South Shields

What is Connectivity?

This essay expounds the policy concept of transport connectivity in Britain from two diverging epistemological perspectives – nation and location. The text characterises the difficulty of managing the midst, before applying the implications to Mobility as a Service.

Introduction: Qu’est-ce que la connectivité?

Connectivity is becoming the new “integration”. Integration was the inherently nebulous integration of/with transport, which lay at the core of much Blairite transport policy. Perfect only for managing divisive policy agendas, by allowing everyone to speak the same word but hear their own preferred interpretation.

Broadly, connectivity is “the state of being connected or interconnected”. What may be less obvious to Anglo-American readers – precisely because it is so inherent, so intuitive – is that state is itself a function of epistemology, of knowing. Causal epistemology, the dominant form in the Anglo-American world, is necessarily temporal – objects interact over time. And humans may reasonably perceive their existence as a temporal continuum – if only to maintain agency over their constantly regrowing organic forms. But observation and existence are more obviously described in spacetime – temporal and spatial – and connectivity might reasonably be considered in spatial terms.

The diminution of the spatial and the privileging of the vector called time echoes through physics, but the root of this simplification is perhaps attributable to societal epistemology: Management of complexity by prediction of the future from the past. Management because prediction fosters a sense of certainty surrounding that which is invariably too complex or remote to be understood through the knower’s experience. Emphasis on time is thus indicative of the inadequacy of the underlying epistemological model for understanding much of the contemporary world.

The National Infrastructure Commission frames transport connectivity as, “the effectiveness of the transport network at getting people from one location to another”, but adds, “this in turn will depend on the time within which a number of individuals can reach different destinations via the transport network.” Such a temporal caveat accords with formal societal epistemology, and thus affirms the Commission’s national role. But the pure temporalisation of transport networks eschews the spatial, and surely inhibits the practical policy understanding of the people these transport networks claim to be connecting.

Not only is a state not as universal as any one epistemological perspective may suppose. But any division in a meaning is analogous to a fracture or tension within that one truth. These are the fractures policy seeks to address. What may look like a problem of buses and trains and the people upon them, is rooted quite deeply in the way society thinks.

A method of thought is inherently impossible to deconstruct using that method of thought: Since those fractures lay in epistemology, policy cannot process those fractures from within itself because those fractures lay within the processing, within the epistemology. It is that tautology that makes buses and trains and the people upon them important, for these facets might reasonably exhibit the simple commonality that has been lost to society through the narrowing of its epistemology by emphasis on temporality. These facets might just allow a bridge between different perspectives, a bridge across the Great divide.

This essay lays the groundwork by outlining the two extremes of that divide, which Great Britain seems intent on simultaneously lurching towards – nation and location – and exploring why it is so difficult, not least for commercial entities, to exist in the midst of such a conceptual divergence.

Perceiving the Same Nation

The epistemological model of the Anglo-American world-view is faltering – vis Brexit, Trump, Fake News – perhaps because greater emphasis on prediction, on temporality, to deal with complexity narrows the epistemological model such that it cannot adequately encompass the full fluidity of humanity. The net result is a widening gap in understanding between the formal, especially intellectual, state and many of those people that state represents.

Herein the fall of civil society. But also the rise of nation: For in Britain that means not just further administrative centralisation of the analytic machine of governance, but the delivery of nation through services, where those services provides both a functional utility and a sense of nation.

Service is surely the new nationalism. Service happens – a process in time – and is thus associated with the same past-future distortions inherent in predictive understanding: Expectation of what may come feeds an understanding built on perception, while the practical utility offered by the service is more momentary, and perhaps only infrequently experienced.

The National Health Service is the outstanding example. In spite of its name, the NHS is functionally rather local. Its service is easily rationalised as doctors and nurses prolonging lives, but the fallacy of such a singular utilitarian explanation becomes clear with comparison to social services – which address an immediately adjacent policy area to healthcare, but are widely considered under-funded, ostensibly because social services are administratively local, not national. Perception of the NHS is so important that non-users are routinely polled in NHS satisfaction surveys – and most of the reasons for dissatisfaction have little or nothing to do with actual medical interventions.

The NHS is already the second largest component of UK government expenditure, only just below spending on pensions. Surely, to thrive, all areas of British public policy must learn to mimic the National Health Service?

