Posts Tagged ‘society’

Spaces of Evidence seminar, 26 September

June 27, 2014

(c) richard serra / max nathan

I’m speaking at Goldsmiths in September, at one of the ESRC Spaces of Evidence seminars which will look at different types of economic evidence, their characteristics and limitations, and their uses in policy-making.

Will Davies, the organiser, has put together a nice lineup including Angus Deaton (Princeton), Suzy Moat (Warwick), Martin Giraudeau (LSE), Tiago Mata (UCL), Zsuzsanna Vargha (Leicester) and Vera Ehrenstein (Goldsmiths).

Here’s the blurb:

Economics and economists have a long history of providing a scientific basis or justification for public policy decisions. Concepts derived from welfare economics, such as ‘market failure’, have provided a language through which politicians and government officials can understand where and why the state might (and might not) intervene in market processes. The efficiency of potential regulation can be tested through the use of models, based on neo-classical assumptions.

However, events such as the financial crisis have thrown a renewed scepticism upon the capacity of orthodox economic theories to adequately model situations. At the same time, a new empiricism has emerged, which makes a bold appeal to data and field trials, which are purportedly less cluttered by normative assumptions about causality and probability. ‘Big Data’ and randomised controlled trials are at the forefront of new efforts to probe economic activity, in search of policies which ‘work’. The distinction between ‘model’ and ‘reality’ is abandoned, and the economy becomes treated as a zone of experimentation and data-mining, such that behavioural patterns can be discerned.

The seminar will explore the implications of these new directions in economic evidence, and ask what they mean for the authority of public policy, how they reconfigure expertise, and what types of epistemological and political assumptions they conceal.

It’s open to all, but you’ll need to register. Full details are here.

Policy-based evidence making

March 25, 2013

(c) BBC 2013Heads up: on 30th May I’ll be in Warwick to help give an advanced training session on  ‘Knowledge for Policy, Knowledge of Policy’, organised by the university’s Centre for Interdiscplinary Methodologies.

Evidence-based policymaking was a central trope of New Labour’s time in office.  The idea’s gone in deep: the Coalition is regularly taken to task for ideological policymaking – perhaps one reason  why the Cabinet Office has just announced a major network of ‘What Works’ Centres.

One immediate objection to evidence-driven policy is that evidence doesn’t tell you what you ought to do.  Political values and judgements – even ‘ideology’ – have their place, especially if the alternative is the apolitical solutionism that Evgeny Morozov has been taking to pieces recently.

There’s also an important role for an experimental state which builds an evidence base where none exists.  Sometimes this is pretty uncontroversial, as in the small nudges being tried out by the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team. It’s tougher to make the case in bigger areas of policy – such as devolution to local govt and communities, which has  never been seriously tried in the UK, where the risks of failure are massive, and where there are limits to what we can learn from abroad.  Here, the need for careful piloting is running up against Ministerial enthusiasm for transformational change.


What does this mean for researchers, especially academics? It’s important to have a clear sense of the policymaking process,  especially the invisible work which goes on between formal consultations and policy events; how policymakers treat different  kinds of evidence and actors in those processes, and the shifting positions of academics and think tanks in the ideas market.

I’ve co-founded a think tank, worked in central government and am now working in academia, so I’ll be bringing some of  these experiences to the seminar.  Also speaking will be Dave O’Brien (City University) and Will Davies (Warwick), who’s organising the session.  Both have similarly heterodox experiences, so it should be a fascinating day … see this post by Will, for instance.

Details here.


July 29, 2010

Worries about multiculturalism go way back: in 883, fearing unrest, King Alfred banished the Danes from London. So when Leeds University researchers suggested that by 2051 a fifth of Britons would be from an ethnic minority, the reactions were predictable. The Daily Express’s full-page headline was ‘One in 5 Britons will be Ethnics’, complete with picture of women in burquas. Daily Mail readers also excelled themselves – ‘the only effective way to combat this situation is to vote BNP at every opportunity’ etc etc.

Let’s try and dig a little deeper. I’ve now read the (long and complex) report [pdf], so here’s a few thoughts. I’m not a demographer, so I’m focusing on the implications rather than the detailed modelling.


