Society and Technology: is the Future Closed or Open?

What happens when the broader narrative we’re living has a sub-plot that is actually telling us something that’s the opposite? 

This is what’s occurring now, as technology, and what it enables us to do, runs counter to the mainstream.

The mainstream says we must try and achieve a state of normality that is as close to life pre-Covid as possible. The mainstream wants people back at work in their offices and other workplaces.

But the genie is out of the bottle. Zoom sales have boomed, and during the coronavirus crisis, UK workers have been some of the keenest to adopt remote working practices.

65% were working from home during the lockdown, and 47% had never worked remotely before Covid-19.

Could the alternative narrative provided by technology run deeper? Can it counter other things that are going on, transcending national borders and resetting cultural norms?

And if this is the case, how then should the physical world adapt, including the built environment?

Economies change over time. What we have as established models, such as the modern urban centre, aren’t guaranteed to endure indefinitely.

Borders and Nations

One of the recurring political themes, on a global scale, is the resurgence of the nation state and the end of globalisation.

This development pre-dates Covid-19, and is typified by Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of autocratic political leaders in places like Hungary.

What Covid-19 has now done is reinforced the need for stricter controls on borders on global health grounds.

Different national governments’ responses to Covid, and different experiences in the rapidity and severity of outbreaks has further emphasised this global fragmentation.

But one thing that transcends national borders is innovation. In marketing language, this is digital disruption. But it may have more profound, long-term implications.

Transcending Borders

Culture is very difficult to constrain in the digital realm.

There is, of course, China’s firewall, which is undoubtedly effective as the world’s most effective censorship system. But, the Great Firewall of China is the exception – albeit a large one – rather than the rule.

Different cultures and nationalities adapt to digital technology in their own ways, but this technology still enables change, and broadens individual experiences.

Technology continues to transcend various kinds of borders, including the less formally defined cultural borders that exist within national boundaries.  It changes cultures, and alters how people express themselves.

And tech rubs up against culture, sometimes not entirely harmoniously.

Look at recent attempts to try and force the issue of getting people back to offices. It feels like an increasingly desperate attempt to reinforce values that many of us are leaving behind.

Remote working and working from home don’t feel like mere flashes in the pan. They are many people’s working method of choice, and many employers are seeing the benefits in this kind of flexibility.

A similar counter-narrative runs in the area of communities and local action. People being confined in their own homes didn’t stop them organising themselves into digital communities.

Even amid our post-lockdown divisions, some of these digital communities are going to survive, flourish, grow and evolve.

This includes how local, digitally-organised groups participate in political processes.

Alternative Worlds

What if, despite the divisions, the border disputes and the resurgent nationalism, technology truly did liberate us, enabling us to create alternative worlds?

This might seem utopian, but it’s already happening. The beauty of digital communications is that they allow us to bypass traditional systems and organisational models.

In this context, the nation state feels hopelessly last-century, because cultures are fluid.

If you’re looking at shoring up the traditional city centre, re-populating its offices and trying to get back to a pre-Covid time, you’re probably looking in the wrong direction.

Where Digital Meets Physical

We’re not disembodied spirits. We’re flesh and blood. Digital alone will not provide what we need.

But if we go with the idea that we can transform cultures using the freedoms and space that digital offers, how do we then express this transformation in the physical world around us.

One example is the idea that restaurants become much more locally-focused enterprises.

Another is that the nature of co-working spaces transforms. Instead of them being the urban-centred spaces they are now, they become local points where people who live outside the cities commute to when they’re not working from home.

If these ideas might revive regional and local centres, what of the bigger town and city centres themselves?

What can they become?

Closed or Open?

It may feel that the flow of the city is running in one direction, but there are undercurrents which tell a different story.

Technology makes us live contradictory lives. We’ve never been more connected, but more of us are having to stay at home. We’re asserting our national identity, but this identity is a fluid concept.

We’re more open to outside influences than ever before and no immigration policy, however strict, is ever going to change that. You can police the English Channel for little boats, but you cannot, ultimately, halt the cultural changes that digital technology brings.

As individuals, as businesses, as brands, we should be open to these changes, otherwise we’ll be stuck on the wrong side of history. We need to feel empowered rather than intimidated by digital technology.

A Partisan Approach

As a Manchester-based brand consultancy we work with people involved in the built environment and in the working culture of Greater Manchester.

We’re interested in supporting and promoting change in our cities and towns, and helping to find positive solutions that will sustain future development.

For more information, please call us on 0161 860 7010, or email hello@partisan.studio

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