Directions for building prosperous knowledge cities

3759dca9de68daaac63557f0c4d38441Knowledge-based (urban) development

Making policies, plans and metrics for building prosperous knowledge cities meets a number of challenges. Challenges emerge from the intrinsic heterogeneity of the research field that has been coined as knowledge based (urban) development (KB(U)D). It is heterogeneous because of the multi-disciplinarity of the field, which is nicely reflected by the contributing authors (see their biographical notes). The many facets of knowledge and their ‘natural’ strings to management, psychology, decision-making, planning policy-making or economics give a leverage to the KB(U)D debate.

This is a draft Version. For citation please refer to the original publication:

Afterword by Joris Van Wezemael: “Concluding: Directions fo building prosperous knowledge cities”, in: Tan  Yigitcanlar,  Kostas  Metaxiotis,  Javier  Carrillo  (Eds.): Building  Prosperous  Knowledge  Cities – Policies,  Plans  and  Metrics. Forthcoming with Edward  Elgar  Publishing.

However, the ‘multiplicity’ of the main headliner – ‘knowledge’ – complexifies simple notions of KB(U)D. Furthermore, the relation of ‘knowledge’ and ‘development’ is a fuzzy one. It is commonly acknowledged that much knowledge and learning is retrospective in nature (Weick 1995). Also, knowledge seems to be both an intimate friend and a complete stranger as it slips away when one tries to pin it down. This aspect reminds me of Wittgenstein’s notion that the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.

‘Development’, on the other hand, may include diverse issues such as Green development, Land development, Real estate , Urban planning, Economic development, Human development (humanity), Social development or Sustainable development, to name but a few. Although most of the chapters in this book refer mainly to economic development (which is but one aspect of social change) – this is neither necessary nor does it follow from the definition of Knowledge Capital in the sense of the World Capital Institute and its main promotor Javier Carrillo (2004).

Given this rough outline the term ‘knowledge’ – excessively used these days – might run the risk of becoming an empty signifier that, as a pre-fix, adds but some gloss to more traditional debates. A precursor of such a faith is the term ‘sustainability’ in its historical adaptation (and abuse) through science, politics and various industries. Consequently, being given the honour of contributing with an afterword I would like to reflect on the question: how does (or could) our current ‘knowledge’-debate differ from other/older debates on cities? I will do so with an argument that includes four points:

  • an invocation to feed off controversies, ‘celebrate’ uncertainties and address the uncertain relation of knowledge and action,
  • an inquiry of how we can ‘steer’ with regard to ‘self-organization’ in KB(U)D,
  • a notion on the deliberative potential of knowledge-based development, and
  • the specificity of the ‘U’(rban) with regard to KBD

Knowledge: a matter of fact or a matter of concern?

Firstly, I would like to introduce a productive uncertainty by highlighting the difficult and in many cases not so straightforward relations of knowledge and action. Certainly, I share the view that we must engage into an intense debate on knowledge: As von Hayek (quoted in Duguid, 2005) explains, division of labour implies a division of knowledge and the adding of knowledge to knowledge becomes the main driver of value creation (Drucker, 1993). This makes clear that the need for knowledge acting on knowledge is not generated by information and communication technologies (ICT) (as some debates seem to suggest) – rather, it is a twin of any form of social, spatial and economic organization that is based on the division of labour or that allows or generates a diversification of lifestyles, respectively. Therefore, as a matter of fact, an increasing division and diversification (that is partly enabled by ICT) fuels the need to recombine knowledge and let it act on itself.

However, as Kreiner et al. (2011) state, “knowledge society deserves its label not because of an abundance of knowledge, but because of a highly and consistently problematic stature of the link between knowledge and action”. This link – as a matter of concern (Latour, 2005) – is disputed in relevant contexts (be it in management studies or in business decision-making; in planning theory or in ‘doing’ stakeholder participation). I believe that the epistemic uncertainty between ‘knowledge’ and ‘action’ is one reason for the excessive use of terms such as ‘creativity’ in this context. Here I refer to epistemological uncertainty that refers to indeterminate knowledge of future consequences a type of uncertainty typically related to the repercussions of cultural or social milieus, since the models representing such systems are so complex that predictions are unreliable. I suggest that a focus on the disputes may safe our debates from a premature, ready-made notion of knowledge-based development, it lets the thing itself – knowledge – be deployed as a multiple and celebrates William James’ notion of a ‘Pluriverse’. I have explained elsewhere (Van Wezemael, 2008b) that the complexifying nature of knowledge has been described in the analysis of project ecologies, geographies of knowledge-creation or in science and technology studies. Learning processes are fuelled by the connection of heterogeneous elements (practices which belong to different places or to different projects or organizations) and – given a learning environment – from the encounter with novel and unexpected processes. Pieces of data and information from previous work, elements of knowledgeability from different practices and sites, individual beliefs and experiences, collective narratives, guidelines from various organizations (e.g. in urban governance settings), meshworks of hardware (such as computer or traffic infrastructure) and also specific software and ICT network-designs form heterogeneous assemblages. Therefore, what a person, a project team, or an organization can do refers to its (collective) knowing. Collective knowing, again, emerges from the connections at one ‘scale’ (e.g. subjects in project teams) and therefore is an emergent property of the next larger scale (e.g. project teams). Therefore the components become part of the knowledge they produce. ‘Knowing’ thus “cannot any longer be attributed to the knower, who participates in a further stage of becoming not reducible to his knowledge” (Phillips, 2006). Knowing always lies in-between, in the connection.

