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Tim Dwelly's live/work blog

President Obama and Prime Minister Grodon Brown are both signalling 'new deal' public investment programnmes to tackle recession. Both are said to favour infrastucture projects that support the low carbon economy. Live/work developments could be ideally placed to deliver.   

I was impressed with the Prime Minister's plan, flagged up over Christmas, for a Franklin D. Roosevelt-style 'new deal' programme of public investment to mitigate the effects of the recession.

In the 1930s, as private sector investment collapsed, the Democratic President filled the gap with infrastructure projects designed to leave a long term legacy in the USA. The new deal works did just this - and also got many people back into work who might have otherwise stayed on the dole.

Now with Barack Obama planning something similar in the states, with a strong low carbon flavour, our government has excellent political cover to do the same. Where might live/work development fit in?

Gordon Brown has rightly identified infrastructure such as super-speed broadband and low carbon enterprise as the priorities, the 2009 equivalent of the bridges, roads and railway lines built in the original new deal. The prospect of fibre optic broadband finally energising homes and offices in the UK is for me the number one priority. I can't think of a better way to help the nation work, learn, compete and yet commute less. This is a perfect low carbon economy investment - a legacy Gordon Brown could be proud of.

But it still assumes a separation of workspace and home. Given that 41% of all UK businesses are already home based (DTI ASBS survey 2005) and more are now likely to join them, I'd say live/work as a concept should be at the heart of any modern version of a new deal.

Late in 2008 Andy Lake and I edited a pamphlet for the think tank the Smith institute: Can homeworking save the planet? How homes can become workspace in a low carbon economy. This argued the case for live/work (and home based business) as significantly more carbon efficient than just making offices and homes each more green.

We suggest that the assumption that one needs to travel from a home to a separate place of work is old economy, putting it mildly. It may have been true in the industrial era. But today we are seeing homeworking expand rapidly. And we may soon see the need to have PCs become part of the past, with people accessing their software and files from what is called The Cloud. If you can access the Cloud from home why go to the office exactly?

Live/work's prospects are not just enhanced by technology. There is the carbon imperative too. Put simply, one property is built and fuelled rather than two. Even if this doesn't apply to everyone, the more that people live/work, the less strain there is on natural resources used to provide work premises for those who don't or can't. In other words, the more who work mainly from home, the easier it gets for the rest.

Leading sustainability expert Professor Peter James - and my colleague Andy - both produce new evidence and data in the pamphlet which drive home this point. The carbon advantage of live/work is quite clear.

If we are to see a new deal programme of investment in legacy projects which change the country, many will welcome this as a more effective recession-busting use of public money than shoring up the banks.  Many banks are still paying crazy bonuses and failing to lend to home-owners and businesses because of their own past mistakes investing in casino banking, so it's hard to see an awfully good return on this investment of taxpayers' money.

The question is what kind of legacy infrastructure a new deal programme could/should leave behind afterwards. In my view, airport runways, social housing estates and propped up car factories do not do the job.

Getting fibre optic to be rolled out across the UK (As Australia is doing) makes loads more sense. We may have little choice but to do this if we want to compete as an economy in any case. However, going fibre optic while continuing to assume separation of work and home could be a missed opportunity. Where and how do we really think business take place in the future?

I am sure that (especially with broadband advances) the answer will increasingly be at home. If that is right, we need to be honest about the challenges that a switch to a homeworking economy poses. First, how do we stop homeworkers becoming isolated and in some way lonely? Second, how do we design buildings that allow home based businesses to professionalise/expand? Third, how can home based business operate without interrupting family life and vice versa?

An obvious answer is live/work quarters. Here, home based businesses can operate 'on the radar', with easy access to each other to share skills, knowledge and contracts. The other answer is hub facilities. These can be paid for on live/work developments without huge public subsidy. Hubs can then in turn be used to support collaboration and offer extra facilities not only to resident live/workers nearby but other home based businesses in the local area.

With the eco-towns programme in serious difficulty and unlikely to survive a change in government, could live/work quarters and hubs provide a more small scale version of the same concept - but with an even higher low carbon economy score sheet?

In this way live/work quarters with hubs - in urban neighbourhoods, market towns and villages - can operate like enterprise gyms. Gyms are for people who have not got the space or resource to create their own comprehensive fitness facility at home. If you build a gym you can help keep 300 people fit, when only 30 use the facility at any one time. Put another way, the carbon cost of one gym is obviously considerably lower than 300. Hubs on live/work developments can do the same thing - helping micro businesses to stay fit while reducing their costs and their sense of isolation. (I am tempted to go off on another metaphor - the beehive - but that's enough analogy for now!)

Live/work is the future of workspace. Let's prepare for it now and start getting fit for the future low carbon economy....  



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