Academics versus Practitioners: Bridging an Artificial Divide

Humboldt University Berlin, Unter den Linden

Humboldt University Berlin, Unter den Linden

by Ares Kalandides

There is something very symbolic about the way that the two Humboldt brothers perch in front of the main University building that bears their name in Berlin. Academia sits on a pedestal as a “grand seigneur”. This demonstration of both upper class and masculinity is not a coincidence. It is the guiding principle behind the academic world – at least in Germany. I will not talk about the frightingly low percentages of women among academics in higher positions; or about the still strong class and ethnicity bias in German universities; not even about the patriarchal relations that reproduce academic traditions in this country. There is enough evidence about all of that for anybody who cares to research. I would like to report from my own experience, at the borderline between an academic and a consultant, trying to reflect upon fake dichotomies.

The academic versus the consultant; theory versus practice; the deductive versus the inductive. We divide the world tidily into a realm of matierality and one of ideas. And then we take sides based on an untenable bipolarity. You should hear how consultants in the spatial professions talk about academics and the other way round, with little respect and recognition for any possible mutual contribution. Academics are caricatured as living in an ivory tower, with little or no contact to the real world; likewise consultants are dipicted as slaves to the industry, who will do anything in order to sell. I am nonetheless convinced that at the end of the day is up to you to choose the best or the worst of both.

Half a year ago, I wrote an article in the online Tafter Journal to reflect upon the work of the practitioner in the place branding business. I would like to continue in the same direction and try to start with three very practical limits in the consultancy business: time, money and reporting. With the public sector cuts (our main client) in the past decades  most projects are underfinanced. Not only do consultants pay their own staff less than they used to, thus driving income down, they also need to take on several assignments at the same time, with disastrous results on their work quality. Beside the stricter budget, time confinement remains one more major issue. We rarely have enough time to work on the projects as we’d like to. Our clients expect fast, visible results that they can show. There is rarely enough time for reflextion and vigorous analytical work. Finally interim reporting has proved to be particularly detrimental to the quality of the final results. Clients can profoundly influence their outcome if they are not happy with they read. So interim reports are rewraught until the client accepts them, in other words until they reflect the client’s own opinion. No wonder that most consultants simply confirm the position of those who pay them in order to get their fee.

In this whole process there is very little space for reflection or even for keeping up with new developments in the profession. This is precisely where the large gap with academia is to be found. Good academic work does not provide easy recipes (at least not what I consider to be good research); sometimes it even increases complexity instead of solving it. Yet, clients and practitioners alike look for straightforward answers, which academia can not deliver. The success of “pop academics” (the likes of Florida, Porter etc. in our field) among policy makers  supports my case.

We have experienced the same thing in the editorial board of the Journal of Place Management and Development, where we make a conscious attempt to keep research articles short, so that practitioners can read them. I think there is a serious gap here, which has a lot to do with the practicalities of everyday work and little with any real divide between the two. It is worth thinking of possible formats of communication between the two.When we started the International Place Branding Conference series, this was exactly the idea: to bring together practitioners and researchers. Five years later, I must admit that we have probably partly failed. And the failure is mostly lope-sided; researchers are very curious to hear what practitioners have to say, since that is a lot of where their research is based upon. On the contrary, many practitioners used the conference to advertize their work, instead of reflecting upon it. The few practitoniers that are left are the ones who are interested in research, those who question their work and want to move forward.

There is another risk, though, and I see it growing: more and more academics are turning into consultants – not in two different functions, which would be alright – but as part of their academic career. This has two very serious consequences: Universities compete with small businesses for consulting work, but with a very different starting position, since their infrastructure is payed for. This way they distort any kind of real free-market competition. The second consequences is that it creates questionable research results for the reasons I mentioned above:  lack of money and time as well as the influence of the client on the results. Do we believe that this kind of research can really be independent?

I know that I sound contradictory: on the one hand I speak for a stronger intergation between academics and practitioners and on the other I support a stricter division between the two. The point I am trying to make is that there are inherent differences in the two practices that it is good to keep up, but at the same time, the exchange, the mutual inspiration and learning should be fostered by all possible means. My feeling at the moment is that it is a one-way road. Practitioners cut their bridges with academia as soon as they complete their studies, wheras most academics still look at practitioners for their empirical work. I would love to hear experiences of colleagues who find themselves in similar situations, torn between practice and academia.