This pattern is remarkably familiar from Spain’s railways, whose relationship to Spanish society was explored in the Café Para Todos sequence of essays. Spanish and British notions of nation are built on different underlying philosophies: Spain’s “cohesión territorial” is rooted in a societal system of knowledge that allows the same concept to be interpreted and applied quite differently within different societal groups, while Britain holds time in perpetuity, normalising the value of time as a universal comparator, regardless that time may pass differently for different individuals. However the principles of the Spanish national railway operator Renfe and the British National Health Service are common: A largely local service, rationalised as utility, which conveys a sense of nation. A sense that emphasises the respective societal epistemology, which in turn makes that sense unchallengeable from within the respective society.

Such sense maintains ideas on sameness and equality across said nation because the measures are standardised in societal epistemology: For example, hold time as a universal constant across a society, and transport networks need only equalise time to be perceived as equal. And as explored in the essay Is Alta Velocidad Fast?, Renfe is adept at balancing its network performance by aggregating its operations in very particular ways, converting functional inequality into societal equity. This model of national services is logically most successful where those services are not routinely experienced – where there is little or no practical conflation of utility and perception – and where the service best reinforces the perception on the rare occasions that service is actually utilised.

Successful in so far as the model reinforces its sense of nation. Unfortunately that success also masks the ability to equitably approach service delivery itself: Policy evolves on the (epistemologically) unchallengeable presumption that, for example, national railways are beneficial for the nation, when the practical utility offered to citizens by railways varies, and always will vary, greatly.

Pursuing a blanket national policy of simply promoting railways naturally tends to emphasise places with railways, which start unequal: Roughly two thirds of the British population have no direct (Ward-level) local access to railway stations, while roughly half the pasenger trains operated in Great Britain are in London and “the South East” (including East Anglia), where only a third of the population reside. Rail-based “nation building” thus paradoxically tends to stress base national inequalities, further fracturing the nation it claims to be building. Mitigation, by favouring under-served areas, ultimately eschews railway economic logic, because at root rail is only viable for relatively high densities of population and so cannot feasibly be deployed equally across Britain. Yet many politicians, not least in the north of England, seem to have been convinced that a national railway policy can counter-balance regional differences in their favour. Such is the dominance of perception in policy-making.

To see the end of this particular policy line, simply take a train to Extremadura. Here rail accounts for less than 1% of all the region’s passenger journeys, which reflects a sparsely populated territory that is far from optimal for passenger railways. Yet rail has become the number one policy concern of a regional Autonomous Community that feels the nation has not treated Extremadura fairly, because Spain hasn’t provided the same rail-based “cohesión territorial” as elsewhere.

Location, Location, Location

National government – specifically for England, where transport policy is not devolved – has hitherto approached transport connectivity in time and to services, mirroring the nation-building patterns described above: Assessing localities by the time taken to reach a basket of important services. These measures provide national benchmarks of local places which are, in practice, rather difficult to use in disaggregated form because they don’t explain why places differ.

In contrast, national guidance genuinely intended for local deployment has become altogether less temporal, and therein implicitly less concerned about every place being comparable: For example, the 2006 Manual for the Streets speaks of the importance of connectivity between neighbouring residential developments, but in a physical, not specifically temporal, sense. A recent counter-reaction to decades centralised Planning Policy Guidance-induced cul-de-sacs – single road links that invariably met the requirement to access distant services within an acceptable time frame, but gave little sense that this place was connected to anywhere nearby.

National centralism heralds the retreat of government from place. Either directly, as in the examples above, or by proxy, such as in the deregulation of local bus services. This retreat of government from place has been somewhat viable because the nation may still deliver locally through perception, as postulated through the NHS. As described in the previous section, such a perception-dependant model is weak where it delivers services that are experienced routinely. In these more routine cases, retreat may not just mean governing locally from the centre, but not governing locally at all.

It is convenient to characterise the governance of Britain as a mechanistic (analytic) machine. And that is accurate in so far as Britain’s system of governance is able to manage and conceptualise a whole, and thus, conceptually, control the whole from the centre. However its mechanism fades where it reaches people – people being organic. The nature of that fade, the demarcation between state and citizen, is neither fixed in statute nor consistent in population, both factors which perplex outsiders:

  • The inflection at which decisions or agreements switch from formality (state) to trust (citizen) can be both sudden and (rationally) arbitrary, with closely related issues separated for reasons attributable only to societal norms. Those societal norms are not fixed, and may evolve – an evolution that renders the relationship between the nation and its people adjustable passively, and the consequent structure fluid in the long run.
  • The opt-in nature of state, which imposes on an individual citizen in proportion to each individual’s commitment to state. While commonly obscured by widely agreed Social Goods, this underlying libertarianism rears up at, for example, the suggestion of requiring citizens to carry identification cards without the state giving any service in return. The relationship of each citizen to the British state thus varies slightly from person to person. And that state cannot be held in a universally agreed absolute.

