Removing barriers between universities and urban communities

By Clare Melhuish, on 4 September 2014

Opening the international workshop in Manchester on Universities, Cities and Transformation (Sept 1st and 2nd), Tim May from Salford University’s SURF Centre (http://www.salford.ac.uk/built-environment/research/research-centres/sustainable-urban-and-regional-futures) made the point that universities are often much more comfortable talking about their estates and facilities than they are about what they do in terms of knowledge production. In particular, he noted that academic culture doesn’t promote collaboration, for various reasons – especially the way that academic outputs are produced and evaluated, despite the stated emphasis on evidence of societal impact – and this intensifies the difficulties of organising and sharing knowledge both within and outside academic institutions.

So where does this leave universities as potential leaders of positive urban transformation processes?

Paul Benneworth from University of Twente argued that although universities are seeking to engage actively with the ‘grand challenges’ of urban society and generate solutions, it is very difficult to channel academic knowledge seamlessly into societal problems. Bas van Heur from Brussels University suggested that academic actors keen to engage in complex urban challenges often find themselves constrained by institutional deadlock (organisational structures, bureaucracy, financial processes), but also often lack urban and contextual knowledge due to the prevalence of a ‘universal vision’ of knowledge production and an inadequate representation of human sciences in the research arena. Benneworth however also made the point that universities have a fundamental spatial independence from their physical contexts arising from their position within global circuits of capital. As a result, academics often don’t really know what external stakeholders want, while their managers don’t know much about the knowledge they are producing and therefore cannot direct it appropriately towards those potential beneficiaries – whose interests are not represented in the policy networks that universities are involved in.

Universities therefore often make decisions about the urban spaces which they occupy without considering where urban benefits might lie. ‘There’s no conceptual space to think about how the public good might be promoted’, said Benneworth – and furthermore universities’ private interests often hinder their capacity to promote it. They view the city rather as a strategic space, and their relationship with it to be managed in order to promote their global performance rather than local regeneration. In addition, subaltern communities in urban contexts are often difficult to access, and such processes require long-term commitment and resources that researchers’ time-scales and required outputs can’t accommodate. Empirical research is too messy to deliver ‘excellent’ rated outcomes, leading to a disconnection of the research machine and activities from the production of knowledge useful to urban communities, and a retreat into theory. The result is what he calls (drawing on a science studies concept) a ‘public value failure’, demanding careful consideration of how solutions to these problems might be constructed if universities are to have a hope of solving the grand challenges of the 21st century and fulfil the role expected of them by policy-makers.

On a more positive note, James Evans from University of Manchester described an initiative highlighting the potential for increased engagement between academics and estates teams within institutions – and the possibilities this has opened up in turn for external stakeholders to engage with the university through the development of its new engineering and science campus. Living Lab approached the campus as a laboratory for sustainability, channelling a flow of opportunities from estates through to faculty research committee meetings, and inviting consultants on the new campus to help design opportunities for academic engagement (http://universitylivinglab.org). Meanwhile, Paul Chatterton has used his position as a Reader in Cities and Social Change at Leeds University to develop an exemplary, low impact-living, affordable housing project within the framework of an academic research agenda (www.lilac.coop). Similarly, Zarina Patel and Saskia Greyling from the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, and Beth Parry from Salford’s SURF Centre, outlined the work they have achieved within the Mistra Urban Futures funding programme (http://www.mistraurbanfutures.org/en) in co-producing relevant knowledge with city council officers (in Cape Town, including the deployment of embedded researchers in their offices), and local groups and practitioners (as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform – GLIP).

So there is inspiration to be gained from a number of diverse academically-driven initiatives. Let’s hope that universities as institutions can become increasingly proactive in recognising the challenges involved in developing such projects and removing the barriers that continue to hinder university-community engagement and the promotion of social benefits in cities around the world.