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5 Responses to Academics versus Practitioners: Bridging an Artificial Divide

  1. Dr. Ed Brooker says:

    While I applaud your intent, I believe you’ve lost yourself in the traditional academic vs. practitioner binary, while critiquing the audacity of those academics who do consult. Perhaps a liminal consideration – one that is betwixt and between the two polarities may be of consideration, although the issue is one that I too have pondered over.

    • Ares says:

      I am not sure I undertand what you’re trying to say. I am not against academics who consult, but I find that it entails several problems that it’s worth thinking about. One of them being the quality of academic work that may result through consulting bias

  2. fereshteh habib says:

    Than you very much Ares for sharing your valuable experiences and examples with us. I agree with you there is a gap between them. If we consider these groups as Partnerships:
    o People Participation (as designer, academia, individual property owners and residents, mass or populace, tourists)
    o Authorities Participation (public &private sectors)
    And the process of Place Management:
    o Place Making
    o Place maintenance
    o Place Marketing
    When it is difficult for state and city public sector organization to work together then it is even more difficult also engage citizens into the process. I think it shouldn’t be a concert or rigid decisions only in the hand of state. It can be a delicate long term strategy which authorities and people in the shape of academia and theoretician or practicer such as designer, individual property owners, residents, etc. both are involved in the process.
    To me most effective Branding is the one with emphasis on culture. And it can happen in two areas:
    • Areas based on artistic programs and sources that can be called “areas of art”.
    • Areas based on historical sources that can be called “areas of cultural heritage”.
    In order to develop brand base on culture in a city, the following proposals can be useful:
    • Finding cities that can be taken as models for public cultural life, and learning from their experiences conforming to the norms in different countries.You did a lot and shared us with generosity.
    • In the realm of art, the emphasis should be on integrating cultural development into the overall growth and development of the city rather than on isolating in a cultural center. In some cases, this has been done by preserving long-abandoned cultural facilities, and developing the district around them
    • In the sphere of cultural heritage, the goal should be revival and redevelopment of the cultural monuments. For instance, the large and interesting cultural centers and complexes either in the locality or outside the historical monuments, can be designed in the form of townships and can be used for holding rites and rituals, traditional ceremonies (national, religious, etc.). The idea, in addition to promoting, displaying and identifying cultural values of a nation, is very successful in tourism development and economic growth. Culture in this sense has no opposition with the economy.
    • Holding festivals, rites and rituals, local associations of arts, trade fairs on cultural products, in the remains of the historical monuments, or urban spaces.
    • Training the culture of citizenship: People will sure participate in training the culture of citizenship. With the promotion of the public culture the way of using spaces will be also reformed. It is a two-dimensional procedure (training, culture, structure).
    Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe (FEEE) was set up in 1981 by a group of experts from the Council of Europe. Headquartered in Copenhagen (Denmark). With officers in each of the Council’s member nations. FEEE sponsors education and awareness-raising programmers. It has three major action programmers:” young reporters for the Environment” gives high school students a chance to research topics connected with the environment, in their own countries and elsewhere, and to exchange their findings via email: the “Eco-school” programmed encourages schools to reorganize their own management in order to save resources and go “green”: last but not least, the “ European Blue Flag Camping” is an award scheme targeting local governments and authorities managing coastal areas for recreation and tourism.
    • The commissioning of large scale public logos or sculpture, fountain and waterfall has become common in the world’s major cities, some of which have developed extensive outdoor collections. These elements can still be useful in promoting culture.
    • Using a single large-scale artwork to provide with a strong image, much as Paris discovered it had done with the construction of the Eiffel Tower a century ago.
    • Another old idea that has lost none of its allure is that of building flagship cultural facilities as visible symbols of a city’s cultural commitment. The Sydney (Australia) Opera House, the Kennedy Center in Washington. C. “(U.S.A.), THE Ludwig Museum complex in Cologne (Germany) and Guggenheim Museum under construction in Bilbao (Spain) are familiar examples. The French government has taken the idea of building flagship cultural facilities to great lengths, developing a number of great works in Paris, including the Pompidou Center, the Bastille Opera House, the Grand Louver project and the Grande Arch to the west of the city.
    • Design and construction of buildings like theater houses, music halls, art galleries and amphitheaters for public performances, holding parties and festivals, dances and dinners, rites and rituals.
    • Construction of amusement gardens with a juxtaposition of nature, art, food, and music and dinner in a single complex.

  3. Efe says:

    Ares, if you haven’t seen it before, I would recommend Jorge Cham’s recent talk on TEDx about science gap.

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