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.