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Learning to learn

How can we better learn from each other in a time of austerity?

A quick question.

When you start a project, do you:

•    research all the relevant literature and examples of previous practice to give you a well-evidenced starting point
•    spend some time on Google and email a few contacts who have done something similar; or
•    crack on, because the deadline is tight, and hope your own knowledge and some pointers you’ll pick up along the way, will give you what you need?

I ask because it’s a question facing many urban renewal practitioners, in an environment where everyone is trying to ‘do more with less’ and move with rapidly changing agendas.

If you answered A, that’s impressive. It’s a hard thing to do. A lot of academic literature is behind pay walls and it’s often not geared toward practical application. We’ve all read research reports that conclude that more research is needed.

If you answered B or C, or somewhere in between, you’re in the majority. The pressure, whether you’re a public servant, consultant or volunteer, is to push on and show quick results.

But that need to demonstrate impact makes it all the more important to learn from what has gone before. We can’t afford to ignore evidence that might point us in the right direction; we can’t spend our way to conclusions that have already been reached.

Applying knowledge was hard enough in the ‘good old days’. The previous government commissioned a lot of research and evaluation, so that policy would be ‘evidence based’ and grounded in ‘what works’. But a lot of that research wasn’t used and disseminated in a way that helped learning.

It ended up ‘sitting on the shelf’ or, to update the cliché, on over-loaded network drives, occasionally read by policy wonks and research folk, but generally neglected. The rapid turnover of ministers, high rate of institutional reorganisations and promotion of new agendas reinforced Whitehall’s institutional amnesia.

That contributed to the serious skills gaps in the urban renewal sector which were identified by the Barker Review of housing, the Homes and Communities Agency and others. As the Academy for Sustainable Communities put it, ‘there aren’t enough people with the right skills in the right places to deliver the government’s ambitious agenda for creating sustainable communities across England’.

A recurrent gap was our collective failure to learn from and apply what others had done.

The landscape today is very different. There are fewer large-scale research programmes and a reduction in the number of agencies with an explicit remit encouraging sector-based learning and skills development.

The housing, construction and regeneration sectors, like many others, have laid off knowledgeable people, while some organisations have gone out of business entirely.

The government has effectively retreated from urban development in many parts of country. Its haste to renounce the previous government’s policies threatens to squander an enormous amount of experience.

As the Regeneration Select Committee put it: ‘The knowledge and skills of those closely involved in regeneration for many years are now at risk of being lost.’

The government, for better or worse, isn’t going to establish a national urban skills strategy or learning programme. The burden has fallen onto practitioners and residents, to share what we know and talk to each other about what we don’t.

With so few other resources available, the knowledge and experience of residents and practitioners becomes all the more valuable, our greatest resource.

So I go back to my original question to you: how can we better learn from each other in a time of austerity?

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