The following is an extract from the RSA 2016 Presidential Address. Professor Ron Martin, President of RSA, is Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Cambridge. His main research interests include the geographies of labour markets; regional development and competitiveness; the geographies of money and finance; geographical economics; and evolutionary economic geography. He has published some 35 books and monographs, and 200 articles, on these and related themes. Ron is a Fellow of the British Academy, and in 2016 was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Victoria Medal for outstanding contributions to economic geography and regional development studies. In 2018, Ron was listed as one of the world’s Highly Cited Researchers by the Web of Science.

New Pressures on Cites and Regions

The theme of the 2016 Winter Conference – New Pressures on Cities and Regions is highly apt. Every generation, of course, claims its era is a formative one. But without question I believe we can justifiably argue that we are truly in the midst of highly turbulent and uncertain times, a world in which instability may well be the new norm, and in which, I would venture to argue, regional studies is more important and relevant than it has ever been.

Over the past decade, a succession of major events and developments – shocks and disruptions – have combined and concatenated to produce what might truly constitute a major historic climacteric. The list of such formative disruptions and responses is a long one –

  • Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath
  • The systemic sovereign debt crisis in Europe
  • The European migrant crisis
  • The end of China’s economic miracle
  • The spectre of secular stagnation
  • The threat of global climate change
  • The impact of Brexit, not just in the UK, but throughout Europe and beyond
  • The Trump shock – its domestic and global implications
  • The growth of inequality, both social and spatial
  • The failure of macroeconomics and fiscal austerity to stimulate growth and recovery
  • The discrediting of neoliberalism
  • The resurgence of regionalism and nationalism

One could go on.  These disruptions, any one alone of which would be serious, in combination raise some key implications – in fact major challenges and opportunities – for regional studies.

Challenges and Opportunities

The first is that these disruptions and developments have had, and will continue to have, highly spatially disparate impacts and repercussions. The economic, social and political landscape of the new world disorder is highly fractured and fragmented geographically. In this respect, our very subject matter – the existence and persistence of uneven regional and urban development has assumed heightened salience.  A major task for us is to expose and explain these new and widening spatialities.

Second, at the centre of the new instability is a crisis of governance. Local, city and regional communities and authorities are challenging central governments and the ruling metropolitan political elites for their neglect of the less prosperous groups and areas in society, whilst those same elites are often the beneficiaries of the globalization they promote and applaud.  Many politicians – and not a few academics – regard globalization as some sort of ineluctable all-pervasive force – akin to gravity – to which national, city and regional economies have no choice but to comply and bend. But globalization is not something pre-given ‘out there’; it is constructed and configured by big business, central governments and global institutions. And as such it is contestable and can be changed.  To many, the model of globalization that has been developed over the past 30 years or so is in crisis. We need a more inclusive, more democratic model of globalization. A major wave of disillusionment with the pro-globalisation, neoliberal ‘establishment’ has been unleashed.  Cities and regions want more devolved powers and finances to carve their own futures. The whole issue of local governance is on the agenda, and here too there are major opportunities for regional studies to inform and shape the debate.

And thirdly, there is the issue of policy.  Macro-economic policy – like the macroeconomic theory on which it has based – is in disarray. Yet at the same time, there is growing recognition amongst policy makers and bodies that geography matters – that cities and regions are not mere bystanders in the drama that is sustainable macro-economic growth, but the key players.  The challenge here is to help every city and region to realize its particular potential, or to develop that potential if it has been eroded or rendered obsolete, while at the same time ensuring no city or region gets left behind – ensuring national spatial socio-economic balance and coherence.  This surely is one of the big policy issues of our times, and regional studies ought to be well placed to contribute to its solution.

So, the ‘new pressures on cities and regions’ are simultaneously major opportunities for us as regional and urban analysts to make a positive impact.  The time is ripe, indeed overdue, for regional and urban studies to play a much more prominent role in the policy transformations that are almost certain to unfold, indeed in some cases have already begun to unfold in various countries.  These times of turbulence, disruption and inequality are also times of opportunity for regional studies.

‘Carpe Diem’

How do we seize that opportunity? We now have a highly impressive and diverse array of theories and concepts in regional studies, all of which have some degree of validity and usefulness. But each on its own is insufficient as a basis for responding to the challenges of our times.  Big issues require big thinking, thinking that focuses on fundamentals rather than fads, and which above all takes a more holistic rather than particularistic perspective. We should set our sights high, and not be content with simply identifying the lack of innovation here, the weakness of purposive institutions there, or again how to promote a cluster here, or re-create a local supply chain there, nor with thinking that adding the prefix ‘smart’ to every concept or policy is a sufficient response.  As John Maynard Keynes said in relation to the Great Depression: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again”.  His response was very much that new pressures require bold new thinking. That, too, should be our guiding maxim.

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