Thus, as a first point I argue that that we should feed off the controversies that we have towards ‘knowledge’ as a multitude instead of jumping to conceptions of knowledge as a link in simple means-to-ends relations.

Steering, planning and strategising

Secondly, on the basis of the uncertain relation of knowledge and action I would like to highlight the question of agency with regard to making policies and plans. Throughout the chapters there is a shared understanding among the authors that specificities of a knowledge-based development calls for alternatives to top-down approaches and that we lack a single overview position. This highlights a second specificity of KB(U)D, as Franz in this book argues: “(A) ‘Knowledge City’ development strategy hardly can be initiated by top-down command; it requires the voluntary involvement of a vast number of actors at different political levels.” In the same line Garner and Dornan, also in this book, argue that we can learn more from the ‘how’ then from the ‘what’ (and in a next step we should, I suggest, engage also more into the Deleuzian ‘why’). They thus highlight a processual level and critically point at the limits of the transferability of so-called best practice. Here, the argument could receive some support from the Latourian notion that there can be no transport without transformation, and that any transport must pay its full costs of transaction (Latour 2005, 221). Furthermore, Garner and Dornan state that “in the ‘science’ of knowledge-based economic development the ingredients are now well documented. However, ingredients can be combined into many recipes and those who are engaged in the process bring their own individual approach to that combination. (…) Cloned economic development strategies fail in the knowledge-based economy – where by definition, it is the unique combination of creativity and innovation that power success.” They thus argue for a truly relational approach, which, as I believe, must also be applied to knowledge itself (Silberberger, Van Wezemael, Paisiou, 2011). Drawing on Garner and Dornans ‘ingredients-and-recipe’ metaphor I would like to point out some underlying ontological assumptions as they can become productive with regard to the question of agency, steering, and to the selection of epistemic strategies. If we, in this context, briefly reflect on the differences between simple, complicated and complex systems we can use Westley’s et al (2006) analogies that relate a simple system to baking a cake, a complicated system to sending a rocket ship to the moon and a complex adaptive system to raising a child. The development of a city is more akin to a baby, exhibiting significant unpredictability within generally known (albeit very broad) patterns of overall development. Imagine a parent raising a child as though it was a linear system entirely subject to known specifications! These thoughts position KB(U)D in close proximity to complexity thinking, and they moot pressing questions of agency, multiple causation and self-organization (see for example the literature on planning and complexity).

Thus, in my reflection on agency (steering, planning, strategising) in KB(U)D, notions of self-organization become paramount as no command-and-control architecture of governance can keep up with the openness of becoming and the multitude of agents and their actor-views. I would like to argue that ‘steering’ in self-organized collectives (such as organisations, cities or city regions) is best understood as a trial-and-error exploration of possibility spaces (Van Wezemael, 2010). This, in turn, calls for a tolerant failure-culture.

A neoliberal agenda?

If knowledge is viewed as a multiplicity (see above), then, and this is my third point, KB(U)D must reach beyond a neoliberal agenda. Whereas concepts such as Knowledge Capital offer a rich potential to seek for alternatives urban becomings, there is also a strong attraction towards knowledge-and-development as an already-given, subjugating economic goal such as ‘efficiency-and-growth’. However, we need to avoid this temptation in order to tap into the deliberative potential of ‘knowledge’ that is always disputed (see above), that cannot be ‘owned’, that is collective in nature, that only exists and only can become productive as it transgresses boundaries (of the individual, of peers, of teams, of organizations, of city regions etc; see Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995).

The deliberative potential of ‘knowledge’ defines another bundle of specificities for KB(U)D. If ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’ are viewed and performed as unquestioned ‘givens’ that move along the ‘molar lines’, subjugating molecular voices (Van Wezemael, 2008a), then they determine in advance what is noise and what are voices to be heard and to be debated . I argue in the line of Javier Carrillo (2004) and others when I stress the goal of admiring diverse sets of knowledge and ways of knowing that can be productive for all kinds of social innovation (Moulaert 2003) that is yet unknown and not limited from the start; this can also save ‘knowledge’ from becoming just another prefix to mainstream urban and regional policies.

Consequently, knowledge as a starting point for (urban) development urges us to engage into controversial questions that address what is the ‘(common) good’, what makes a development ‘right’, and so on. Here emerges another aspect in the sense of a goal of what an engagement with KB(U)D is: ‘Knowledge City’ will not become just the another buzzword for (merely) economically competitive cities; KB(U)D will not simply add to the past labels such as entrepreneurial and competitive cities and city regions. Or, more positive, using Powell’s words (in this book) KB(U)D must aim at “co-producing many different kinds of value”.