Britain has a long, often hidden history of multiculturalism. And as the report makes clear, Britain is already getting more culturally diverse. Immigration is a major driver, as is ‘natural change’ – variations in birth/death rates across social and cultural groups. The first tends to feed the second, since a share of migrants tends to settle.

British diversity is also heavily urbanised. People mix is greatest in and around cities, especially major urban centres (with big labour markets and good transport links) and ex-industrial places (which had lots of jobs in the past).

In some urban neighbourhoods we’re seeing ‘super-diversity’ appearing – with dozens of new communities alongside established minority groups. Conversely, recent migration from Eastern Europe was less urban [pdf] – partly because many people were doing agricultural work.


The researchers make three major predictions about Britain in 2051.

First, the UK will be both bigger and more diverse. Under their favoured model, the population grows to 77.1m, from around 60m today. Black and minority ethnic populations rise from 8% to 21%.

Second, diversity looks different. Essentially, super-diversity will be more common. The ‘other ethnic’ population will be 350% higher, with various mixed ethnic groups increasing by 148% to 249%. Chinese communities will over 200% larger, ‘Black African’ communities  179% larger, and the main South Asian groups 95-153% bigger. The model’s held back a bit here because UK Census categories are so crude.

Third, diversity will be more spread out. The researchers predict that people in minority groups will shift from more to less deprived areas, which (very roughly speaking) will take them from inner city to more suburban locations, and from larger cities to smaller towns and rural areas. That continues a long term historical trend – London neighbourhoods like Spitalfields have historically housed new migrants, who progressively shift to outer London suburbs as they become established in the UK.


The bigger question is what the economic and social impacts of a bigger, more diverse Britain will be. There’s some evidence, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, that fragmented countries are prone to conflict and poor governance. Conversely, diverse societies may be more inventive and productive. Given ‘where the diversity is’, a lot of the action will be happening in urban areas.

My academic work is looking at these questions in detail, focusing on British cities.  Here’s a recent working paper which fills two major gaps. First, with help from UCL’s Pablo Mateos, I’ve developed some new descriptive analysis, including a ‘Super-diversity Index’ which is more powerful than the categories used in the Leeds model.

Second, I’ve looked at the links between people mix, wages and employment in urban areas. I find some positive connections between super-diversity and my economic performance measures, suggesting higher diversity might be an economic good for British cities. Other papers and current research take a closer look at what’s behind this – more on those in the coming months.

Getting ahead in the countryside

July 7, 2010

The big city’s the place to find fame and fortune, wouldn’t you think? Not according to the Commission for Rural Communities, whose new report claims ‘rural areas have more entrepreneurs’. This seems odd – aren’t cities supposed to help ideas flow, with banks to lend money, and customers to sell to?

All the evidence suggests innovation is heavily urbanised, for example. So what on earth’s been going on in the British countryside? Is the fresh air good for the brain?

The report’s here. It’s nearly 200 pages long, so to save you reading it I’ve done some digging. The relevant findings are:

1) A survey of bank lending finds that in 2008 and 2009, rural areas had more start-ups per working-age population than urban areas (p131)

2) GEM survey data for 2004-2008 finds higher rates of ‘entrepreneurship activity’ in rural areas than urban areas. Strikingly, the survey suggests rural entrepreneurship rates are ‘as high as inner London’ (p133).

The report uses good definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, based on this DEFRA typology. But there are questions about which rural areas we’re talking about – more on that in a moment.

Let’s start with start-ups. First, there’s not much urban-rural difference in business birth rates – 13.9 per thousand people in rural areas, 12.7 in urban areas. Second, in absolute terms there are far more start-ups in cities than the countryside – hardly surprising since c.80% of the English population live in urban areas.

Third, there’s noise in the data – the survey in question covers 93% of all bank lending, which is pretty good, but doesn’t adjust for the rest. If 80% of those loans were to city firms, a reasonable assumption, the urban-rural difference is less than one percentage point.

‘Entrepreneurship’ is a slightly more nebulous concept, and it turns out the GEM data needs a big pinch of salt. For one thing, the survey is based on just 43,000 firms across the UK – which might risk sampling error if you’re looking at small rural areas.

More seriously, GEM actually measures something called ‘total early-stage entrepreneurial activity’ – which is a weighted index including ‘nascent business activity’. This could include things like writing a business plan, but not actually doing anything with it. (I’ve also no idea how the Index is built because GEM doesn’t say.)

