Skip to content

Knowledge, The New Currency In Regeneration

September 30, 2009

From regeneration to sustainability: A Northern take on knowledge ~ Knowledge is a neglected commodity in regeneration. It can be seen as the ‘new currency’ — the element in modern society which very largely distinguishes the empowered from the disempowered. But while much attention is paid to developing sustainable communities, very little is paid to the flow and accumulation or acquisition of knowledge or knowledges which might inform their settings and empower them.

If knowledge could be said to be like water, it is as though one is content to leave it unchannelled, and its course uncharted. Policy-makers and regeneration practitioners need to ask questions such as whether Big Science public investment decisions are too important to be left to scientific researchers, and whether technologies, professional skills and expertise of all sorts need to be seen as a resource in themselves within sustainable development frameworks for national, regional and local economies.

This paper makes the case that knowledge is the new currency, and examines some ways in which understandings of knowledge as a commodity might become a constructive aspect of regenerational good practice. A version of it, then entitled ‘From regeneration to sustainability: A Northern take on knowledge’, was first published in The Journal of Regeneration and Renewal (JURR), Vol.3, No.2 (September 2009). The JURR paper in turn was derived from a similarly entitled Keynote Address delivered at the July 2008 NUREC Conference.

Knowledge, it has been argued, is like water. It flows, ebbs or simply seeps in wherever it can. If can cut through the toughest terrain, freeze up, or cloud out perspective; or, when conditions are right, it can permeate everything invisibly in life-asserting and positive ways.

Also like water, knowledge comes in many forms. It can be formal – easily identified, mapped and defined – or informal, clusters of ideas (clouds?), social and other cultures (mist or the dampness of living things), or simply not there – arid places and habitats offering little hope of growth or vibrancy and development.

It all depends where the knowledge (or water) is and who or what controls or directs it. For, to complete the simile, both water and knowledge are largely manageable resources. We can never determine exactly how they will appear or not, but we always have choices about whether we will harness them for the betterment of people and (long term, at least equally importantly) the environments in which people live.

But who will manage these resources? And who, indeed, has the ‘right’ (or obligation) to do so?

Regeneration as a part of knowledge management
As recent leadership styles research commissioned by the Academy for Sustainable Communities (now the Homes and Communities Agency Academy) has indicated (John Gibney & Alan Murie (eds) Towards a ‘New’ Strategic Leadership of Place for the Knowledge-Based Economy (June 2008)), regeneration practitioners must surely recognise a role for themselves in responding to these challenges. Our prime reason-for-being is that we try to make things better, for places and for people; and, when we have achieved this (we hope) to everyone’s satisfaction, we then seek to maintain and – if we can – develop the new, better, way of doing things.

So is there anything we in the regeneration trade can learn by thinking about knowledge and water in the context of our endeavours? Probably, there is.

We can approach these issues, both water and knowledge, on a number of levels, for example: the physical (where is it, what shape does it have, how did it get there?), the socio-economic (what are the human factors which influenced it?), the strategic (is it in the right place with the right management?) and the future (does it need ‘development’ and, if so, why?).

Questions of this sort are well beyond the scope of the ‘traditional’ construction and planning approach to regeneration, but increasingly a wider requirement is being placed upon regeneration practitioners. This duty, generally welcomed by many, is to seek to understand the wider contexts in which regeneration and renewal occur, or may develop. Seen in this way, both water and knowledge become highly relevant to how regenerational tasks should be undertaken.

Having taken the aqueous analogy this far, however, we must now focus on knowledge; and in doing so, we need to move far beyond the single idea, valid as it is, that ‘regeneration and knowledge’ is simply about the construction of educational buildings, important as this may be.

What is required as the next step in regenerational praxis is a wholesale review of how the knowledge economy responds and develops in symbiosis with the themes of regeneration and renewal. This is so not just because the world wide web and other informational technologies have become critical to the operation of modern societies, but also because there are far wider aspects to knowledge which (like water) infuse our understanding and operationalisation of the world in which we live. The fundamental influence of knowledge on how communities evolve and develop (or otherwise) has been very largely ignored, or at best sidelined, by most regeneration practitioners.

We already know, and are beginning to understand how, locating and developing formal educational institutions can support aspects of renewal in both urban and rural contexts; indeed, the Government has initiated a large-scale programme of school building (Partnership for Schools: Building Schools for the Future) which is a significant factor in keeping aspects of the wider economy in business. Some of the current government investment in new school buildings is simply to catch up on past failures to maintain facilities well, but there is also the hope that this classically Keynesian initiative (John Maynard Keynes (1936): The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money) will result in improvements in local economies and educational attainment. This is where we begin to see the importance of the knowledge economy (ESRC Knowledge Economy in the UK). There has however to be far more to it even than that.

