The profound technological change. The new digital revolution

The Virtual-PhysicalNexus:Future City Scenariosfor the Arab World MohamedAyman DaefAssociate Professor of Urban& Regional PlanningDepartment of Architecture –University of Assiut – EGYPTE-mail: [email protected] electronic movement of information inalmost real time transcends individual physical places and provides an arenafor a new set of economic rules. The contemporary influences of digitaltechnology are pervasive, and it is hard to escape the economic, social andenvironmental footprint of this profound technological change.

The new digitalrevolution makes a truly borderless society possible. Distinctions aredisappearing between town and country, private and public, here and there, andperhaps even between reality and fiction. At last, physical construction can bereduced, and long distances can be eliminated, whilst presence and socialinteraction can still be maintained, if not enhanced.

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Location and physicalspace requirements of major urban activities are being radically changed. Eventhe long-lasting phenomenon of rural-to-urban migration might also be reversed.From the “Arabianranta”1 in Helsinki to “Netville”2 in Toronto, empirical evidence is accumulating,and major examples are emerging both in Europeand North America. Yet, the complexity andmagnitude of urban problems in the Arab countries such as Egypt wouldjustify a similar concern.

 Problem AreaAs in many other Arabcountries, Egypthas witnessed the phenomenon of accelerated urban sprawl and the resultantinformal housing development. Historically, most city nodes in Egypt areseparated from the desert hinterlands by agricultural barriers. Therefore, mostuncontrolled urban sprawl in the country has occurred at the expense of fertileagricultural lands, and that represents a major socio-economic challenge thatfaces urban planning and development strategies in Egypt (Figure 1). Similarly, inmany other Arab countries, cities are separated from hinterlands by eitherharsh desert or mountainous landscapes. The situation as such has led to anincreased urban spread out of existing city boundaries, while smaller towns andvillages in the hinterlands are witnessing a socio-economic decline and anincreased loss of their well-educated and well-trained inhabitants.Figure (1) Uncontrolled Urban Sprawl onAgricultural Land – Alwalidiya – Assiut – EgyptPhotographed by the Author on August 4th 2001In spite of the recognition ofthe problem by most governments in Arab countries, rural-to-urban migrationcontinued, existing major urban centres kept growing, and the urban environment has become more threatened. Regionalimbalances have become the norm in most situations, and conventional urban andregional planning methods appear to have failed in addressing the pace andmagnitude of the problem efficiently and sufficiently.

A second dimension of theproblem is represented in the gender aspect of development planning in mostArab countries. Regardless of the ever increasing rates of women education inArab countries, a considerable percentage of them still prefer not to join thework force after education. For cultural reasons, this tendency is due to theirpreference to stay at home after marriage.3 Obstacles to combining familyresponsibilities with employment still persist inmost Arab countries.

This problem becomes even more noticeable in areasdistanced away from major urban centres. QUESTIONS& HYPOTHESESThis paper will seek answers to certain questions:·        How doesthe invention of almost light-speed ultra-fast information media influence ourperception of space and our spatial behaviours?·        Whatdoes this mean for future attempts of city planning in the Arab World?·        What arethe benefits of placing the physical-virtual nexus on the urban planning agendain the Arab World?Tentative answers to these questions would lead to the postulation ofresearch hypotheses as follows:·        In theelectronically restructured cities of the twenty-first century, our perceptionof space and our spatial behaviour will be deeply influenced by the framework of a new economy ofpresence.·        Teleworkingmade possible by the present digital revolution could be utilised as a solution to many urbanplanning problems in the Arab countries. This can be achieved distinctively throughthe inducement of a migration reversal from rural-to-urban to urban-to-rural,and the opening-up of smart opportunities for women’s participation in the labour force.

·        PlanningAgenda and areas of policy intervention in the Arab World could be adapted to makeuse of the new possibilities opened-up by the digital revolution. Economy of PresenceThe technological advancementsin the past 10 years or so have had a profound impact on the organisation ofspace and time. The new technologies make a truly borderless society possible.In his E-topia, Mitchell rightfully asserts that in the electronicallyrestructured cities of the twenty-first century, perception of space andspatial behaviour willbe deeply influenced by the framework of a new “economy of presence”.

