Knowledge, Policymaking and Learning for European Cities and Regions. From Research to Practice

Europe of Knowledge |

How do researchers contribute to policymaking? What facilitates policy learning? And how do big data influence research-policy nexus and policy-making in European cities and regions? These are some of the questions addressed in the new book ‘Knowledge, Policymaking and Learning for European Cities and Regions. From Research to Practice’, edited by Nicola Francesco Dotti. Here he answers some questions about its origins, key ideas and lessons learned.


Q1: What have been the rationales and origins of this book?

There are two main reasons, one very personal and the other one more ‘academic’. I start from the second one.


The debate on university-industry cooperation, technology transfer, national/regional innovation system and Triple Helix is extensive. Universities are more and more pushed to cooperate with industry to enhance economic competitiveness; while, very little is said about cooperation with governments to improve policymaking. Doing research across regional economics and policy studies, I have asked myself if there is a ‘Fourth Mission’ for the university to contribute to policymaking, besides education, research and technology transfer. I think so, though this requires new concepts and approaches because I often see confusion between policy-oriented research and consultancy, between being academic scholars and activists. These distinctions are quite clear when we speak about national or European governments, but it becomes more ‘blurry’ when assuming the perspective of cities and regions.


The second reason is very personal, though with a big mistake in it! When I was conceiving the book, I had in my mind my grandfather, Francesco Dotti. In the 1930s, he had an ‘itinerant chair’ in agriculture from the University of Bologna. Basically, he was a kind-of young PhD/postdoc travelling across the province of Bologna to teach farmers the best agricultural technics at that time. Then, I asked myself: how can a young scholar in urban and regional policy contribute to policymaking? While writing the book, my father explained to me that ‘itinerant chair’ was something different, more a kind-of consultancy and definitely not an academic position. My mistake! But the image of applied policy knowledge was still pointing out to the Fourth Mission of University.


Q2: Your book focuses on research-policy nexus in urban and regional policy. What are the main opportunities and challenges when researchers and policymakers collaborate?

Here, we need to make a preliminary distinction between academic disciplines. In policy studies, research focuses on processes of decision-making; in urban and regional studies, most of the scholars focus on the contents for those decisions. These two academic communities do not communicate, very rarely meet each other and, even worst, they do not realise this difference. In the book, I did my best to gather both communities. On these boundaries, we have started working on the notion of ‘knowledge brokers’ for urban and regional policymaking.


The primary opportunity for researchers is to get involved in real-world policy going out of the ‘Ivory Tower’, and understanding how ‘their’ knowledge is ‘used’ and ‘translated’ for policymaking; for policymakers, they can acquire the knowledge they do not have (yet). However, the main challenge is to recognise each other rationales: research and policymaking are different. In this perspective, the keyword of the book is dialogue, which in Greek means what goes through two ‘logos’. Researchers and policymakers have to acknowledge each other ‘logos’ and then engage in a dialogue. Otherwise, we end up in a monologue, which is a real risk: “blame politicians if they don’t do what I said!” vs “those academics do nothing, just a waste of public money!”.


Q3: An important concept in the book is ‘policy learning’. How does policy learning work? What facilitates policy learning?

This is the most challenging question, which is the frontier of research in policy studies. I do not know, I really do not know. In policy studies, I see many excellent theories, but when it comes to the case of cities and regions, these theories fail because of lack of critical mass, few and limited expertise and structural constraints on available resources. The new behavioural approaches applied to policymaking are really moving forward our understanding, but they mainly refer to larger scales, i.e. national/federal/European decision-making. In cities and regions, policy knowledge is structurally limited and context-specific, while policy challenges are urgent as much as for the upper tiers of government. In this perspective, I really appreciate the EU efforts on ‘administrative capacity’.


Here, I would like to turn this question as follow: how do you learn about a policy? From whom? When? What are you learning and what are you looking for? What is your background to understand that policy? What are the sources you refer? Why do you want to learn about a policy? Researchers can contribute to improving policymaking but are definitely not the only relevant actors: policy learning is a collective process. We pay a lot of attention to politicians, who do not seem so relevant in my view. On the contrary, civil servants, advisors, cabinet members and other stakeholders are more relevant because policy learning is mainly a social process. Politicians have a different role, which is essential, but different.


And here it come my research question. What are your core beliefs and preferences about policymaking? Do you know them? Are you ready to change them? What could make you change it? These open questions are, in my view, the frontier of research nowadays. Assuming the perspective of cities and regions, these questions are even more relevant because actors interact directly, in person, without intermediaries, and they have repeated, long-term interactions. This creates communities of practices that learn how to move forward together.


Q4: The book includes case studies of policy-oriented research in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Scotland, the Netherlands and Mexico. Why were these cases selected? And what other cities and regions can learn from them?