What follows here is therefore the outline of a possible ‘knowledge economy checklist’ for regeneration practitioners, in the hope that it will spark the debate to engender some more focused methodologies for developing this complex field.

A framework for mapping knowledge
Mapping is an essential precursor to strategy and planning; which are themselves the bases from which regeneration and renewal can occur. This applies as much to the knowledge economy (broadly interpreted) as to any other facet of modern life.

It is fundamental to understanding the knowledge economy that we see it as encompassing many different facets of contemporary communities. Some of these facets are easy to map, some more difficult. It is obvious that places like schools, libraries and doctors’ surgeries are predicated on knowledge (both the practitioners’ and their clients’), but it has been less often perceived that these facilities and institutions are parts of the formal knowledge economy – as are, for instance, financial services, other professional businesses, large organisations with management structures, cultural bodies, strategic systems such as the emergency services, and such like.

There is a strong case for suggesting that failure to appreciate the necessity for this sort of economic mix has been critical in the failure also to deliver sustainable communities. Again, the Egan, Gershon, Lyons and Quirk Reviews and similar moves by national bodies such as the BBC, in its Salford BBC Media City initiative, have made a start in looking at these issues regionally.

As an example of this new appreciation of the impact of technology within regional economies, Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, has argued cogently (address by Mark Thomas at the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner, Liverpool BT Convention Centre, 20 November 2008) that the new BBC national television hub, located alongside The Lowry in Salford, NorthWest England, will help to deliver a greater balance in the knowledge economy between north and south of England – a lesson for government regional science policy which, whilst not entirely uncontested (Brett Christophers: Environment and Planning Vol 40, No 10, October 2008 The BBC, the creative class, and neoliberal urbanism in the north of England) might well be applied also to comparable possible investments in Big Science (National Audit Office: Big science: Public investment in large scientific facilities 24 January 2007) as such. These insights and the mapping of their possible outcomes have not as yet however devolved down to influencing wider decisions and understandings of the knowledge economy at the regional or local level.

This takes us to another aspect of knowledge economies: they come in all shapes and sizes and, to extend our water analogy, they can be stagnant or muddy or crystal clear, they can move sluggishly or with great speed, and they can seep away or grow in depth and significance. Sometimes it’s the little fissures from which an idea flows which will have greatest impact; at other times it’s the formally encapsulated knowledge machine which has the biggest influence.

In mapping knowledge and knowledge economies we therefore have to think in terms not only of current location and volume, but also of how the facility will change over time. A four-dimensional evaluation, including the temporal, is required to make sense of things; which means that other factors (population projections, industry changes, environmental influences) are also relevant to the mapping exercise.

The synergies and dysfunctions between local and community, regional and national knowledge systems remain as yet to be much examined, but they are critical to the exercise of proper regeneration.

At the local and community level, if this approach was undertaken to maximum effect, locations such as general practice surgeries would be seen as places of learning (of all sorts, as much by professional role model as through health messages) in the same way as schools should be; the nationally standardised training of previously unemployed people by newly installed supermarkets would be perceived as an overt investment in that community; support for a decent bookseller or simply a good newsagent would be construed as the rivulet which might as it combines with others in the locality result ultimately in a strong stream of achievement and ambition.

Similarly, at the regional (and sub-regional) level, it would become the norm to perceive large industrial plants and organisational hubs, science parks, even environmentally sensitive areas, as places of learning and ‘knowledge sinks’, as well as elements of business and physical constructions.

Particularly important as a first step in this shifting perception is the further analysis of how installations such as large-scale scientific laboratories impinge on and interact with the regional contexts in which they are located . There is at present no clear government regional policy on scientific work at the global level of significance. This, along with the implicit assumption by many influential scientists that the location of preference must be within the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of cutting edge Big Science investment along the M4 and M5 corridors (Hilary Burrage: CLES Local Work: Voice paper of February 2006, Knowledge Economies and Big Science: A challenge for governance) – as opposed for instance to the ‘regional’ Daresbury site, home to the now-terminated Synchrotron Radiation Source, in Cheshire (SRS Daresbury Laboratory: After two million hours of science a British world first bids farewell, 4 August 2008) – constitutes a significant potential impediment to our understanding of how developing ‘knowledges’ and their locational host economies actually ‘work’.

