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6th October, 2020

Place versus digital: always at odds?

Dr Mark Grey

There is no denying that ‘place’ is the theme of the moment in knowledge exchange. Research England has asked universities to discuss their local and regional delivery and impact in narratives for the KEF, place-based funding initiatives in KE (like the SiPF) are underway and more are likely to come along soon, and the theme of ‘place’ is one of the three pillars of Research England’s intended approach to the development of HEIF in the coming years. All of this, of course, echoes the centrality of place in the government’s Industrial Strategy and elsewhere in government policy. 


What, though, does ‘place’ mean in a digital age and at a time when deindustrialisation still remains the proximate stimulus for so much ongoing regeneration effort? Is ‘place’ important in an age of digital, transnational, ‘borderless’ services provision, collaboration and economic activity and the offshoring of so much physical manufacturing activity? Does ‘place’ have meaning when your colleagues, your work and your social circle may, literally, be global?


Well, yes. I suspect we have, in Britain, been too easily persuaded that there is a dichotomy here. The ‘place’ agenda is certainly about making towns and cities (by the way, where is the government agenda for smaller rural places?) sustainable in jobs, skills and their economic and social life. Part of that sustainability, though, can come from support for those very elements of place that make sustainability possible that are not local, may be digital and are – ultimately – global. Take the example of local crafts, which have over the last few decades witnessed something of a renaissance in Britain. It’s clear that digital means can and have been used to find customers for small textile producers and fabric designers in the UK – and universities can play their part in that – but what of community benefits from such transformations? Can universities underpin such a renaissance so as to ensure the sustainability of the places from which these revivals spring?


I’ve in mind analogies from the British industrial revolution – that (we now understand) long, slow and transformation beginning in the 18th century, overlapping with the factory movement but independent of it, in which local economies began to develop specialist talents, knowhow, skills and networks that marked them out for rapid economic development even in advance of productivity growth. In the 21st century we can chart a similar course. 


Imagine universities working with local arts producers to create the networks, knowhow and above all the skilled people to enable scale-up in areas of ‘arts advantage’. Imagine, too, ‘levelling up’ skills in ‘digital’ in lagging regions – creative, technical *and* managerial skills – that would support the transfer of this arts advantage to the global market. Universities might enable networking for creatives, designers and merchandisers. They might sharpen the skills of the local accountants, lawyers and insurance folk who support export in these sectors. They could incubate the businesses, help attract the external capital investment and link the two. In short, where digital carries and underpins that arts advantage in global trade, might universities underpin that advantage – to their own benefit as well as to that of their community?


In a world in which sustainable local communities can achieve that sustainability through digitally enabled connection to global markets from a relative small scale starting point there is absolutely no conflict between ‘place’ and ‘digital’ at all. A creative approach to place might even be wholly framed around the growth of this digital mediation of sustainable growth. Imagination is required. Fortunately in universities we’re blessed with lots of that.


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