From one industrial landscape to another

I (Thomas Reitmaier) recently joined the CHERISH digital economy research centre at Swansea University. Digital Economy (DE) research is an emerging theme within the UK and CHERISH-DE is linked to a handful of other DE research centres across the UK, all funded by the RCUK. To further this research agenda CHERISH sponsored the International Population Data Linkage Conference, so I was fortunate enough to attend the IPDL even though my research emphasizes user and community engagement, rather than on obtaining population-level insights by analyzing and linking big data sets.

The conference was hosted by Swansea University at the beautiful new Bay Campus. As I had just started working for CHERISH-DE – based at the older Singleton Park Campus – I had never been to the Bay Campus before. All I knew was that the National Cycle Route 4 connects both campuses. Route 4 is a beautiful and flat route, so once I got going I quickly covered a lot of ground and didn’t even realize that I had missed an earlier turnoff. I had overshot my target by about 2 kilometers. As I was now running late, I turned off Cycle Route 4 towards the A483, where I passed by Amazon Park. An industrial landscape of massive proportions.

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Amazon Park
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Amazon Park

A few hours later, I got to visit another, much older industrial landscape, as part of the pre-conference programme: the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape. At Blaenavon we visited the Big Pit National Coal Musuem, a real coal mine, and were lowered 90 meters in the company of a former coal miner, who guided us around the coal faces, engine houses, and stables. Our guide joked that he has spent more of his life underground than a potato and not only told us about the technical aspects of mining and transporting the coal, but also about the communities in the surrounding valleys the industry supported. These are communities that are now struggling. He thought it was criminal that Wales imports coal from Australia, when there is perfectly good coal to be found here and in similar places across South Wales.

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Blaenavon Big Pit © ejbaurdo

Once we returned to the surface it was only a very short bus ride to the Blaenavon Ironworks, with it’s water balance tower, blast furnaces, and cast houses. But I particularly enjoyed looking at the refurbished worker’s cottages, each restored to be representative of a time period ranging from 1840 – 1960, as they offered glimpses of the social history of the workers.

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Blaenavon Ironworks

In stark contrast to these heavy industrial sites was Cardiff Castle, which we got to visit next. Over the centuries the castle passed hands from the Romans, the Normans, to the Bute family, who in turn gifted it to the city of Cardiff. The Butes owned lands in Glamorganshire and had feudal titles to common lands, which were rich with coal deposits. The Butes generated massive wealth by consolidating land rights which allowed them to develop and claim royalty on coal mines and iron industries as well as transport infrastructures. The immense wealth the Butes extracted from the coal fields and related industries is reflected in the expensively and profusely decorated rooms in Cardiff Castle. What a contrast to the humble dwellings I saw just a few hours earlier.

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Cardiff Castle Arab Room © microwavedboy

The Welsh Banquet that we attended at the Castle rounded the evening off with warm hospitality, traditional song, dance, food, and plenty of drink. All in all it was a fantastic days of diverse experiences. Retracing the steps I took on that day, I can’t help but wonder how our contemporary digital economies, industries, infrastructures, and communities will be remembered in 100 years time? To some extent the conditions and possibilities of our future community life are being hard-wired into our computing infrastructures we are building today. And so I can’t help but feel inspired and distressed all at once. Inspired by passion and commitment of local communities as well as by the creativity and intellect of colleagues and collaborators at CHERISH-DE that range across a variety of disciplines. But daunted by the task that lays ahead: to ensure that the technologies we develop together make the digital and physical spaces we live in convivial and sustaining. I have only been working at CHERISH-DE for a few short weeks, and my head is already spinning with ideas. I look forward to the years that lay ahead!