Of small flats and small expertise

Today the Guardian newspaper published a lovely piece by blogger Penny Anderson on what it’s like to live in one of those gezillions of flats that have gone up in recent years. Once any rubbish has been built, it takes many residents and their miseries before things get better again.

In architecture it is best then not to make mistakes in the first place even if it’s fair to say that the major mistake is the government’s, for allowing Europe’s smallest homes to get built in the first place. And that’s before we’ve made any comment on any other qualities or on the liberal use of the word ‘luxury’ in their marketing materials.

Meanwhile, I’m seriously worried about the knowledge base on which the construction and maintenance of my everyday surroundings depends. I’m almost as worried by the idea that the way to fix this is simply to make politics nicer by getting everyone involved.

The way I see it at the moment, is that official knowledge producers are creating a lot standardised ‘evidence’ of dubious value, while meaningful public involvement is constrained by the usual power games and while volumes of academic critique are being ignored.

I’ll take each complaint in turn, but very, very briefly. I’d love to hear any comments on any of them.

First. Officially produced knowledge. This is expertise that everybody else relies on and that’s regulated either internally (through membership of professional bodies) or externally (legal and regulatory oversight). It might be worth spelling out that expertise matters because good decisions require good knowledge. Hence also, I suppose, the attractiveness of and fashion for ‘evidence based policy’.

Empirically speaking, there is an awful lot of knowledge in the world, and much of it is being operationalised all the time – whether to heal the sick, build palaces or fix malfunctioning cameras.

But there is also a staggering amount of supposed evidence about this or that issue of public or private concern that is little more than vacuous noise. (Add to this information produced to market consumer goods and try to escape paralysis!) Partly this is a result of ‘advances’ in information technology, partly a response to perceived shortcomings in the experts’ and decision makers’ moral backbone. I.e. we don’t trust decision makers so we ask for transparency instead. Noise dressed up as evidence is what we get.

So, the work of more and more professionals today is about amassing more and more … not new knowledge but rather, evidence to show that what they are doing is right and proper. Alas, the call for always more evidence is ludicrous given that the world is already awash with information, and the planning world particularly so. (We can still consider ourselves lucky. By some estimates more than 5,000 medical research papers are published every day!)

Let’s be clear: there is an excess of information, not a deficit.

Two, meaningful public participation. Suffice to say, government initiatives like Statements of Community Involvement are little more than documents of gobbledy-gook that outline what a public authority thinks looks good. If you look carefully, you’ll see the non-department responsible for the built environment, Communities and Local Government, at least recognised in 2006 that there might be some little problems here.

Three, academic critique that gets ignored. Simply put, looking into the practicalities of participatory planning in this country, I have come across a mountain of critical analyses of where public participation goes wrong, and even about why it may not be such an obviously virtuous goal in the first place. Meanwhile, policy documents and public statements never cease to bleat on about the importance of involving the local community or, where they’re alert to the patronising tones in that kind of language, of ensuring a degree of public participation.

Meanwhile, I fear that much of what is important in the real world goes undetected and unaddressed.

Market work (where standard numeric measures have effects and glossiness counts for more than facts) has enveloped knowledge work (where things are different) and enfeebled it.

Having contributed this way to the suffocating surfeit of information, I’d like to think there has to be a way for architecture, planning, urban design and all the expert domains involved in regeneration, to develop in such a way that market work would get less priority. That way, already, I think we might bet better buildings and better places automatically.

p.s. a couple of places to go to look for references, not all of which I’ve read of course, are

Dr Simone Abram’s list of publications, here

Dr Rob Atkinson’s list of publications, here

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