Geographic ambiguity over what constitutes “Britain” (Isles, Ireland, parts thereof) is just the tip of the iceberg: Britain, as the combination of nation and people, is naturally nebulous – and, in totality, not at all the Britain of its mechanistic centralised governance, or of its societal analytic epistemology. The distinction is important because it characterises location – place – here defined as that which is knowable. Societal epistemological makes Britain knowable as nation, but not truly as location: Such a nation can be constructed analytically from its component objects, be aggregated, quantified and summarised. And it can be known in perception. But a human experience of location, especially as a continuum, generally limits the knowable to a much more local scale – that which is actively lived. In this respect location relates to people, and so approximates to the realm of the citizen, not the state. That definition of location is as fluid as the “demarcation” between state and citizen outlined above.

Preston has become the poster child for New Municipalism in Britain – the adoption of Cleveland-style internalised community-centric economics, emphasising local wealth creation over remote corporate finance. But this is not actually so new for Preston: In the previous decade I had some involvement with Preston’s community activism. Activism that simply eschewed formal political government because local politics had been tainted by corporate corruption allegations related to the redevelopment of Preston’s docks. Even in transport, it should not be forgotten that the city’s buses were, until 2009, operated by the last employee-owned “municipal” bus company in Britain. The underlying spirit of New Municipalism was not so new.

“Proud Preston’s” New Municipalism primarily represents the return of community to the mainstream of local political government. Not a revival of a local government in the administrative mould of the nation, but a broader emphasis on policy that emerges from location instead of policy imposed on location by nation: Services from the community, rather than services for the community. Such a simple inversion has potentially far-reach consequences stemming from the very different epistemological root of location, described above: That which starts from what the people of a location know (experientially) cannot be compared with elsewhere. No commonality between different locations, no reasonable expectation of sameness.

However, that expectation of sameness cannot entirely dissipate while the people of a location continue to relate to a wider world, and thus a tension arises locally between the purity of location and the desire for that location to be perceivable outwith. For example, perception defined the development of Edinburgh’s trams, a service with no rational economic competitive or connectivity advantage, but whose construction none the less obsessed Edinburgh City Council to the verge ruin. Motivations for the scheme reflected commercial desires for the city to be seen as global, amid considerable political and financial influence from a nation of Scotland in the throes of devolution, while financing reflected the extremes of globalised optimism, far from that which might be sustained within a location’s internal economy.

Again, Spain provides the complete example, almost simultaneously demonstrating both extremes: The City of Barcelona’s finances are structured around the city’s own economy, with recent (Colauist) policy overtly from location, in a city steeped in Anarcho-syndicalist tradition. Yet Barcelona boasts the construction of what would have been the longest driverless metro line in Europe, had its financial largesse not exceeded the capability of the regional government to manage debt. And even the city’s bus network has been redesigned to emphasise service perception over underlying passenger demand.

Managing the Midst

Passenger transport is of particular interest because it is so clearly capable of being both nation and location:

  • Transport networks are easily conceived as part a national whole because every node appears to link to every other – even though the use of such networks is typically not national, and many journeys are extremely local – caveats that leave plenty of space for perception to flourish: Capable of justifying, as a key investment in nation, upwards of 2% of Gross Domestic Product for just one railway line.
  • Units of carriage commonly become locations in themselves: Consider the family in the family car. Even the individual driver in their familiar vehicular space. The concept extends to public transport, most obviously that operated across an area with an intrinsic sense of community. An inconvenient truth for any formal network assessment of connectivity, because the links may also be nodes, and a standard epistemology may not be blindly assumed.

Managing both, together, lay at the heart of passenger transport policy and business. Yet the both cannot be approached and conceived as one totality because each has a distinct basis of understanding (as earlier concluded in “naturally nebulous” Britain). And thus a living tension arises between nation and location, where one balances the other, but neither can properly understand the other. Anglo-Americans have a particular epistemological fondness for comprehending the whole – analytically as nation, and from I in location – and consequently struggle to balance that which cannot be conceived as one totality. For philosophical contrast, Spain manages this balance more intuitively (albeit across extremes of imbalance) because Spain’s default societal structure only relates knowable groups to one another, so does not need to deconstruct an (internal) Spanish totality.

