Civic Sociology project wins Bennett Prospect Public Policy Prize

Editor-in-Chief, Eric Lybeck, has won the Bennett-Prospect Prize for Public Policy. Here he writes about developing the winning project idea.

Yesterday, I was honoured to receive the first Bennett Prospect Public Policy Prize awarded by the recently founded Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. Indeed, this year’s conference themes around ‘fairness, equity and democracy’, in which many speakers addressed the importance of place-based as well as global policymaking, drew into focus many challenges facing us in the 21st century and why our work at civic sociology to solve local and regional problems in ethical ways is ever more urgent.

The challenge question for the prize, ‘What kinds of policies will enable left behind places to catch-up?’ channelled my interest in positive solutions to the seemingly intractable problem faced by societies dealing with changes in the knowledge economy and the rise of populist politics. The particular solution I recommend in the essay, called ‘CRAFT houses’, has now been published by Prospect magazine and describes connections between the project idea and the original, historical version of ‘civic sociology’ practiced by Scottish sociologist, Patrick Geddes, we are trying to recover here at the journal.

I am therefore most grateful for the opportunity the prize provides in terms of highlighting the potential I see for a reconstructed civic sociological approach to social problems. In this blog post I would like to add a bit of further detail describing the approach we took when developing this project idea when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Exeter. 

The project took shape at a time when the university and higher education sector in general began investment in what is called ‘impact’, as incentivised in the UK within the government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Industrial Strategy Research Fund, and specific programmes within research councils, such as the ESRC’s ‘Impact Acceleration’ funding. 

Within this policy environment, where social impact is being promoted more than ever before, I was struck by the relative lack of immediate involvement by sociologists, who you would think might have a thing or two to say about society, social problems and so on. But, what about solutions? As I’ve written about theoretically and historically, sociology has engaged with professional and public problem-solving less and less over time.

In an effort to see if this trend could be turned around through open dialogue with an emerging network of partners, researchers and university administrators – called ‘professional services’ in the UK – I highlighted the potential for civic sociology to be effective in facilitating integrated and systemic interventions in local and regional contexts. 

One challenge in securing funding initially was the need to have publications – or ‘outputs’, which could be pegged to the proposed initiatives. While I was able to point to my prior articles on the need for what I called ‘pragmatic public sociology’, and the articles mentioned above that suggested sociology has historically been more directly involved in both analysing and delivering public policy than it is today, it was still somewhat of an uphill battle to recognise this early stage theoretical and historical postdoctoral research as comparable to that of professors, who could draw on a longer track record of publications. 

Still, with the support of the university’s ‘engaged researcher’ fund, I managed to organise a ‘rolling workshop’ of stakeholders and academics, including several involved in the journal’s editorial board. Vivienne Baumfield, Jane Elliott, Mike Finn and others contributed to our interdisciplinary discussion thinking through how a cooperative housing experiment could involve early career professionals in more-or-less ‘left-behind’ regions, which might, in turn, produce particular opportunities as well as challenges, such as how to mitigate effects of pre-existing social inequalities and gentrification.

External partners, including Co-Lab, Tech Exeter, Greater Exeter as well as city council officials in both housing and commercial development ensured that our intended theoretical framework, drawn from Andrew Abbott’s notion of ‘linked ecologies’ meant that our solutions were not merely those to academic puzzles, but genuinely addressed the needs of the community, local government and economy.

Certainly the most rewarding element of the process, for me, was working with Carl Fraser of Situation Architecture, who is also researching spatial and political developments in cities and is a member of the editorial board here at the journal. Visiting sites recommended by the city council, including abandoned (and unused) World War II era de-gasing brick buildings, and more-or-less abandoned office space positioned above the expensive high street ground-level felt like a truly creative process in which we explored ideas for what an actual manifestation of the project idea might look like. Carl further developed these ideas for our workshops into designs to help the group visualise the potential workings of the CRAFT house network as it could be institutionalised within the specific location of greater Exeter. This drew not only on available spaces in the city, but the entire history of the region. Again, we tried to follow the approach recommended by Patrick Geddes all those years ago, which seemed to work rather well!

When I left Exeter for Manchester to join the Manchester Institute of Education in September last year, the project went on temporary hold. But, I have begun the work of building up a new network of partners in the even more promising regional area of Greater Manchester with its devolved government authority. For this reason, I am thrilled that the work we have done together to develop the CRAFT house idea has been recognised by the Bennett Institute as a robust solution to a major problem facing us not only in Britain, but around the world. Indeed, our intention was always to think of a scalable, socially generative solution that could be implemented, not only in Exeter, but across the country and beyond.

In describing the process through which the idea came to be where it is today, I also wish to highlight the important of retaining a civic sociological approach, in which the particularities and history of place is necessary to consider, even when developing a solution which hopefully translates across specific regional boundaries. I am thrilled to see civic sociology beginning to make a difference in how we might think through such big, global problems at the level of concrete, local solutions and grateful for the recognition by the Bennett Institute and Prospect Magazine in awarding this prize.