Another lesson with regard to the specificity of KB(U)D can be learnt with regard to ‘making metrics’. As the now-classical criticism of Jane Jacobs highlights: just because a neighbourhood or a city does not score in the top rank of economic productivity does not mean that the quality of life, the density of social relations and place diversity are low! Authors do now consider that, given the multiplicity of knowledge, dimensions of KB(U)D withstand simple addition. Yigitcanlar in this book states that “(S)olely focusing on economic means proved not to be successful”, and, “although learnings from other city experiences and exogenous assets are most valuable in strategising KBUD, policy makers also need to build their niche and also unique development characteristics based on their endogenous assets”.

However, I do not neglect that economic prosperity is important. Indeed, it is a pressing issue, and in many cases it is the starting point for getting stakeholders involved into novel strategies for a place. Accordingly, the vast majority of contributions in this book and the broader field aim for a kind of primary economic development. However, I point at the danger that sticking to an unbalanced discussion stratifies the debate and may not be the most productive deliverable from academic refection (as economic development agencies and firms already advocate this point).

… and the city

My last point tackles the specificity of the ‘urban’ for KBD, starting from Massey’s notion that space matters (2005). I will argue that we should handle the celebrated ‘urban renaissance’ with care as there are significant repercussions that appear on the horizon. A number of contributions in this book argues that “leveraging urban form (does) optimise human interaction”, as Martinus states, or that “urban projects (…) are gradually improving its attractiveness and ‘urban atmosphere’ by mixing residential, work and cultural functions” (Fernandez-Maldonano in this book). However, although there is evidence that certain urban/spatial settings can increase KBD, there is certainly no guarantee that they always will do so, and, as has been argued above, any copy-paste strategy is very likely to fail as no strategy or technology ever works in total isolation.

Rather, the topological ‘nature’ of space leads to a complication of things. Heidegger famously explained that “Dasein bringt schon die Sphäre möglicher Nachbarschaft mit sich; es ist von Hause aus schon Nachbar zu…” (1953, 138). Or, in the words of Thrift (1999), “(W)e can easily say that space complicates because it immediately injects a notion of distribution. For the entire notion that we live in a infinite web of meaning, the fact is that this web is differentially distributed. Its elements do not crop up everywhere equally, however often deferred. Spatial distribution, by itself, can therefore begin to account for much of what happens in the world: from the start, the geographical world is a messy one, it does not cohere”. Space therefore means difference; it produces an order of concomitance with distinct and emerging properties.

KB(U)D, I would like to argue, stages knowledge cities as exceptionally dense intertwining of physical, social, economic, mental and technological networks which, as a consequence, give rise to a relational notion of knowledge recombination and knowledge, thus, creation (Van Wezemael, 2008b). It wants to tap into the potential for knowledge-creation that is related to the superimposition of a large number of relational networks. Here, Florida’s shiny concept of a ‘good people climate’ has been influential. It is said to attract and retain creative and talented people who may fertilize the ground for a competitive business climate, and a good and competitive business climate (which, in turn, brings about economic growth). This climate calls for high-quality housing, work empowerment, and a specialized consumption mix with whatever is already there. This very ‘mix’ generates topologies and neighbourhoods (see above). However, at least from a central European perspective, the celebrated renaissance of the (knowledge) city manifests itself in an increased density of buildings (not necessarily of people as the average floor space continues to increase), and altered forms of spatial organisation (such as the juxtaposition of different groups with regard to social status or income as in ‘gentrification’ processes) call for an ‘organisation of disorder’ (in the sense of Agamben’s definition of security) in urban space. Urban renaissance and the (alleged) celebration of diversity may indeed erode the very substance of some knowledge-based development as the massive boom of security industries in city regions may indicate. This is because the rediscovered vibrancy of the urban coincides with a culture of fear and a neurotisation of citizens (Isin, 2004). Such an urban society develops tendencies towards various forms of insularity (enclaves and exclaves of which gated communities are only one example). Thus, a reinforced attraction of so-called knowledge-workers should be aware of such repercussions that erode the very basis of the above mentioned good-people-climate.

Concluding remark

In this brief afterword to this book on “Building Prosperous Knowledge Cities” I made the claim that, in order to deliver an original contribution to urban development we should both recall and develop the specificities of KB(U)D. A relational view on knowledge and on space and place seems in line with empirical findings. But it also challenges key conceptions of scale such as the very relation of the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ that lose their essentialist modes of existence. Latour’s strategy of ‘localising the global’, ‘redistributing the local’ and ‘connecting sites’ may well be elaborated with regard to knowing and knowledge. As directions for building prosperous knowledge cities I suggested to harvest knowledge as a multiplicity, a deeper inquiry into knowledge and self-organisation, an appreciation of the deliberative potential of knowledge and a careful handling of KBD with regard to place diversity.


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