaps the key driver. This led to seminal social psychological experiments with the use of telecommunications and conferencing for a variety of tasks. Research on electronic meetings, focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Seminal research at the former Communication Studies Group at University College, London. This research found that if an information task involved only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, would be the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involved negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’ (Short et al 1976). While these findings did not support any simplistic shift of work out of London, and – obviously – people, business, and industry continued to be very concentrated in London, it did provide a basis for rethinking the geography of work in a more connected nation.
For example, thinking about social presence, it is preferable to ensure that critical communication – tasks that go beyond simple information transfer – are face-to-face. So rather than a simple choice of medium and given the realities of people distributed around a building and around the world, it becomes an issue of the geography of communication – where people are located, rather than what medium is used (Dutton 2020). Telecommunications has not led to the ‘death of distance’ (Cairncross 2001). However, it could give some people a basis for reshaping where they decide to locate in order to work and live.
An insightful analysis of this issue arose from a study of organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most (Goddard and Richardson 1996). It was most critical to be where you need to be for complex tasks that benefit from face-to-face communication. Tracking the evolution of these organizations, it was clear, for example, that back-office operations, such as at a bank, do not need to be in a central city because it is most important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another, not necessarily with top management. Today, we even see bank branches declining in central areas. Therefore, they can imagine many jobs being relocated outside of a high-rent district in central cities to more remote back-offices or work from home locations.
In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and near executives of their largest customers, creating an argument for them to be collocated in a central area – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. In short, you should locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks.
The coronavirus pandemic simplified this geographical calculus, as many people were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lockdowns eased, the experience with working online led many individuals wishing to remain at home and online, but the preferences of many people about where they want to work or study might not be optimal for their work or study. But generally, online media will better enable people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical individuals and groups.
Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should be to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves toward ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be.
How will these new choices work out for the levelling up agenda. Can improved connectivity across the UK be used to incentivise more thought about reshaping where people choose to live or work in ways that support the agenda? Because the Levelling Up paper is divided into regions and nations, there might not be as concerted a focus on the use of the Internet and mobile to reconfigure work and living across the UK. It is not only a local issue, but one that spans the nations and regions of the UK.
We should encourage discussion of closing any divides in access to communication infrastructures as well as ways to use new information and communication technologies to enable people to reconfigure the geography of their work, education, and communities. It is not a ‘build it and they will come’ proposition. Instead, it is provide this connectivity and see how innovative individuals, firms, companies, and institutions reconfigure their geography to benefit from a more connected nation. Then diffuse these innovative approaches to others across the nations and regions.
Cairncross F (2001). The Death of Distance. Harvard Business School.
Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (2022), Levelling Up the United Kingdom. Policy Paper. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-the-united-kingdom
Dutton, W. H. (2020), ‘To Be or Not to Be Virtual – That is Not the Question’, InterMEDIA, 48 (3), September: 20-24: online at https://www.iicom.org/intermedia/vol-58-issue-3/to-be-or-not-to-be-virtual-that-is-not-the-question/
Farrington, J., Philip, L., Cottrill, C., Abbott, P., Blank, G., and Dutton, W. (2015), Two-Speed Britain: Rural Internet Use. Aberdeen, UK: Aberdeen University Press. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2645771
Goddard J and Richardson R (1996). Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?. pp 197-214 in Dutton WH (ed.). Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. Oxford University Press.
Nilles JM, Carlson FR and Gray P (1976). Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. Wiley.
Short J, Williams E and Christie B (1976). The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. John Wiley and Sons.
 I have discussed issues of virtual versus real communication in a recent article (Dutton 2020).
One thought on “Reconfiguring Communication to Level Up the UK”
The decision over whether to insist that employees return to the office full-time is concerning many C-suites these days. Covid has forced millions of employees to work from home and they seem to like it. Thus the dilemma: how often the workers need actual face-to-face interaction versus their need to be left undisturbed in order to get the work done. In our national survey of the US in 2000 teleworkers worked about half-time on average. I suspect that the post-covid home-based time will soon shift toward 80%. Wherever they are.