In this blog John Harrison asks what it takes to shape intellectual agendas and stimulate the new thinking and novel approaches capable of deepening our knowledge and understanding of regions and regional change. Here he argues we need to focus on extending our urban and regional horizons in four simple steps: Stop! Look! Listen! Think!

Why do some things stubbornly stick in our minds? Growing up in the 1980s one memory which has always stuck with me from primary school is the Stop, look, listen, think sequence for teaching children how to cross the road. It is a sequence which I suggest academics can also learn a lot from, especially if we are to extend our urban and regional horizons.

This is foremost in my own mind as I write this blog.

Stop!

When do we stop to ask why we do what we are doing and where we are going next? It is easy to feel that we are constantly on an academic treadmill, always rushing to write the next paper, submit the next grant application, attend the next meeting, respond to the next email. What is worse, the treadmill never seems to slow up. So why stop?

When running on a treadmill it can be to catch our breath, but if you are doing interval training, it is simply a short recovery before the next big push comes. This is how I feel today. I submitted a journal paper two days ago which I had been working on-and-off for many months. My first thought after pressing the submit button was which of the many writing commitments to start next. No pause, no catching breath, just keep pushing on. This is not helped by the time of year. It is just over one week since our students graduated, meaning the notional clock is ticking until teaching starts again in earnest (exactly 2 months away in my case). Just writing that feels like the incline on the treadmill has been turned up … must work faster.

Look!

Intentional or not, my mind and body did not want to start the next writing commitment. I am not ready. But this is a good thing. Rather than rush headlong into the next task, it is making me consider my own horizons. In my own head I have the papers I want to write, the grant applications I want to do (the blog posts I need to write!) but working out how this fits together into the next 6-9-12 months is a challenge. In stopping I have been left looking back at where my research has come from, where it is now, and where it needs to go next?

This is something I have done since 2010. I can pin down the year because it was when the English regional project – which I had done my undergraduate, masters and PhD research on – was abolished. I was 4 years post-PhD and remember reflecting on how I had got to where I was (by only doing research on this topic) and where I wanted to go next. In short, I was looking at my own horizons, but if I am honest it was the first time I really started looking at the question of ‘horizons’ in research. Up to that point I don’t ever remember consciously looking and wondering about the bigger picture. What do we know? What should we know that we don’t know? What is on the horizon? Where are our research horizons?

For me, this completely changed my outlook on research. From this point forward, I felt that I shifted from being a dedicated follower of research fashions. For the first time I was actively trying to identify new horizons and push debates towards those horizons.

Listen!

Listening to ourselves is important but listening to others more so. Let yourself be inspired! Remember, what we want to know is one thing, but are others going to be interested is an entirely different question? Folklore has it that as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors, while 90% of papers published are never cited. The optimist in you might think, “well I am interested in this so everyone else will be”; the pessimist in you will think “how can I be sure anyone else will be interested”? The answer, if there is such a thing, is to focus on horizons.

At this point you are probably thinking, he keeps using the word ‘horizons’ but what does he actually mean? Two key words to keep in mind here are interest and importance (or in UK REF-speak, originality and significance). Interesting and important is what all published research should be. So, what makes the difference? In simple terms the biggest impact is achieved by research which is of most interest and important to the most people. And this is where focusing on horizons arguably comes in because the key is not to position your research where the debate was 1-2-5-10 years ago, nor even where it is now (publication time-lags mean it will have moved on by the time your research is published), but where it is going to be. In other words, what is on the horizon?

One of the best tips here is to attend conferences. Here you get to listen to what other researchers are going to be publishing in the next 12-18 months (when what you are working on today is likely to be published). Are there key topics, issues, themes emerging? Pay particular attention to the keynotes because their role at a conference is to do this type of horizon scanning and highlight the big intellectual agendas.

Think!

No one said this is going to be easy! So, now for the difficult part.

Five years ago, Gordon MacLeod launched the Urban and Regional Horizons section of Regional Studies. In doing so he sketched out the keys to extending our urban and region horizons:

The Urban and Regional Horizons section seeks to shape intellectual agendas by reflecting on past theoretical and empirical research and identifying fruitful new fields of enquiry and conceptual approaches.

On taking over from Gordon as section editor, I argued in an editorial that ‘horizon’ papers need to be ambitious, challenging, accessible and relevant in equal measure. Ambitious because they must engage with fundamental questions. Challenging if they are going to force us to rethink how we research these issues. Accessible because to shape intellectual agendas requires others to engage. And relevant to the changing world around us because readers can relate to this.

Think of it like this …

  • Ask yourself what is the fundamental question your research seeks to address?

Now reflecting on past theoretical and empirical research ask yourself two further questions …

  • What do we know because of this research?
  • What do we still not know but we should know?

Finally, think about the answer to the second question and consider these next two questions …

  • Why is this?
  • How might we overcome this?

Do this and you will be well on your way to identifying fruitful new fields of enquiry and conceptual and methodological approaches which are both ambitious and challenging, but also of interest because they are original, and important because they will represent a significant step forward in our knowledge and understanding of regions.

You may also have crafted the basis for a paper to submit to the Urban and Regional Horizons section in the process. If you have, or are interested to know more about the section, please do get in touch (j.harrison4@lboro.ac.uk).

And while you are at it, why not join us at the RSA Winter Conference in London on 15-16 November and present your ideas. The theme for the 2018 conference is New horizons for cities and regions in a changing world. The deadline to submit an abstract for the conference is August 20.

John Harrison is Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University, UK. He is editor of the Urban and Regional Horizons section of Regional Studies and one of the co-organisers of this year’s RSA Winter Conference on New horizons for cities and regions in a changing world. You can follow him on twitter @DrJWHarrison.

Are you currently involved with regional research, policy, and development, and want to elaborate your ideas in a different medium? The Regional Studies Association is now accepting articles for their online blog. For more information, contact the Blog Editor at RSABlog@regionalstudies.org.