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There's no gain without pain

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Architects are investing heavily in IT, assuming that it will help to boost profits. But without tangible innovation, will it work?

Architects are often surprised that the productivity gains from investment in computer technology, communications and new media over a reasonably long period have been rather meagre. But maybe we should not be too shocked. No technology exists in isolation and any technological innovation with the potential to impact upon the economy must be fully integrated. Only then can it enhance the overall productivity of a national economy, or even of specific design sectors.

It takes time for the potential gains of a technology to be both recognised and realised. Look at the process of electrification. Though Michael Faraday (1791-1867) made the initial discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831, the first power stations did not open in Britain and New York until 1881.

Electricity spread only slowly for the next 20 years, reaching less than 5 per cent of households and businesses by 1900. Only by the late 1930s had it reached more than half of households and three quarters of businesses. It therefore took 40 to 50 years between the first commercial electricity generator and the more generalised deployment of this power source in Anglo-US industry during the interwar years.

In a sense, the invention of the electric generator was the easy part.

For the innovation to affect the economy as a whole many things had to change - industry had to be properly geared up for the economic and productive application of electricity.

In the same way, it is reasonable to expect a prolonged gestation period to apply to the new information and communications technologies. But today, anything that embodies a shift from the status quo - like technology and even economic growth - is seen as particularly unsettling. A society which feels uncomfortable with itself tends to experience change as a destructive process.

Hence, the popular perspective that we are entering a 'risk society'. IT as a technology has the misfortune to be making its mark in an era when progress is not seen as such a good thing. Many architects, for example, hold a deep suspicion of change, particularly in 'unnatural' experimentation.

The coining of the term 'information society' seems to give some intellectual order to the confusion caused by an apparently rapid period of change.

The 'information society' label, and its associations with the elevation of the roles of 'knowledge' and 'creativity', seeks to make a virtue of contemporary confusion, anxiety and low expectations.

The idea of the new information society makes a virtue of industrial decline. Not so long ago de-industrialisation was seen as an economic problem. How much better to turn things on their head and declare 'industry is dead, long live the new information economy'. The definition of 'information workers' is broad enough to mean anybody engaged in services - from architects to their secretaries.

The fetishization of IT downplays the vital input of humans necessary for any technology to work. It replaces the requirement for genuine human innovation, experimentation and creative thinking necessary to make the most of any technology, with the supposedly innate characteristics of 'innovation' and 'creativity' embodied within IT. In this sense, the technophiles blur an essential truth - that human beings do not just create the technologies but must act upon them for their possibilities to be adequately realised. CAD systems and data processors (technicians) do not necessarily make good architecture.

Business' self-conscious denigration of long-term thinking is hostile to the real processes of disruptive change required to make the most of any technological innovation. That there has been rapid productivity growth within some IT sectors, but little evidence of productivity growth elsewhere, would tend to support anecdotal evidence that, while many companies are buying IT supplies, they are not working out how to integrate them to the most positive effect.

Current business thinking is that 'new' forms of investment in IT are good and 'old' investment in other types of plant and equipment is bad, or wasted. So nobody worries that, while IT investment as a share of total business investment rises, non-IT investment has fallen not just relatively but absolutely as a share of GDP. In the US, for example, investment in structures and non-IT production equipment as a percentage of GDP fell from 9 per cent in the 1970s and 1980s to 7 per cent in the 1990s. With this reduced level of modernisation and restructuring within the non-IT economy, the transformative effects even of the IT investment will be limited.

The Internet is a case in point.

Despite the web's cutting-edge reputation, most of its applications are the antithesis of innovation. There is a lot of activity taking place, but the short-term business culture in the US and the UK tends to bring out the worst from the web - simply applying it as a quick fix. Set up a website and, hey presto, you are part of the e-economy.

This used to be called jumping on the bandwagon and is the opposite of genuine innovation. Real gains for society could only come from proper innovatory practices.

Phil Mullan is chief executive of Cyberia, tel 020 7681 4200. His series on the 'information society' is available at www.spiked-online.com

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