The question when it comes to locational (geographical placement) aspects of very large scale science facilities is, do these laboratories act as ‘tanks’ of knowledge, from which this commodity must be mechanically piped to end-users; or are they more like ‘lakes’ which also by their very nature hydrate the surrounding environs?

Clearly, there are always important local spin-offs; but does the knowledge environment also seep through in other ways, perhaps enhancing ambition and potentially, as in our local schools renewal example, economic achievement for the local area?

And do we know if this happens – or could with attention to the issue happen – differently with a large-scale laboratory which takes forward a very focused dedicated research agenda, than in the case of a university with many different disciplinary directions? Higher education is widely recognised as adding value to the economy in general (William M. Shobe: The Virginia NewsLetter, April 2008: The Economic Value of Publicly Supported Education and Research [l]), but there are only a few studies at present which demonstrate that universities of themselves add much value to their local economies, except as local hosts, construction sites and employers (e.g. Paul Chatterton (August 1997): The Economic Impact of the University of Bristol on its Region [m]). But the concentration of expertise in them, as in Big Science laboratories, has huge scope for impact, and we need to be very awarte of this (Elvira Uyarra, PREST, University of Manchester The Role of Universities in Innovation and Economic Development: Theory, Measurement and Practice ~ The Embedded University in the Science-Economy: Capacities, Contexts and Expectations ~ Part of the ESRC initiative ‘The Impact of HEIs on Regional Economies’ (26 June 2006, Surf / University of Salford).

It is extraordinary that huge amounts of public funding are invested in world-class scientific skills, without an as-yet thorough understanding of the differential added values which various locational options might produce, or in certain circumstances not produce.

The current apparent assumption that there needs to be perhaps just one leading physical hub of top facilities and operators for Big Science in a national economy as large and complex as that of the United Kingdom at the very least requires further examination, in the context of twenty-first century communication technologies.

Is it acceptable, regeneration analysts (and government ministers and the general public) might ask, to leave decisions about where to invest in ‘Big Science’ to the scientists who want to develop the research? (Hilary Burrage: BCRs: The Research Golden Triangle Wins Again (16 February 2007) ) Or, once the research frameworks have been agreed, should the science experts be encouraged only to decide the ‘who’ and ‘how’ (personnel and most resource allocation) questions, rather than the ‘where’ (locational) ones, when so much public money and such potentially large socio-economic impacts, are at stake?

Given the criticality and political urgency of reducing regional inequalities in the UK, perhaps once these questions have been addressed we will decide that Big Science – the foremost exemplar of starting points for the knowledge economy – is just too important to be left almost solely to the scientists.

We do not allow rivers and tributaries to flow over time wherever they will, and we now pay substantial attention to issues such as area drought or flooding risks. Yet we continue to ignore the regenerational (or, in its absence, otherwise) patterns and impacts of the flow of knowledge, as this develops and changes the economic landscape of our towns, cities and regions.

For all these reasons, it is important that we map the sources, routes and impacts of knowledge, whether that commodity emerges through the medium of micro- and locally embedded community facilities, or via the most expensive and complex scientific installations imaginable.

Knowledge of one sort or another is everywhere, as are its impacts and potential. A critical task for those who lead in regeneration is therefore to develop the tools and insights necessary to map this powerful resource.

Using the knowledge map for regeneration
A map on its own, however well assembled and explained, is of little use in the real world – the world in which regeneration practitioners and, much more importantly, their end-clients, must live.

To have value, maps need to be used; after the mapping comes the action. In this case, methodologies and decisions must be developed to ensure that understanding how knowledge grows and flows becomes a tool in regenerational strategy.

Implementation of this proposal is not, it must be noted, simply an academic exercise. It is an approach which, when worked through, would enable us to appreciate how ‘knowing’ and knowledge interact with other aspects of the lives of real people. It would help us to consider a very broad spectrum of experience.

We have known for some while about the scope schools have for encouraging parents towards skills development. So are there, similarly, ‘knowledge lessons’ to be learned about the regeneration potential – thus far perhaps rarely overtly realised – for community interactions of, for instance:

 facilities such as doctors’ surgeries, Children’s Centres and other professional services located in areas of disadvantage;

 high-expertise commercial and professional organisations which locate for business reasons in economically challenged parts of the country;

 students living in inner-city ‘donut’ low grade housing, or in custom-built central apartments;

 high-tech facilities placed in regions with low economic performance, and the people who normally live there;

 mixed use residential areas where people of different ages and backgrounds are encouraged by spatial design or other arrangements to share their experience;

 volunteer groups of people with professional qualifications who liaise with disadvantaged clients;

 the co-location of schools and major scitech installations;

 skilled practitioners of many sorts – in environmental matters, the arts, sport and much else – who work in places undergoing regeneration;

 … and even the actual interactions of regeneration practitioners and professionals themselves, with the clients they seek to serve.

