Economic growth is closely
linked with the distances we are able to travel. The
further people are, on average, able to travel, the greater the
economic activity and the wealth of the society.
The increasing use of
information and communication technologies (ICT) is changing the
nature of this linkage. With "virtual mobility" the
importance of distance is less - but the connection with
mobility remains. Two factors connect virtual mobility with
previous developments in transport:
The diagram below - without
any great claims to precision - illustrates the relative
contribution of various modes of mobility to economic growth in
the modern era.
Before the industrial era, person power
(walking, running, using slaves and servants), animal
power (horses, donkeys, camels, etc) and wind power (for
sails) provided the energy for mobility over shorter and
longer distances. The distances we could travel, and our
economic horizons, were severely limited. The unleashing of
energy from fossil fuels powered a massive expansion of
transport technologies and infrastructure to enable
personal travel and freight transport on a global scale. Access
to new markets stimulated both production and consumer demand.
The growth of a new mode of transportation does
not necessarily bring about a decline in others. Initially, at
least, the development of a new mode can stimulate another -
e.g. the dawn of the canal age for a while boosted the
(horse-drawn) haulage industry around inland ports. Despite this
boost, there was a decline in relative importance to the economy.
Similarly, the 19th and early 20th century growth of
telecommunications is closely associated with the growth of
railways and international shipping. Running railways was made
more efficient by use of the telegraph. In fact, in the first
instance one network was laid out on the routes of the other. But telecommunication also
became a medium of doing business in its own right, as well as
supporting/enhancing traditional modes of transport.
Telecommunications have moved on. We are now, we
are frequently told, at the dawn of a new era - the "information
age". The convergence of telecommunications and information
technology are creating a new "mode" that can supplement and
replace existing transport modes without the need to travel. The
relationship between virtual mobility and older forms of
physical mobility are complex. The effects of ICT can be to
complement physical transport, or to replace it.
Increasingly ICT are becoming pivotal for
economic growth. By enabling "virtual mobility", ICT provide the
means to undertake many of the activities that have so far
needed physical transport. But more than this, virtual mobility
also opens up new horizons and new potential for economic
Being able to "travel longer distances" does not
necessarily mean travelling to far-off places. It also means being
able to make many more journeys over shorter distances.
Increases of speed mean that more journeys can be made in less
time. So, for example, more customers can be served in the local
area, as well as serving new customers in far-flung areas.
Most importantly, increases in speed liberate
time for other activities. These can be activities requiring
travel, or not. Using the liberated time for value-creating
activity - producing and consuming - fuels economic growth.
In economic terms, transport is, for the most
part, a derived demand. That is, people want to do something, and
travelling (or transporting goods) is a means to an end. I want to
go to the cinema, or go shopping. I want a friend to have a
gift. The need to travel or to transport something is derived
from these needs or desires. Transport systems act as both an
enabler for our desired activities, and a constraint. Often we
can't do what we want, because the transport system doesn't
allow it, or will only let us if we have large resources of time
and/or money. The history of transport, from this standpoint, is
the history of the loosening of these constraints.
Making advances in transport technologies has
hitherto been closely related to increases in energy
consumption. Advances have also been associated with more
effective use of our ration of time. Getting to places faster is
desirable in terms of convenience and comfort - but more
importantly it enables us to do more of the things that we want
Virtual mobility changes the nature of the
relationship between economic growth on the one hand, and use of
time and energy resources on the other.
It is not correct to say that ICT "decouples"
economic growth and energy consumption. Energy is still required
for the fabrication of equipment and infrastructure and to power
both the networks and the environments of the people using them.
But economic growth can be achieved with lower levels of energy
consumption. How much lower depends on political direction
as well as commercial innovation.
But just as significant is the impact on the use
of time resources. Reducing "travel time" for activities to
(virtually?) zero has a twofold effect:
You can do what you want to do more
effectively - by liberating all the travel time for that activity
that would otherwise be needed
You can do many more things - because
virtual mobility opens up many new possibilities for
interaction that were previously impractical due to the
These add up to what Bill Gates would call
"business at the speed of thought" - or at least at the speed of
your software and telecoms link. If not now, in due course it
should be instantaneous.
Virtual mobility is not just
about replacing existing travel
Physical transport, however, is still
increasing. In all countries car usage is increasing. In
developing countries there is a huge hunger for cars. Air
travel, despite the fear of terrorism, will continue to rise. These continuing increases in physical transport
prompt scepticism about the possibilities for virtual mobility
to replace physical travel. Some commentators suggest that the
new technologies are a major contributory factor to the growth
of physical transport.
The issues are very complex. ICT is being used
to make existing transport systems more effective for both
service provider and consumer - in the same way that the
telegraph supported the 19th century rail network. IT-related
efficiencies may be a factor in the expansion of transport
industries, but that is not the same as virtual mobility, where
one is speaking of using ICT to do the job that transport might
Virtual mobility may stimulate physical mobility
in examples such as:
I work with people on the other side of the
globe: this leads to meetings involving long-distance travel
I shop online and have goods transported from
far-flung places that probably I would never have visited.
However, in terms of the relationship between
mobility and economic growth, we can see far greater value
delivered for the mileage travelled. In the first example, one
needs to compare the mileage travelled in the context of a
primarily virtual relationship with the mileage that would have
been needed to conduct the business on a primarily face-to-face
and paper-based basis. While the business relationship has
generated several trips, it has substituted many others that
would have been needed in a traditional business setting. Just
as importantly, it is a new venture made possible by virtual
mobility, and is a contributor to the growth of the company and
the national economy.
So virtual mobility is about replacing both
existing and potential journeys.
In the second example, of online shopping, the
effects on physical transport are hard to predict. The goods are
sent from afar: but it is unlikely that additional journeys are
required by the carriers, until the volume of such transactions
reaches a certain threshold, or unless it is a large or
But the balance becomes different if instead of
a material product, I buy a "de-materialised" product - for
example instead of buying CDs from a high street shop
increasingly I download music via the Internet.
This trend, which is well underway and will
become increasingly regularised over the next few years,
illustrates the new relationship between economic activity and
the need to travel. In fact, by not travelling, I can consume
goods (e.g. online music) from a much wider range of sources.
And in principle, if I sell music online, I can reach a global
audience that I could never hope to reach through physical
Taking it forward
None of this is to say that virtual mobility
will replace all forms of physical transport. Going back to our
diagram, it is merely to say that it will become more
and more a key factor in economic growth.
Other forms of transport will continue to be
necessary, and play their part in the economy. How much a part
they play will depend in part on demand, but also on the vision
of organisations, and the willingness of governments both to
regulate environmentally unsustainable forms of transport, and
to promote the virtual alternatives.
For organisations and individuals, the key
questions are how to take advantage the possibilities? That is,
how to reduce dependence on physical transport, increase virtual
mobility, and take advantage of the time liberated by this to be
more productive, have more fun, or achieve a better time balance
in one's life.