Instead of managing both as themselves, there is a tendency in Britain to try and impose one upon the other. For example, mode shift, typically meaning shift from private car to something more globally sustainable, may be analysed through the prism of behavioural economics – a methodology rooted in nation, and thus not optimal for understanding or influencing decisions from location. Successfully implementation of modal shift implies an understanding of the both, but practitioners of national policy intuitively understand the intended outcome of the shift far better than the initial position. This weakness echoes through a tranche of policy that relates the actions of individuals to large scale outcomes, including much upcoming policy addressing Climate Change.

Or consider the growing expectation that all local public transport fares should be “the same” (implicitly – and sometime explicitly – appended, “as London”) – as if to make all locations national, and to suppose local transport be a constant of nation. Here fares are indicative of stresses in ownership, especially obvious where local operations are owned by remote corporate multinationals. The perceived solution, nationalisation, in so far as it implies public ownership both as nation and as location, does not automatically better manage the tension between: Indeed, Britain’s public sector is strongly skewed to nation, and in so far as nationalisation might create only a national totality, nationalisation could be a totalitarian denial of location.

The evocation of economics and currency is not entirely incidental: The transactional, largely monetary, economy has historically been relied on to bridge our Great divide between nation and location. Currency is the conversion of values, potentially values rooted in very different concepts, into universally transferable tokens. Currency supposes common trust, and that trust would seem to have waned with the rise of the sort of inequality that cannot be understood in simple utilitarian terms such as human work done: For example, the inequality of ownership stemming from optimistic perception-driven financial market inflation, whose contemporary dominance has shifted the notion of value from utility to perception, and surely in parallel, toward a national conception of that which may remain strongly rooted in location, such as housing.

Previous essays demonstrated how global finance increasingly functions as Spain’s societal glue, but also how localities have resisted the temporalisation of transport systems seen nationally. In spite of substantial organisational differences, similar tensions have characterised the last three decades of the British bus (and subsequently public transport) industry. Each large operating group adjusted in a slightly different manner. For example, Go-Ahead’s operations were skewed towards location, retaining local identities and management, while Stagecoach instinctively painted the buses in a standard corporate livery and centralised management decisions. Both subsequently evolving somewhat toward the middle ground. While harder to track, there has been a gradual tendency for larger operating groups to retreat from infrequent or anomalous routes, especially deep rural community bus services, and focus on core service patterns – ostensibly because core service patterns tend to more profitable and easier to mass-market. However the shift is perhaps also indicative of a struggle to maintain a strong attachment to location while also trying to meet global financial expectations.

Relationships with the financial market are particularly pertinent. While pension-like markets can long-term finance bus businesses as a reliable source of unremarkable income, investment in growth, real or collectively imagined, is invariably a more attractive proposition for investors. First Group’s (late 1990s) attempt to convince the financial markets to invest in local bus growth largely failed, not only because bus investments and returns occur over a relatively short period, precluding extended optimism, but because the core market is characterised by somewhat regular local journeys that make a perception-driven service hard to sell. The escapade can even be attributed to the loss of prior market territory, such as that around Edinburgh or Plymouth. Perhaps buses are just a little bit too rooted in location to appeal to those global financial markets built around ever-inflating perceived value. First Group’s bus investment was ostensibly abandoned in favour of rail. While railway investment timescales are much longer and thus more receptive to optimism, formal contracts resist the sort of fluid readjustment of tension which is possible in deregulated (bus) markets. Rail franchises have already started to emerge as an unexpectedly high risk, and not necessarily able to deliver on optimism.

Like the contractual London bus market, Britain’s rail sector is increasingly favouring corporations with a cultural dedication to the provision of contracted services. Excluding Arriva (who are currently German owned, but emerged from North East England), overseas providers already account for roughly 30% of National Rail train departures. Overseas providers are not bound by Britain’s epistemology – and certainly not bred (as Anglo-Americans) to expect the whole world thinks like they do at home – so are perhaps better at managing instructions blindly. Keith Williams’ rail review surely represents a societal push-back – a subtle rebalancing towards location – with calls for greater emphasis on the travelling customer and the dilution of highly centralised contractual regimes, all framed by the implicit acknowledgement that national political control has not itself been able to effect the required balance. The difference of opinion within the industry, between the nation‘s infrastructure manager, Network Rail, and train operators more naturally aligned to location, is revealing.

