One of the nice things about being an academic is the diversity of the job. One day you can be crawling around the floor barking and trying to get into the mindset of a dog, the next you’re having a serious meeting with the city council about cultural policy.
On Thursday I was in London for a ‘townhall’ meeting run by the Economic and Social Research Council. They’re the big funder of social science research in the UK and are in the midst of drawing up a new agenda for research on cities. So a bunch of bigwigs connected to research on cities got an invitation in their inbox to come down to a hotel in London to spend a day talking about what the priorities for research should be. I felt a little bit out of place in this august company (which featured a great many grey heads) but the presence of a key player from the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme suggested that I was there because of the large grant I hold out of that call.
Regardless, nice to be invited, makes me feel almost like a grown up (now that I’m 38). The ESRC are at a preliminary stage with their thinking on this new research agenda and we were there to look at a document that their expert panel had drawn up – in particular the six themes that animated it. I’m paraphrasing slightly but these were:
If this sounds bitchy or pessimistic, it’s not meant to be. It’s very interesting to have reached the career stage where you start to see how agendas are formulated rather than just responding to whatever 'they' have set up. It was something I certainly noticed at Connected Communities meetings, where an idea discussed at one forum would suddenly find itself becoming a major theme of the next round of funding. So it’s great to get a chance to take some of the ideas that ESRC are playing with and have a chance to feed in to shape the final call. Aside from resilience (which received an almighty kicking) there was general enthusiasm for the broad topic areas, although a lot of calls for more practical, grounded things to be included (i.e. housing, property, retail, liveability) that practitioners and policymakers (as well as urban communities) could really get their teeth into.
I was pretty pleased that a couple of the things I was pushing ended up in the end-of-day summary, in particular the importance of looking at urban planning and the need to consider interdisciplinary datasets that already existed (e.g. pollution data from NERC, transport data from EPSRC, material on communities from AHRC) to do some kind of meta-analysis (to be pretentious).
Otherwise, these events are quite nice in that you get to catch up with people you haven’t seen for a while and meet people who work in similar areas to you – even occasionally people who are fans of your work (yes Jonas, it was really nice to meet you too!). So it was grand to have a gab/debate with Phil Hubbard, who I’ve not seen for ages and is now doing some really interesting work looking at displacement/outmigration caused by gentrification in central London. I was also very impressed with Adam Greenfield’s work on Networked Urbanism. He gave a very compelling critique of the Smart City discourse which neatly undercut a lot of the technofetishism tangled up with debates in this area. It was also very nice to meet Katharine Willis, an architect working out of University of Plymouth, who has being doing some really intriguing things with geocaching as a tool for engaging communities in imagining their neighbourhoods differently – an intriguing parallel to the MapLocal project, which she was already aware of (yes, it’s all terribly incestuous). Likewise it was great to finally meet Mike Batty out of UCL, whose work has impressed me for many years. He led the technology & urban living subtheme of the main report, humanising what can otherwise be a somewhat heroic story of technological progress.
Quite what will happen in terms of a definitive call for funding emerging from this we’ve yet to see, but it’s going to the ESRC’s decision making panel in April, so it’s a case of watch this space. Nonetheless, the fact that urban issues are being taken so seriously is excellent news for Geography at the University of Birmingham as we’ve real strengths in urban research so, wearing my very natty ‘research group leader’ hat, there’s some really exciting opportunities on the horizon.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer