Connectivity and the Periphery

Accessibility and proximity have played and still play an important role in the development process. They enable economic development and sustain it at the same time. Together they also generate the peripherality effect. That what is outside of the “accessible and close” area is peripheral and presents less interest. My argument here is that in spite of this effect, a third player comes to the table, and its name is connectivity. Encouraged by the Digital Agenda of the EU, I believe that connectivity can actually make peripherality become solely a geographical attribute with reduced economic impacts.

Two Europes… again

“Two Europes” is a popular terms in recent debates. However, my use of the term in this article is not directly related to the two speed Europe that economists talk about. I am rather relating to some of the concepts that planners used in the past to describe the core-periphery dichotomy in the EU. In the last 20 years we have been constantly amused by terms like “Blue Banana”, and impressed by the more serious terms like “Central Regions” and “The Pentagon”. While other concepts were also defined, these are some of which are of specific interest for this post.

The core-periphery relation is not something new. It’s a basic principle that can be applied to all types of examples outside of the spatial planning realm. In this particular case though, all of the above mentioned concepts point to “two Europes”. I will try to draw the attention towards those attributes of these Europes, which I believe are most important for the discussion here.

The core

The core is characterised by a dense inter-modal transport networks, which make it very accessible. As a result, along the years businesses found that this is a favourable environment to develop and grow. Soon the core became the economic agglomeration that we know today, mainly containing France, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, and Netherlands. To these we could also add the North of Italy and Switzerland, with the latter not part of the EU. The resulting proximity of the business clustering process is one of the strongest attributes of the region.

Source: Source: BMVBS, 2007

The periphery

In short, and in somewhat simple terms the periphery represents all the rest. Yet, I would recommend to differentiate between several peripheries, which share some basic existential principles, but are in fact very distinct. I see three main types of periphery in the EU.

  1. The former communist bloc, containing all of the 2004-2007 enlargement member states which share the EU Eastern border.
  2. The Northern periphery, consisting of the Baltic states, which share similar cultural and historic characteristics, but which are related only to the Northern part of the former communist bloc, and not sharing too much with Western Europe.
  3. The Southern region of the EU and the countries sharing the Mediterranean coast together with France, are another group which draw cultural characteristics from both Eastern and Western Europe.

One more consideration would be that I’ve left the grouping  of  UK, Ireland, and France out of the periphery, mainly because they are peripheral only geographically as technically they are part of the main core of the EU. From the Western coast probably Spain (specifically the West and South) and Portugal are the ones that can be considered as peripheral, but even here their role in colonization processes and their general economic links would raise some issues. The same type of rationale would also apply for the previous 3 countries.

Though defining the periphery is a complex matter, for this particular exercise I am referring to the member states on the North, East and South borders of the EU (i.e. 1, 2, 3)

Map Base Source: Wikimedia Commons

Digital Agenda and Internet Rollout

The Digital Agenda is one of the EU flagship initiatives aimed at unifying the internet market and improve internet access across the EU, in order to efficiently support the Single Market.

In 2011 ESPON published the fourth of the Territorial Observations Series: Trends in Internet Rollout. The study shows improved internet infrastructure and consistent growth patterns. On the other hand, at a closer look the study might not reveal the whole naked truth.
The analysis looks at particular indicators to measure internet adoption. And in all fairness, in this respect it does a very good job! But give a little more attention to the actual speed of the internet, and a different picture might appear.

Households_06-09Source: Territorial Dynamics in Europe: Trends in Internet Roll-out – Map 6 Households using a high-speed Internet connection, 2006 to 2009

It is true that internet adoption is an important factor for economic development. Even so, in down to earth terms, what good is the internet if it is not fast enough. Also, considering today’s technology and requirements, the 144Kb/s defined by the authors of this study as high-speed internet is not that fast.

Looking at the ranking available on NetIndex we can clearly see that in the EU download and upload speeds in peripheral countries are actually much higher than in the “core” group (with a few exceptions like Luxembourg). I would say that this developed out of necessity, for not being in the core, but this is another issue. At first, this would seem an unimportant aspect (i.e. the speed difference). But I urge you to think a little bit further down the line. Higher speeds result in a higher connectivity index. In lay terms, you can get things done faster with high-speed internet, use more resource demanding services, and reduce the need for physical presence, thus lowering the need for accessibility and proximity.

The result of connectivity

This simple connectivity advantage has transformed this “periphery” of the EU in a magnet for IT&C and knowledge based businesses in general (e.g. tech support, call centers, web services, etc.).

Now, considering this image and its potential I would argue that the lack of accessibility and proximity starts to lose its relevance, and peripherality stops being an issue. If distance is no longer a problem, as connectivity allows for remote working, then how can we still make a discriminating choice between the “core” and the “periphery”. I am not ignorant. There are businesses that cannot function in this manner, but they are not dominant economic actors anymore in the post-industrial age.

Withal, considering the argument above I believe that it might be time that we start to think about reshaping policy objectives as to take advantage of this unique feature that is connectivity.