In the CRC small print, GEM concedes it’s tracking ‘propensity to be entrepreneurial’, rather than *actual* entrepreneurs. It’s hardly convincing.

So, case not proven – on the basis of these numbers. However, let’s suspend disbelief and assume there is a new generation of rural whizz-kids. What might explain this?

It could be a lifecycle effect – people downsize or move their families out of the city, starting new businesses in the countryside. Migration data suggests there could be something in this – young single people move into cities, older people with partners and children move out. Other studies suggest people gain skills and learning in cities, taking these with them when they leave.

There could also be a technology effect. The CRC’s start-up figures suggests that most loans go to business services like accountancy and consulting, a lot of which can be done by phone or online (anecdata – my accountant operates out of deepest East Sussex).

That implies a third point – many of rural areas are actually around the edges of big urban areas. In the jargon, they’re ‘peri-urban’ – pleasant, leafy communities with decent schools and public services, and good links into the urban core. Not surprisingly, these neighbourhoods tend to come near the top of ‘best place to live’ surveys.

In turn, that suggests some final lessons. Don’t overspin your data. The city and country have more in common than you might imagine. And ultimately, enterprise is less about place than about people.

Does travel make you smarter?*

January 24, 2010

Yes, according to some fascinating recent work from INSEAD and Northwestern University. Multicultural experience helps creativity. Major cultural experiences, like travelling or living abroad, can have a big impact on our ability to think innovatively. But so too might working in a diverse firm, or living in a cosmopolitan city.

For me these findings are a great relief, as they provide scientific justification for spending three months in California. (In fact I first read about this in the San Francisco Panorama, the latest from McSweeney’s). But these ideas also plug into some current policy debates in interesting ways.

William Maddux, Adam Galinsky and colleagues have done a series of studies looking at the ‘multicultural => creativity link’. In this American Psychologist paper, they distinguish between two types of multicultural encounter, ‘big M’ experiences (like living abroad) and ‘little m’ (like being employed in a global firm).

In this second paper, they test the specific impact of living abroad on various creative behaviours. ‘Creativity’ is defined pretty broadly, encompassing problem-solving, negotiation and generating new ideas.

They find that individuals who’ve lived abroad tend to be more creative than those who haven’t. International living has a causal effect on problem solving: people tend to draw on their experiences in solving problems. Importantly, the ‘big M’ effect is larger for people who threw themselves into their trip, engaging with local culture and citizens.
So what’s going on here? Maddux and co argue that a principle function of culture is to provide behavioural norms, which help us predict, understand and influence the world. If we expose people to new cultural norms, they tend to incorporate new ways of thinking and doing things. This helps people deploy different perspectives in problem-solving or invention, and improves their ability to deal with unfamiliar contexts back at home.

Importantly, ‘Big M’ events like living abroad aren’t the only way to boost creative abilities. In The Difference, Scott Page rounds up the evidence that culturally diverse groups and teams tend to be better problem-solvers. Essentially, the set of diverse experiences is pooled across the group rather than embodied in a well-travelled individual.

All of this has some important policy implications. First, as Maddux and Galinsky point out, skilled migrants may be at their innovative while abroad. In the US, migrant scientists and inventors dominate the technology and life sciences fields. That suggests an additional reason for the UK to keep its borders open, and to think hard about the migration caps that David Cameron proposes.

Second, it looks as if Britons also benefit from a more diverse society. ‘Little m’ experiences like working in diverse teams should pay off for everyone. Neil Lee and I are confirming this in our current work on firm-level diversity and innovation (a recent paper is here).

Third, cities are critically important to all of this. Urban areas are where the UK’s diversity is, and where most of us live and work. Cities are where it all comes together. Work I’ll be publishing shortly finds that over the past 16 years, increasing migration has helped raise average urban wages and productivity for British-born workers, especially the high skilled. These lab experiments help explain why that’s so. If travel is good for you, so are urban environments that help open your mind.

* I had called this post ‘does travel broaden the mind?’, but as a couple of people have pointed out, like, duh. I hope this one captures the spirit of the research better …

A hidden geography

December 3, 2009

Eleven weeks in, five more to go, and I’m still finding my way around this place. It’s got me thinking about the different ways we can get to know a city. How to get under the skin?