Postscript: Mobility as a Service

The passenger transport software and technology ecosystem has grown particularly adept at selling hope. In some cases, such as Elon Musk, one might even conclude the only product on offer is hope. Elsewhere optimism serves to propel the business past the technical and organisational hurdles that would otherwise prevent its market from being opened up: For example, prior failures to commercialise demand responsive transport should have always suggested Uber’s core business would be unprofitable until the prime operating cost – the driver – could be replaced with automated technology. In the meantime driverless technology is talked up optimistically, not least to soften the blow of its eventual implementation: The public acceptance of an efficiency gained through software that, Boeing 737 Max-style, may occasionally go very wrong.

The Artificial Intelligence increasingly embedded in such software represents the latest iteration of the gradual “data-isation” of humanity – precisely the sort of quantification and aggregation required to manage as nation. Classic Artificial Intelligence can do no other: Constrained by a mathematics that Gödel tells us cannot handle everything, programmers must avoid fundamental, but quintessentially human, philosophical paradoxes – a complex theme explored in the essay, On the Creation of Reality. Ergo such software cannot “think” from location at all, yet is now being deployed into a passenger transport arena that, as explained in the previous section, may involve managing both nation and location together.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is the attempt to distil every mode and process into a single user-centric application – ostensibly to provide a highly personalised form of transport system integration through information technology. The Expectations of Competition postulated perfect integration as a human antithesis which sought to resolve, “a perpetual rebalancing somewhere between one collective perfectly integrated transport system, and the total flexibility of unfettered individual choice.” Humans live in the midst of that balance, so both extremes may seem desirable, not withstanding the practical contradiction – a practical limitation that pushes solutions into the realm of perception (akin to the Democratic need to feel free within a constraining society). The best MaaS will be that which best manages the contradiction. That’s a genuine challenge for MaaS supporting routine or familiar travel, where actual experience will tend to dominate.

Uber’s technology may be global, but the product as routinely experienced is most definitely local. Why Barcelona has no Uber demonstrated that Silicon Valley neo-libertarian disruptive technology cannot simply be railroaded through where the most relevant societal structure is not global. After having its first Spanish market entry forcibly rebuffed, Uber effectively yielded control of its Spanish operations to a bourgeois commercial elite (of VTC licence holders) who form a part a national governing (state vs elite) duality: Effectively adding Uber to a longstanding Spanish framework of strategic counter-balances, but in practice reducing Uber’s function to that of software and brand provider (akin to manager of local franchisees). In Spain at least, there’s no evidence Uber can adapt its core business away from software, and so will always need to work with operators that are more societally in tune – better managers of the midst.

Software is ownership, where ownership now dominates institutional valuation – hence the investment focus. Traditional mobility and service – vehicle manufacturers or public transport operators – have no such valuation. However without the ability to manage in the midst, in a sector defined by that midst, software alone becomes a long-term liability. So a pure software business cannot dominate alone, even if the ownership and surrounding financial model suggests so. An intriguing strategic mismatch, because it is also the mismatch in value between the economy of inflationary perception and the economy of work done.

Afterthought: Changing Consciousness

From Alexei Yurchak‘s observations of the Soviet Union came the term “HyperNormalisation”, which, in my words, describes the dominance of perception as a means of managing states which have exceeded themselves. The Soviet case was extreme – presumably because the revolutionary ideology had been human, quite opposing the resulting centralised empire – an extremity which ultimately rendered disbelief and a corollary collapse of state. But there’s enough evidence from Britain and Spain, both struggling with the over-achievement of past empire, to suggest this phenomena is not simply a Soviet invention.

Contemporary Russian Putinism has merely taken Soviet-era perception expertise global. In the words of Vladislav Surkov, the supposed architect, “Russia is meddling in their [foreign politicians’] brains, changing their consciousness, and they have no idea what to do about it.”

The basic principle is straightforward: Totalities cannot be understood from within, but we have to think that they can be understood. The classic proof of God dilemma. Any supposed proof is tautologically flawed and theoretically vulnerable to exposition. Global is analogous to the human totality, the highest point in a formal hierarchy of sovereign nations: Attack the top of the hierarchy and everything that understands itself to flow from the top becomes infected. But there can be no rationalisation of the (global) totality from within. What follows is disbelief, be that emphasising dogmatic adherence to prior epistemology, or conspiracizing the unfamiliar wider world while living life more locally. Intriguingly echoing the concepts of nation and location respectively.

Tautologically, even Surkov’s implied causality – that “Russia” is changing anything – is not so clear, because, as illustrated by this essay, fractured epistemology cannot sensibly be used to understand its own fractures. Surely Russia is just exploiting tensions whose creation must be just as global (total) in causality as their manifestation. Advantageous geopolitically, given her (Soviet-residual) cultural resilience to perception, but as totality no more controllable than God.