Honey, who shrank my infrastructure? Digital technologies change everything

By Robert Bell

Have you had the experience of visiting a successful company and seeing long rows of empty cubicles filling the floor of the office?  It can be a shocking sight – and is a sign that much of the 9-to-5 office space that was essential a few years ago is vanishing. 

Why?  In a growing number of industries, employees aren’t spending their time in the office. They are using the mobile tools of the information age – laptops, tablets and smartphones – to cut the physical tether to the office while remaining connected, accessible and accountable to their companies over broadband.

They are the pioneers of the “broadband economy,” and their habits are proving transformative.  At IBM, 40 percent of employees now work from somewhere other than a company-owned or leased office.  But it is not just tech companies getting into the act.  Jones Lang LaSalle is a commercial real estate broker operating worldwide.  Its brokers advise companies on how much office space they need for their employees.  For many years, the rule of thumb was 200 square feet (about 18 m2) per employee.  But in a 2012 report, the company predicted that by 2014, the average space needed per employee would be only 50 square feet (about 5 m2). 

In a March 2013 Webinar, Norman Miller of the Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego, examined what would happen if US tenants used 20 percent less office space.  He estimated that the change in demand would create US$250 billion in excess office capacity in a market worth $1.25 trillion.

Around the world, the broadband economy is sharply changing how people use space, demand space and relate to space, whether in the city center or the rural town, and the changes are becoming more visible.  That is driving city and county leaders to take a revolutionary new approach to urban and rural planning.

They are coming to understand that interactivity – the essence of digital technologies – changes everything.  In Hsinchu City, Taiwan, a city-issued Resident Card provides access to services, discounts at stores and even the ability to store money and use it like a debit card.  But every time the card is used – for transit, for shopping, as an employee ID – it generates data that tells the city how its infrastructure and services are being used.  What bus routes are over capacity and which are losing ridership?  How is the flow and timing of traffic changing?  How are different retail environments prospering?  Rather than being static or subject to periodic update, planning in Hsinchu operates in real time to keep up with a city in constant flux.

Go to the App Store for iPhone or Android and search for MyColumbus.  This app will put Columbus, Ohio, into the palm of your hand.  Linking to rich data files in the city’s IT department, MyColumbus provides up-to-date information on community resources, refuse collection and even the location of snowplows.  It offers advice on healthy living, recycling and sustainability.  It lets residents take photos and log services requests, which are resolved more than three times faster than telephone requests because maintenance workers receive better information on the problem.  By making the city more efficient and accountable, ICT contributes something excit­ing to life in Columbus.  And by putting information literally into the citizen’s hand, MyColumbus changes the relationship of people to the city where they live and work.

Cities are even using their traditional planning authority to get more of the broadband infrastructure they need to compete.  In 2001, the small city of Whittlesea in Australia introduced a rule that all greenfield developments install an underground conduit network able to support optical fiber and then transfer that asset to the city.  Over the next decade, Australia’s strong economic performance created a boom in residential construction and made the Council the proud owner of more than 560 kilometers (330 miles) of fiber-ready conduit.  The city has been able to use the conduit to attract early opti­cal-fiber investment into new housing developments, which has given Whittlesea one of the highest penetration rates for +50 Mbps broadband in Australia. 

We are still in the early stages of weaving a digital infrastructure throughout the physical infrastructure of our cities and counties.  Leading-edge places, which we call Intelligent Communities, recognize that this digital infrastructure will have the most profound impact on our need for space, our use of place, how and when we move from place to place and the services we require.  So planning is fast becoming an exercise in encouraging continu­ing revolution in the place people call home.

Robert Bell, co-author of 'The Revolutionary Community: How Intelligent Communities Are Reinventing Urban and Rural Planning' writes that broadband infrastructure is driving city and county leaders to take a revolutionary new approach to urban and rural planning. Robert Bell is available from the Intelligent Community Forum at


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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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