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IT evolution will speed 'electronic dispersal' from low-level London

martin pawley

Of all the catchphrases that I imagine I invented - 'heritage industry', 'big sheds', 'stealth buildings', 'secondary reality', 'the Gothic solution', 'aircraft carrier-sized dealing rooms', 'sand heap urbanism' and so on - my favourite new one is 'electronic dispersal'. This is how it came about.

One day I got a call from Channel 4. The caller was apologetic about last year's girls-giggling-onthe-Eye treatment of the Stirling Prize. This time they wanted some tough arguing about real issues, like for instance the threatened invasion of London by tall buildings to forestall the office floor space crisis coming in 2018.

In this connection, minds at C4 had been blown by remarkable computer-generated images of what the London skyline would look like if all constraints on tall buildings were cast aside. Was this like something out of Star Wars , my caller wanted to know.

Could it be right? And if it wasn't right did it matter? Does anything go nowadays?

'Yes, yes and yes!' I chimed in, and swung into my rap about the tragedy of the unbuilt London Millennium Tower that could have neatly dropped 160,000m 2of highly serviced floor space on a site 10 minutes' walk from six underground stations, but which was downsized because from Primrose Hill it would have made the City look like a half-empty packet of Woodbines instead of a full carton of Dunhills.

By the time I had finished my interlocutor was eating out of my hand. He was about to offer me the small-screen equivalent to a three-picture deal when I blurted out that, anyway, if London didn't start building high soon, electronic dispersal would ensure it could never recover.

'Electronic dispersal. . . ' My caller savoured the timbre of the phrase.'Electronic dispersal is when?'

'Is when demand for full-size modern floor space can't be satisfied in the best place, so would-be tenants who have to go somewhere end up putting it somewhere else.'

'That's dispersal, ' said the voice, 'how is it electronic?'

'Starting out trying to find non-Dickensian floor space near the Bank of England but ending up leasing a metal box in Milton Keynes is an electronic decision. It's a much bigger step than whittling away at the protected views of St Paul's. No one in financial services would ever move out of London without IT. It means abandoning all hype about the unique quality of face-to-face encounter, the cellar wine bars, the old stone buildings and so on, and throwing in your lot with IT.

'You know how fast electronic communications and reality simulation have evolved in recent years. That's the way they will continue to evolve in future.

Their destination is the presentation of an image with the precision and realism of an actual encounter. No more low-res mini-figures lurching about in a teleconference room.This will be IMAX for business.'

I went on: 'The more you think about electronic dispersal, the more invincible it looks. Once it gets a hold, as it will do even in old development hotspots like Canary Wharf and Stockley Park, the status, the magic of these locations will tarnish and fade.Other issues like cost and security, transport and congestion will come to the fore and, if the first planning nibble is rebuffed, the net will be cast wider and London will become shallower and wider in the process.'

A long silence followed. I had gone too far. Advocating tall buildings in London and defending them on subjective aesthetic grounds would have been enough to sustain anyone's reputation as a dangerous radical. Coming on so strong about electronic dispersal had made me sound more like a saboteur.

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