The following is an extract from the RSA 2017 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. 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.

 

The Rise in Globalization

Four decades of unregulated globalization, deindustrialization and economic slowdown of the advanced economies, disruptive technological change, financialisation, and neoliberal state policies across much of the world have not only given us the global financial crisis, increased sovereign debt and austerity, but levels of uneven development and populist discontent not seen for decades. While the growth of global trade has undoubtedly narrowed disparities among nations, and raised living standards in many emerging and less developed countries, almost everywhere, geographical and social disparities within countries have at the same time widened.

There is now widespread recognition – even among such right-wing organs such as the IMF and The Economist magazine – that the past three-four decades of globalization have left large sections of society, particular social groups and many geographical places, behind. Fiscal ‘consolidation’ (austerity) policies by states have exacerbated the growing divisions between those groups and places that have led and benefited from globalization, and those excluded. Social and spatial inequalities have increased and become entrenched.  The scale of spatial equality today is far greater than when, fifty years ago, the Regional Studies Association was founded. This should be a wake-up call for us.

The present conjuncture, I suggest, presents regional development studies – and the Association – with major challenges, theoretical and empirical, but also with an historic opportunity. Arguably, never before has regional studies been more relevant and more needed.

Place, Space, and Geography

Policy bodies – from global organisations such as the World Bank, to national Governments, to local authorities and communities – now recognize the importance of geography and place in shaping the economic prosperity, social well-being and life chances of the population.

The discipline of regional studies is extraordinarily well-placed to inform and influence this new policy recognition of the salience and importance of place. Over the past three to four decades we have built up an impressive array of theoretical and empirical insights into the causes and processes of regional and local development. This is not to suggest we have necessarily marshaled this body of knowledge and expertise to best or most influential effect. We have perhaps focused on the particularities of individual places, and on particularistic types of policy, at the expense of developing encompassing understandings and policy discourses of the big processes and problems that drive and disrupt contemporary life. While local context is obviously vitally important, locally particular outcomes are in large part shaped by general systemic forces, and these forces require urgent policy debate.

The Significance of Regional Studies

In short, we need to grasp the opportunity to speak to and influence policy and public discourse on the fundamental problems of our age.  Writing more than 40 years ago, David Harvey (1974), in a provocative article that has as much if not more relevance today, posed the question: what kind of geography for what kind of public policy?  His argument was that we need to agree what sort of change and outcome we want to see – what sort of society we believe desirable – and then develop and prosecute our theories, methods and analyses to help secure that end. That task is now more urgent than ever. The corresponding question we should ask ourselves is: what kind of regional studies for what kind of public policy for what kind of society?

To do this, we need to clearly identify what I want to call the public mission of regional studies: what sort of public policies, what sort of fundamental goals and values – the normative principles and outcomes – do we wish to help achieve? What are the various publics that we wish to engage with to promulgate those goals and values? How do we so frame and conduct our research to maximize our policy and public impact?

There is no doubt that we have made significant advances in this direction in recent years. The Association has for some time enjoyed close links with the European Commission, and engaged with policy makers there in discussions around regional policy and the goal of achieving greater regional equality and cohesion. Likewise, it has interacted with UK government departments and initiatives, including feedback on the Government’s New Industrial Strategy. It has established the Policy Expo Grants.

But we can and should do more. We can and should declare a stand on the key issues that confront current society.  This means going beyond the discussion and promotion of specific policies for specific places, beyond new fads or fashions for stimulating this or that aspect of regional development. Instead it means a more mission-orientated perspective that focuses on addressing fundamental societal-wide challenges: a focus on transformational policies. If this means taking a political position, then so be it. But let that position be one of campaigning for social and spatial equality, inclusion and democracy. For what is the purpose of social science if it is not to improve the condition and prospects of society?

So, what I’m arguing for is a call to arms. Let’s move beyond the continual accumulation of concepts, models, and empirical findings – crucial though that building process is – to put policy and public purpose at the heart of what we do.

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.