It is currently rare in any of these interactions for what we might choose to call the ‘knowledge status’ of the people or organisations involved to be overt.

Admittedly, it would not in day-to-day experience on the ground be helpful to overly-emphasise the individual knowledge differentials between, say, professional practitioners and some of their clients (it is usually enough that the latter have confidence in the skills of the former); but perhaps one of the objectives of regeneration good practice should be to highlight more overtly the ways in which knowledge is embedded in ‘what happens’ in interactions everywhere.

And perhaps also this is not always as difficult to do, in non-personalised ways, as it might seem. Opportunities are many for telling the story of how skilled and professional services are delivered, how people become trained in their trades, where one might look for support in gaining skills, why it is important, both personally and democratically, to understand the world in which we live.

Where are the storyboards or electronic displays in (and outside) hospitals, libraries, public services, garages or anywhere else, which try to deconstruct the mystiques of civic decision-making or of professional practice and scientific and technology? Perhaps these are not there because of professional or political protectionism, or maybe over-fussy planners; but it is more likely that they are absent because no-one has thought of them as identifiable parts of our lives, or to display them overtly as such.

At present however we simply don’t know the real answers to these questions, because the challenge of making knowledge to empower disadvantaged people overt and accessible has hardly been acknowledged, let alone addressed.

Nor do we as yet have any working models of how knowledge passes from one group or community to another, or how it changes if or as it travels. Can the receptionist in a highly skilled institution more easily help his or her children to gain qualifications than their sibling who works at reception in a low-skills organisation? There are probably educational studies which offer a judgement on this, but they are not in the day-to-day mindset of most regeneration practitioners. And further, if the answer is as we intuitively suspect, does this have implications for strategy in terms of the potential added-value of attracting high-skills activity to regenerating locations?

Similar questions also apply as we have seen at the level of sub-regional and regional strategy. We do not as standard practice monitor the ratio of available high-level skills in a given locality, against the national norm. (Merseyside, for instance, seems on available figures of have only half the scientists and technologists it might expect to have against national distributions.) Nor do we at present chart the many ways in which, inevitably, the introduction of a very high knowledge-value facility such as a Big Science laboratory will influence its environs.

We know about the infrastructural and construction benefits of new roads, other transport systems, and building operations. We also know something of the ways in which spin-off occurs, and we frequently make the case that without big investments in high-level knowledge, a region will not be very successful in retaining graduates (as for instance is true of the North of England and South West). All these considerations are extremely important to challenged regional and local economies.

But as yet we have not charted, beyond immediate employment prospects, the impacts which these large-scale investments in knowledge have on people whose need for skills development and knowledge empowerment may be significant.

If knowledge were water, we would ensure it reached everyone in managed ways. But knowledge is not water, and in one respect it is fundamentally different from that essential physical resource: knowledge has the capacity to increase infinitely, and, at least hypothetically, without harm. With appropriate management it can become progressively an even more powerful force for good in a way which is less so for almost every other commodity.

Given then that knowledge can be constructed as the new currency for most of what happens in society, it now needs to receive as much overt attention as does water, if our communities are to be sustainable in both environmental and social ways.

This is where, as regeneration practitioners, we must focus, if we are serous about moving from an eternally ‘regeneration’ mode, to the implementation of modes which have a decent chance of delivering a three-way bottom line on real sustainability for the future.

The primary task of regeneration and sustainable development practitioners is to deliver communities (and indeed wider social contexts) which are and will remain good to live and work in, communities which are fit for purpose, both now and for the future. Knowledge of all sorts is the critical currency in determining how in these rapidly changing times this can be achieved.

A genuine appreciation of knowledge and its dynamics, as a fundamental part of the regeneration toolkit, is fast becoming a necessity in the twenty-first century.

Keywords: Communities, deprivation, regions, sustainability, economy, public policy,skills, knowledge ecology

A version of this paper, then entitled From regeneration to sustainability: A Northern take on knowledge,
was first published in The Journal of Regeneration and Renewal (JURR), Vol.3, No.2 (September 2009) In 2008 a similarly entitled Keynote Address was delivered at the NUREC Conference, and many of the ideas offered here derive from that initial paper.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: