Proving ground for the information society

The city at Britain's hi-tech heart is seeking to address the wider social issues brought about by the IT revolution. Rob Tarling looks at the impact of the Cambridge phenomenon
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What is the future of society in the information age? This question does not get the attention it deserves, and yet, ironically, it is in Cambridge - that icon of a certain sort of English society - which the first attempt at an answer is emerging.

Cambridge, best known and often visited for its world-class university, is fast becoming a centre of excellence of a different kind as it spearheads the UK's information technology revolution. What is known locally as the "Cambridge phenomenon" came to prominence in the late 1970s with firms such as Acorn and Sinclair, supported by research conducted at the university.

The downturn in the early 1990s, which affected most sectors of the economy, did little to slow this growth, and the rapid adoption of network technologies have since acted as a further spur to hi-tech industry in the region, with biotechnology, telecommunications, consultancy and network computing becoming the fashionable areas of activity.

Cambridge is now Europe's leading centre for biotechnology research, with well-known companies such as Chiroscience, Peptide Therapeutics and Ethical Pharmaceuticals based in the region. Similarly, there is now an unusual concentration of information technology firms to be found in Cambridgeshire, mainly in green field "Silicon Fen" to the north of the city, with familiar Internet companies such as UUnet Pipex, Muscat and Electronic Share Information co-existing alongside firms such as Advanced Risc Machines, Sun Microsystems and Ionica.

In this sense, the decision taken by Microsoft to locate its European Research Lab in Cambridge in June last year symbolises the leading role that the city now assumes in IT. For the prolific US software company, it really was a case of Cambridge (and Professor Roger Needham, as head of the Microsoft enterprise) or not at all.

What, then, is the wider significance of the Cambridge phenomenon?

Manuel Castells - one of the leading sociologists of his generation and author of a brilliant trilogy on the information society - has written of the importance of such centres of excellence. For him, these "milieux of innovation" represent the blast furnaces of the information age. Cambridge, with its unique blend of hi-tech activity, social setting of medieval market town and internationally recognised university, is perhaps the ideal melting pot for a debate about the nature of social interaction in the information age.

"Silicon Valley was built on a greenfield site, starting from nothing and creating something new," says Geoff Vincent, partner of Mediation Technology. "Cambridge is a developed economy and society with centuries of tradition, with the information society superimposed on top. That's an extra complication, but if you get it right it becomes a very powerful formula that can be applied elsewhere."

What makes Cambridge so interesting as a case study is its social setting. For the visitor, the public face of the town is shaped by the colleges and the historic centre, but for those who live there the picture is very different. There is a local saying that Cambridge was built on "jam making and bed making" - jam making in the outskirts and bed making at the university.

This, in a sense, defines the social divide that exists in the town between those who have and those who have not. While unemployment is low, there is significant underemployment, with the northern wards of the city being particularly hard hit by social deprivation. In the more prosperous south and west of the city and the outlying villages and towns live most of the information rich - the academics and professionals who are generally at ease with and actively participate in the Cambridge phenomenon.

In the information age, this divide inevitably raises the issues of informational social exclusion, access to the employment opportunities provided by the new technologies and the strain on the physical infrastructure of the city - both housing and transport. As Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, explains, "I think you can view Cambridge as two cities, with the hi-tech, academic information society on the one side, and the underdeveloped on the other. What we have tried to do is to give people the opportunity to use the empowerment that the information society can bring to achieve their own development, and this is all about bridging the divide between the two cities that make up Cambridge."

To do this requires both a vision and a facilitator. Fortunately, Cambridge, in the shape of the City and County Councils, has both. Last year, the City Council initiated a Public Committee of Inquiry into "Technology and the City". This was in the wake of the growing realisation from a number of different local interests that the city had both an economic responsibility and a social duty to examine the issues raised by the Cambridge phenomenon.

As Kevin Southernwood, Labour Leader of Cambridge City Council, states: "We felt there was a real opportunity for some form of partnership in Cambridge to develop between sectors that don't always understand each other. We have a very active set of businesses in information communication technologies. ... These businesses are long-term players in the environment of the city and in the sub-region, and because we have a whole series of concerns and issues from both a local government and a business perspective we needed to talk a lot more with one another."

So what's actually being done? Initiatives have mostly grown from local experiments with ICTs: the Cambridge Interactive TV Trials, Cambridge Online City, and Netherhall School's educational experiments, to name just a few. These have often been built from "bottom-up", with community participation, to find out what technology can do and what it can't.

Cambridge Online City, for instance, is one of the most innovative community- based experiments using Internet technology in Britain today. Prompted by an idea for an e-mail surgery, Online City was started by Anne Campbell in 1994 in order to broaden online access to public services. It has since been developed on a shoestring budget, largely through the enthusiasm of a small group of people and with the generosity of local businesses such as Cambridge Cable, UUnet and the consultants Cap Gemini.

Neil Stott, the council's principal community development officer, and partners have been instrumental in developing Online City into a community- based tool: "We concentrated on kick-starting a range of community projects. One was getting as many people online as possible; two was looking at youth issues and race equality; and then moving on to disability as well. It's not enough just to provide the equipment, and it's not about providing a passive medium, our job is about getting interaction, finding ways to get people involved. We are trying to find ways to get a two-way process with people actually producing things."

With National Lottery funding and support from the City and County Councils, Cambridge Online City now embraces a whole range of initiatives made accessible by public terminals scattered throughout the city. YouthNet now reaches into the local community via youth clubs, with users producing interactive newspapers, online videos and music, as well as basic training in IT. Likewise, race equality and disability issues are being tackled. Opportunity Links - which embodies a childcare initiative - has been so successful that it has been spun-off as a separate company. It now accounts for the vast majority of Web traffic on online childcare in the world.

The benefits to local business of existing in an environment like Cambridge are obvious. Aside from the creative informal networks that characterise concentrations of hi-tech industry and the ready-made labour pool from the university, there are real practical spin-offs.

As Kevin Southernwood explains: "Given what we have here, there is an opportunity to trial things within the city. 'Does it work?' 'How will people use it?' 'Can we find out why people are using it?' The vision is that by trialing things here in Cambridge we can sell them on."

To its credit, the University of Cambridge, while traditionally seen as distant from the town and ambivalent to the needs of industry, has in recent years responded creatively to the Cambridge phenomenon. Speaking about Microsoft's decision to locate to Cambridge, Walter Herriot, director of St Johns Innovation Centre, says: "Most welcome the development, as it is recognition by the world's premier software company that the university has a practical application as well as a being a place for blue-sky research."

St Johns Innovation Centre is itself indicative of changing times. By working with business angels, the centre acts as the interface between research at the university and its practical application to business, and has since 1987 nurtured over 150 hi-tech businesses in and around Cambridge. It is notable, however, that the city's poorer relation, Anglia University, has so far been the more active of the two in the community through the efforts of people like Dr Tom Ling and Dr Paul Rosen - both of whom served as expert witnesses to the public inquiry. Yet its resources are limited by comparison with its larger cousin.

The Committee of Inquiry on Technology and the City publishes its recommendations this month. Given the speed of developments in this field, many of its findings are tentative, but collectively they represent one of the most comprehensive efforts found in the UK today to integrate the use of IT into a large urban setting. In a practical way, it aims to lay the foundations for the continuing success of the Cambridge phenomenon while serving the needs of the whole community. The vision is to forge a partnership between business, town and academia to develop Cambridge as a "digital city" of the 21st century.

Clearly, the potential influence of the Cambridge phenomenon on the local region is enormous, and goes well beyond the commercial exploitation of new technology by Cambridge firms - significant though this will be for the local economy. Rather, it is about the practical application and integration of these technologies into the social setting that is Cambridge.

In this sense, what is happening has implications that go far beyond the city itself. We all need to know what the information society holds for the future of its inhabitants.