4 The digital revolution hasrecently opened up a new dimension of communication which is both remoteand asynchronous.Table(1) Advantages, Disadvantages and Costs of Various Interaction Modes   Synchronous Asynchronous Local Requires Transportation Requires Coordination Intense & Personal Very High Cost Requires Transportation Eliminates Coordination Displaces In Time Reduces Cost Remote Eliminates Transportation Requires Coordination Displaces In Space Reduces Cost Eliminates Transportation Eliminates Coordination Displaces In Time & Space Very Low Cost Source: Mitchell,William J (2000: 138).This mode of interaction goesto the extreme of separating participants in both space and time. Advantages ofthis newly introduced mode of interaction in comparison to other previousconventional modes can be summarised as illustrated in Table (1). With the development of digital networks,a rapid and massive shift has occurred towards the very low cost,remote-asynchronous quadrant of the table.

This has been the most fundamentaleffect of the digital revolution.Confronted with the new developments of thedigital revolution, conventional theories and instruments of both architectsand urban planners do not seem to be sufficient – if not valid – anymore. Thearchitect does not design objects anymore, but rather relations, andalthough the space as an object is diminishing, there is still a possibility ofplanning. The multitude of both physical places and virtual ones – asrepresented in the structure of sites on the World Wide Web – have now becomeintricately intertwined. Ties between places are no longer confined totransportation links, as electronic hyperlinks are also used in this verypresent age to link virtual places.

Mitchell depicts the interrelationshipamongst all of these components as illustrated in Figure (2).5 Thus, in differentcontexts, very different patterns and mixes may make sense. Architects, urbandesigners and planners will need to consider the trade-offs among the many emergingpossibilities.Figure(2) Physical and Virtual Structures and their InterrelationshipsSource: Mitchell,William J (1999: 126).With the combination of bothphysical and virtual structures, numerous hybrids are becoming possible, whereboth physical and virtual places play significant roles, and where linkages areformed both by transportation and electronic connections. Such hybrids arepossible to include – amongst other things – established cities on whichnetworks have been overlaid, and scattered rural communities tied together andto the existing cities themselves by networks.

The emergence of powerful and convenient electronicalternatives to traditional means has opened up many new possibilities for thearrangement and distribution of office work space, shopping areas, educationalfacilities, home banking, entertainment facilities, housing neighbourhoods and manyother services and facilities. Thus the economy of presence has already started– and will continue – to produce new patterns of urban structures based on thephysical-virtual nexus; e.g. teleworking, online shopping, distance education,home banking and online entertainment.

Home-based working could possiblyintroduce new criteria for deciding upon the bestlocation for housing neighbourhoods, as locating near to workplaces is no longer a preference that is solelymeasured in a physical sense. teleworkingThe economic future of Arab cities will be definedby their capacity to generate, process, and distribute information. With theemergence of a new economy of presence, businesses can reassess where jobs andwork are to be located. Powerful economic factors, involving pressures toincrease productivity and reduce costs, are influencing the way that businessestake these decisions. When information is stored in digital form, the datarequired can be extracted, worked on and eventually re-filed from a computerlocated hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. In theory, the workers can be based anywhere in the world.

Accordingly, work is being relocated to other geographical areas within acountry’s boundary; e.g. to back offices in rural areas where overheads and labour costs may be cheaper,or from conventional offices into the homes of workers.On the one hand, teleworking may be a tool for employersto move work to geographical areas where working conditions, salaries andcollective bargaining rights are the poorest. But on the other hand,teleworking may be an interesting alternative for employees in certain phasesof their lives; e.g.

as an attractive alternative to married women withhousehold responsibilities.Teleworking offers many advantages for theemployee. It widens the choice for the individual, and enhances flexibility inworking time and methods. It also gives more people the opportunity to work,and enables combination of work, personal life and caring responsibilities.Teleworking also removes the strain of traveling to the place of work. Aboveall, teleworking can thus foster a reversal of migration from rural-to-urbanareas, and help retain workers who want to spend more time caring for theirfamilies – especially women.6 conclusion: Areas Of Policy InterventionWithin the expansion of information andcommunication technologies (ICTs), the poor and the rural populations in the Arabcountries can be marginalised as the market interest in establishing costly access to internet forthese communities is low.

