Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies

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The virtual remake of high-rise housing: electronic technology and social space

Principal Researcher

Dr Brian McGrail
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA
+44 (0)1908 274066


Mr John Allen
Open University

Research Period
1 December 1997 to
30 November 1999
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


Electronic technologies of communication, surveillance and management are radically transforming Britain's remaining high-rise blocks, changing the methods by which their financial and social viability are assessed and, possibly, enhancing life within the blocks. The social and managerial implications of the new technology are both positive and negative. Whilst computers are increasingly used to retrieve, store and process data on tenants, flats and tenancies, with a view to improving the life of residents, electronic barriers (both physical and 'virtual' - for instance, self-consciousness about being video-taped or lack of skills in technology use) are redefining concepts of social inclusion and exclusion. Social exclusion is exacerbated by the uneven social composition of high-rise tenants (largely from deprived and marginalised social groups) who perceive and experience the impact of new technology in very different, often contradictory, ways compared to those from more affluent parts of society.

Aims and Objectives

The aims and objects are to:

  • show how new electronic technologies have affected the delivery of housing services (and what they cost to deliver) with a view to investigating possible improvements in efficiency and performance
  • examine how these technologies have changed the ways in which tenants communicate with each other (and with housing managers), the extent to which tenant groups are involved in directing the development and use of equipment, and how the image of life in the blocks is changing;
  • examine the design processes of telectronic systems, and the ways in which these systems might be developed in future
  • look at how the technology has helped or forced other agencies (such as the police and social services) to develop the manner in which they operate and respond to needs.

Project Design

The main focus of the research will be a number of case studies which reflect:

  • the various systems in existence (for example, single block, dispersed concierge, areal)
  • the approaches adopted by commissioning bodies, and
  • the possibilities for future development.

Sets of interviews (with individuals and in focus groups) build up a detailed picture of what tenants, managers and service providers hope to achieve from the electronic technologies and the extent to which those expectations can be met satisfactorily. More than one location is studied in order to understand spatial differences, and how local conditions affect the ways in which technologies are introduced. To investigate what people 'expect' from technology and what they feel it actually delivers, at least one case study focuses on a block under development during the research period, providing the opportunity for 'before and after' the event interviews.


The project helps develop our understanding of the best possible management and design practices which can be adopted in the implementation and use of electronic technologies in high-rise blocks. Beyond this, electronic technologies have far reaching implications in terms of what it means to design many types of social space. 'Design' is to be understood in its fullest sense, meaning who can do what, with whom, when and where, rather than in a narrow technical sense. As a result, practices may need to be rethought in a number of fields including architecture, engineering, property management and the provision of social services. The research may highlight the nature and extent of public concerns around the use of new technologies and, thereby, act as a catalyst for discussion of both the practices and policies related to their introduction into social spaces.

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Contents current at 15th October 1998