Socioeconomic factors

The focus of the book began at the global scale and gradually sharpened down to the detailed design of buildings. It seems appropriate to end by again speculating more widely about socio-economic issues which will affect all who operate within the construction industry.

Despite government exhortations to convert to public transport, motorists are showing no sign of responding. At present the average distance travelled by car per day is 28 miles. By 2025 it is expected that this will rise to 60 miles. Despite the rail chaos of late 2000 and early 2001, it is still the view that superfast trains will be in service within the next decade which will create the conditions for a more dispersed, hypermobile society. This, in turn, will create a demand for new kinds of development, given added impetus by the demographic changes that have created the need for 4 million new homes, mostly in southern England. It seems inevitable that there will be a new crop of new towns but designed to a high density. It is likely and desirable that the Rogers Task Force (recommendations will be influential in the design of the next generation of new towns Towards an Urban Renaissance, June 1999).

The meteoric growth of 'turbo-capitalism' with its single-minded purpose of optimising market opportunities is likely to lead to a sharp decline in public funded services. This will have an impact on procurement as the public sector building realm declines. It might also have a negative effect on quality as price alone is the deciding factor. Many would agree that:

The cold economic rationality of capitalism, in which every institution is subordinated to the calculus of profit and loss, does not answer the question posed by every human being - that there is more to life than the pursuit of economic efficiency. We are social as well as economic beings.

The Observer, 2 January 2000

One outcome of the development of IT is that the economic and business certainties of the twentieth century are disintegrating. As electronic commerce grows, governments will find it ever harder to raise taxes. Each day trillions of dollars move around the global money market as corporations locate their transactions in low tax jurisdictions. Add to this the fact that people are increasingly obtaining goods and services via the Internet from places with the lowest taxes and it is clear that national governments will have diminishing power to raise revenue, with obvious consequences for the social services.

One scenario is that the growing gap between the poor and the affluent will continue to widen. The dividing line will become sharply defined as between those with IT and communication skills who can keep up with the pace of change and those who increasingly fall behind in this new Darwinian environment. As Ian Angell (head of the Department of Information Systems, London School of Economics) puts it:

People with computer skills are likely to end up winners. Those without are likely to emerge as losers. The power of the nation state will weaken. Communities that invest substantially in communication technologies will thrive. Those who don't, or those whose citizens are isolated from the new ways to communicate, will suffer. Change is inevitable. The Information Age will be kindest to those who adapt.

New Scientist, 4 March 2000, pp. 44-45

This progressive bi-polarisation will produce social tensions with decreasing social cohesion and an increase in crime. This will be a countervailing trend to the ideals within the Rogers Urban Task Force for a more mixed and integrated society. Instead, according to Professor John Adams of University College, London, we are likely to see the well-off retreating into gated and guarded communities (The Social Implications of Hypermobility, 1999). If this prediction is realised, security will become a major design determinant in all types of building. A rising crime rate will lead to anxieties which increase the attraction of buying the necessities of life though the Internet with obvious consequences for high street and even neighbourhood shops.

Within the current economic climate, to spend money now to limit catastrophic climate change in 50 years' time is not an efficient way to deploy capital. The reality is that we should not only now be imposing severe constraints on the use of fossil fuels, we should also be accumulating a contingency fund to deal with the future effects of global warming that are inevitable due to the momentum generated by past emissions of greenhouse gases. Many circumstances are conspiring to ensure that, if we do not revolutionise the way we produce and distribute energy, the prospect of runaway global warming becomes a virtual certainty and that's not an inviting prospect for our children and grandchildren.

On the positive side, there are huge economic opportunities to be grasped in the development and manufacture of products related to the sphere of sustainability. The UK has the expertise but will not be a key player if it continues to be fixated on short-term profits and allows capital costs to outweigh the benefits of medium-to long-term revenue gains. Other nations subsidise technologies, pump-priming them so that they quickly achieve economy of scale.

Of this there can be no doubt: the next decades will witness the accelerating pace of change. For the early part of the century it is likely that wealth will increase. Later in the century, huge uncertainties emerge, mainly associated with the social and political consequences of climate change, the growing tensions arising from competition for access to water and fertile land exacerbated by the widening gap between rich and poor. Designers within construction have it in their power to help with the solution rather than add to the problem.

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