The job of geography is to explain the production of space, place and the everyday life of those places. Jane Jacobs tells us to think about cities as ‘problems in organised complexity’. We should pick an angle and work around it, pick another and connect to the first, and so on.

Why and where

This works for me. My way in is via urban economics and economic geography. The first task is to draw a line. In practice, it’s many overlapping boundaries – from satellite images, terrain maps, political units, transport networks.

We identify hubs and start linking them up. Then we can begin to fill in what happens where and why. At base, economic geography is about understanding the push and pull forces that help explain location. At the heart of successful places are increasing returns – from matching, sharing and learning. Feedback loops amplify these returns; bad luck or bad choices can run them down. Each local recipe is always slightly different.

So we start with people’s ‘demand for urbanness’. Then by looking at who gains and how, we can factor in the institutional, class and political forces shaping production.

The best geography of this kind – Jacobs, Michael Storper, Ian Gordon, David Harvey – succeeds in connecting macro to micro, megatrends to real places.  But a lot of everyday life falls between the lines – the ‘Bay Area-ness’ of the Bay Area is gone. What can bring it back?

The city as conversation

The local mediascape is more powerful than you’d think. As Jane Jacobs says, we should look less at the front pages and more at the small ads to understand what’s truly valued – or what isn’t. Dave Eggers’ San Francisco Panorama is a fantastic piece of street-level writing, if nothing else.

The city as story

Fiction helps us intuit urban experience. Each of the eight million stories in the Naked City reveals a little more of New York. The Wire does the same for Baltimore, to the point that it’s hardly a crime show at all. David Simon says it aims to be “…a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.”

The city as you find it

Benjamin and his disciples in psychogeography show how powerful wandering, image and imagination can be for understanding urbanity. Essentially you are wiring the city into yourself, from your own impressions and resonant memories. These are Lefebvre’s ‘representational spaces’, or lived space. Yours is only one of eight million stories, but if intuition is a kind of hyperlogic, others will share it. This excellent post by Owen Hatherley on seeing Sheffield via Red Riding, brutalist architecture and Warp is a great example.

The city as game

The mobile and social web is – finally – starting to help us multiply urban possibilities. Matt Jones talks about a better kairos – more opportunity, richer knowledge – as technology tells us more about where we are, what’s happened, or who’ll be around. And one level up, we’re using the data itself. Here’s Dan Hill mapping a building from the wifi cloud. Or MIT’s Senseable City Lab using mobile phone data in real-time urban heat maps; or Mapumental linking access, price and quality of neighbourhood life. Urban Tick has masses of interesting real-time stuff.

For me, this is exciting but risky: the danger in this perspective is that urban life reduces to codeable routines or design solutions. A city can’t always be hacked.

Being there

As Benjamin says,  ‘the power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane … Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands.’

The most knowledgeable people I’ve met here have simply spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. They’ve walked the roads; they know it inside out. So I leave you with A Hidden Geography, an awesome piece of spatial synthesis by UC Berkeley’s Richard Walker. As a layering of image and text, framework and dot-joining, it’s hard to beat. Enjoy it.

Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk

September 8, 2009

images by suki chan,

My friend Suki has made a new film / installation about life in the city, using footage from around London and interviews with various urbanites (including me – fame at last!). Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk is part of Free To Air, a four-year programme of commissions and events loosely organised around the idea of urban freedom.

The installation is showing at 198 Contemporary Arts in SW9 from 14 September to 19 October. There’s a private view on Monday night – email me if you’d like an invite.

The gallery says:

A London of fast-blinking lights and speeding commuters, where cars and trains leave luminous comet-trails marking their passage through the night, and where individuals reflect on freedom in the urban metropolis, or seek escape from the repetitive habits and conditions it enforces.

Inspired by ideas of freedom of expression in contemporary society, Suki Chan’s new video installation is an impressionistic study of London’s diverse population … Chan’s work weaves together a series of evocative video portraits highlighting people’s different responses to the hubbub of London life. Groups of skaters, unimpeded by traffic, move freely through the twilight city, tracing an intuitive map of the metropolis. Nigerian security guards gatekeeping a deserted high-rise office block compare the ‘freedom’ of London with their rhythms and aspirations of their former life. While city commuters embody the regularity of everyday urban existence.