The book originated during a European workshop I organised in Brussels in January 2016. It was such a fruitful discussion that we decided to write a book, but we realised that a simple conference proceeding would not have worked because the two communities from policy studies and urban and regional studies were too different and, at first, had difficulties in finding common ground. Just half of the materials come from that workshop, while the other chapters were developed to provide a complete perspective.


In fact, the fracture between those focusing on decision-making processes and on decisions is so deep that I had to spend two years building up a (hopefully) consistent framework. Cases are presented in a way to provide general results, beyond the cases itself. Some of the authors were involved in policymaking, and some of them are even policymakers themselves, so it was difficult to take them out of those contexts. I think the result worked well because each author has also contributed as a reviewer of the other chapters taking lessons learnt into their own chapter.


Q5: The book addresses topics of open data, big data and information technologies. What changes do they bring to evidence-based policymaking and policy-relevant knowledge?

Thanks for this question. I waited to address this issue previously because it requires a specific discussion, as we do in the third part of the book.


Big and open data are the frontier for policymaking, definitely. In fact, there is a revolution in front of us, a Copernican revolution! We are moving from a world where we had to take decisions with structurally limited information to a world where we have too much information, more than humans can handle. This is a Copernican revolution! The scarce resource is no longer information, but our attention as Herbert Simon already pointed out in the 1970s. I see that most of the decision-makers at the urban and regional levels are not aware of this revolution causing a divide with upper tiers of government that seem by-far more advanced in experimenting big and open data for policymaking.


The big and open data revolution opens a set of critical, fundamental issues. Who is able to handle big data for decision-making? Knowledge is not information, then how to turn abundant information into policy-relevant knowledge? What about those who do not have such advanced knowledge? Should they be left out of decision-making? If so, democracy is over. When we have so much information, the challenge is to turn this into knowledge which is relevant for policymaking. I know we are already doing it, but I think most of us are not aware of this revolution. Again, here it comes back the question of how we learn about policymaking. I know someone can be disappointed because I have more questions than answers, but –in my view- questions are more useful to learn, and the book is about learning. The book does not have a thesis to demonstrate. On the contrary, we hope to stimulate questions. This is not a handbook; this book is a question mark towards the way we learn policymaking.


Q6: What are the main lessons from your book for practitioners and policy-makers?

Ask yourself: how do you learn about policymaking? From whom? When and where? Are we ready to question our core beliefs and preferences about policymaking? If the answer is yes, then we can start a dialogue, which implies acknowledging the different rationales between research and policymaking.


The book is conceived around shorter chapters, just 4,000 words at maximum. This decision that I imposed as editor was difficult for many authors, but it helps the readers to go straight to the point. This is not a book to read linearly, I see it more as a basket of fruit where experts in policy studies read chapters on regional and urban studies, where academics can read chapters from policymakers, and the other way round.


Q7: What would be interesting avenues for future research?

In our last two chapters, we propose a synthesis which is also a framework for future research by discussing the notions of ‘knowledge governance’ and ‘policy resilience’. Knowledge governance is a new type of governance where policy learning, knowledge sharing and collective actions are taken as building blocks. Policy learning is, then, no longer a by-product of governance, but a key element, a goal to achieve. In this way, we can develop policy resilience which is the capacity to act collectively adapting policy to emerging issues. To understand this, it is necessary to assume the cognitive-evolutionary approach: knowledge and policymaking co-evolve, analogously to ecosystems. It is the ‘fittest’ policy knowledge that survives, and this shapes decision-making processes. Accordingly, knowledge governance is the way to keep this ‘ecosystem’ alive.


These notions are proposed to provide a synthetic framework on knowledge, policymaking and learning for European cities and regions. Knowledge governance and policy resilience are the future research fields I would like to work on. Again, I hope we can open even more questions.


Q8: Anything else you would like to add?

Yes, one more thing. I hope readers won’t look for linear, clear answers. This book is for curious readers who like to challenge their beliefs. We do provide theoretical references and case description, but we mainly propose questions on the research-policy dialogue. This book is a question: do you know how to learn urban and regional policymaking?


Nicola Francesco Dotti is a researcher in Urban and Regional Economics and Policy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). His main research interests are spatial dynamics of knowledge and research, knowledge for policymakingm EU Cohesion Policy and Framework Programme / Horizon 2020. He is currently researcher on data-driven university governance and coordinator of the RSA research network on Cohesion Policy. He recently edited a volume on “Knowledge, Policymaking and Learning for European Cities and Regions” (E-Elgar). He previously worked for the EU Commission, the Politecnico di Milano and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). He holds a PhD in regional economics and policy from the Politecnico di Milano.