Nevertheless, teleworking opens the whole array ofpossibilities for rural socio-economic development. New employment opportunitiescan be generated through telework in rural areas. ICTs would enable a greaternumber of people an easier access to educational opportunities irrespective oftheir geographical location. Increased levels of education and knowledgecombined with an increased scope of social participation might lead toempowerment of rural and remote populations, and greater grassrootsparticipation in community affairs.Teleworking may also help curb rural migration inArab countries, as the cities lose their exclusivity as centres of employmentdue to the growing opportunities for income-generation locally through remotechannels.

In addition to the retention of rural population, there is alikelihood of migration of previously urban teleworkers to rural areas. Thereis also a possibility of migration from areas of high livelihood costs in industrialisedcountries to cheaper and environmentally more attractive regions in Arabcountries.Teleworking can be harnessed in Arab countries toempower women and assist them to gain better employment opportunities andimprove their livelihoods while preserving and distributing the gender-specificknowledge; e.g. in agriculture, environmental resource management and health.

Home-based teleworking often appeals to women as it allows them to retain theircareers while taking care of children. Yet, more ought to be done in Arabcountries to encourage the capacity mobilisation of female population through ICTs.Reduction in the cost of telecommunicationsservices as well as the provision of suitable ICTs infrastructure is aprecondition to the successful utilization of the ICTs by Arab countries. Replacementof bricks with bits, and mortar with clicks, can have a profound impact on the organisation ofspace and time and, hence, future city scenarios in the Arab World in the thirdmillennium.

 REFERENCESAmerican SociologicalAssociation. 2002. ASANews. Available at: http://www.asanet.

org/media/neville.html, accessed on 13 April 2002.Di Martino, V and Wirth, L. 1990. “Telework: A New Way of Working and Living” In: InternationalLabour Review. Vol.

129, No. 5.Helsinki Virtual Village. 2002. TheArabianranta Virtual Community. Available at: http://www.teamware.

com/top_story/smartcities/virtual_village.htm,accessed on 13 April 2002.Mitchell,William J. 2000. E-topia: Urban Life, Jim – But Not As We Know It. Cambridge,MA: The MIT Press.Mitchell,William J.

1999. “The City of BitsHypothesis,” In: D. A.

Schön, B. Sanyal and W. J. Mitchell (Eds.), HighTechnology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of AdvancedInformation Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Nilles,J.

1985.”Teleworking from Home” In: Forester T (Ed.), The Information TechnologyRevolution. UK:Blackwell.Shaw, L. 1996. Telecommute!Go to Work Without Leaving Home.

NY: John Wiley & Sons.United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD). 2001. Social Indicators. Available at: http://www.un.org/Depts/unsd/social/unempl.

htm,accessed on 26 December 2001.1 Helsinki Virtual Village is apublic-private initiative that was established in order to develop the newArabianranta area, into a virtual community providing the companies andresidents of the area with the services and technology that the informationsociety has to offer. The initiative for the Arabianranta development waslaunched in Finlandin 1996. (Source: HelsinkiVirtual Village – Website).

2 “Netville” (a pseudonym)is located in suburban Toronto.It was one of the world’s first residential developments to be equipped with abroadband local network. The neighbourhood was built from the ground up with a10Mbs high-speed computer network supplied and operated free of charge by aconsortium of private and public companies. (Source: American SociologicalAssociation – Website).3 For example, statisticscompiled from the International Labour Office’s (ILO) database have shown thatin 1998, 19.9% of women available for work in Egypt were unemployed, as againstonly 5.

1% of men. Similarly, in 1991, 14% of women available for work in Syria wereunemployed, as against only 5.2% of men. (Source: United Nations StatisticsDivision – Social Indicators Website).4 The term is coined by William JMitchell. See Ch.

9, in Mitchell, William J (2000).5 Mitchell, William J (1999: 126).6 This part is based on surveying existingliterature on teleworking with special emphasis on its relevance to Arabcountries; e.

g. Shaw, L (1996), Di Martino, V & Wirth, L (1990), andNilles, J (1985).