I’d recommend going even if I wasn’t in it – Suki’s film work is always very beautiful to look at. In the meantime, or if you’re not in town, you can watch some excerpts here.

Read all about it

July 17, 2009

Photograph by Alexandra Wolkowicz

New book chapter alert …

During the 2006 Liverpool Biennial, light and sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn projected a gigantic question mark over the Wirral suburbs (above). Everybody hated it. But in fact it’s an (accidental) artistic masterstroke asking the big questions about suburbia. What is it? What is it for? And if there are problems in suburban areas – and parts of Wirral are pretty deprived – how can we fix them?

The Smith Institute, the  Homes and Communities Agency and CABE have just published a new collection of essays that aims to answer these questions. Housing and Growth in Suburbia is edited by Peter Hall and includes contributions by Nick Falk, Vesna Goldsworthy, Yolande Barnes, Will McKee, Sarah Ganventa, Jim Bennett and Ben Kochan, as well as yours truly.

My chapter, ‘Fixing Broken Suburbs’, looks at suburban deprivation and the prospects for renewal through the downturn and beyond. It’s worth reading this alongside Jim’s essay on ‘suburban renaissance’, which sets out some of the HCA’s early strategic thinking.

For the moment you can download the whole collection here.

Update: Tristram Hunt – who chaired the launch event last week – has done a nice piece on suburbia in today’s Observer.

Finding suburbia

June 28, 2009

photo by Martin Godwin

How much of Britain is suburban? I’ve been doing some thinking about this for a book the Smith Institute and the Homes and Communities Agency are publishing in a few weeks’ time.

It’s not just an academic question. We want spatial policy to reflect the reality of where people live – and want to live. But if current lifestyles aren’t sustainable, we need to be able to promote realistic behaviour change.

The UK’s small but determined suburban lobby suggests that 80% of Britons live in ‘suburbia’, and therefore Government needs to abandon its obsession with cities. Others, notably the Urban Task Force, point out that around 80% of Britain is urban, and argue that high-density lifestyles are the only sustainable option for the future.

Over the past decade, Government policy has oscillated between these points of view – big city urbanism on the one hand, and an increasingly suburbanite housing strategies on the other.  That is probably about to change. Any new Conservative government is likely to be much more instinctively pro-suburb – Boris’ relentless focus on Outer London is a flavour of things to come.

All the more reason to get a proper understanding of British suburbia, then. So how suburban are we?

The best way to approach this is to think of the UK in functional terms: a system of urban and rural areas; within that, cities, towns and villages; and within that, a range of neighbourhoods – from city centres out to hamlets.

In population terms, Britain is an urban nation. The best data (from Defra and ONS) puts around 73% households in urban areas. Cities have the lion’s share of this: over 46% of households are in ‘major urban’ or ‘large urban’ areas. Other official research gives the 56 biggest English cities around 50% of the population.

At neighbourhood level, however, Britain is suburban. The best available figures [pdf] suggest around 84% of the English live in ‘suburban’ wards of some kind. These are the numbers routinely used by the suburban lobby. They are now a bit old, but are confirmed by more recent geodemographic data from Experian. Their MOSAIC  classifications suggest around 78% of households live somewhere in suburbia.

So there we have it: if the UK is urban country – a nation of towns and cities – it is also largely a nation of suburban neighbourhoods. In economic terms, cities are where the action is: the largest English cities have over two thirds of the country’s jobs. But in terms of community, we are suburbanites: the most popular house types in the UK are the semi and the bungalow.

That suggests that the Urban Task Force vision of ‘Barcelona in Britain’ fits pretty badly with the reality of most people’s lives. UTF boss Lord Rogers knows this. But as he also points out, neither the environment or the economy can support low-density car-driven lifestyles forever.

This implies that suburban strategy-making needs three main elements. First, it has to recognise the complementary roles of urban places (especially cities) and suburban neighbourhoods. (In that sense, explicit ‘strategies for suburbs’ are probably a bad idea). Second, as far as possible we need to bring the suburbs to the city – for example, terraces and townhouses are a good way to build popular forms at relatively high densities. And third, we need to make suburban lifestyles greener – through greener cars, localising energy generation, feed-in tariffs and so on. ‘The Good Life’ may turn out to be closer to the good life than we thought …

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