How do you teach an elephant to tapdance? How do you get big slow lumbering beasts like states and city governments to make rapid and broad changes to the way they do things? These are questions posed by a bunch of academics (many based in Greater Manchester) in a rather interesting collection published this year. Beware though, this is a book by academics for academics, and as such Joe Public and Jane Activist are going to struggle.* That’s a pity, but to be expected (complaining about the lack of clarity and verve in academic writing is like complaining about the lack of car chases in Proust).
The book’s focus, as the subtitle suggests, is on “intermediaries” – individuals and organisations that try to act as ‘go-betweens’ to make new things happen (or keep things the same…). According to the authors “The key policy and research interest lies in ascertaining whether intermediaries can effect systemic change to urban infrastructures, in particular in the interest of advancing more sustainable modes of production and consumption.”
While none of the chapters is a “dud,” several stand out as particularly useful to activists. Sally Randles and Sarah Mander of Tyndall Manchester look at the way the Internet encourages the taking of flights that might otherwise not happen, and how this is an unacknowledged problem for efforts to reduce carbon footprints. (Of course, you can always do what Manchester City Council and AGMA do in their climate strategies – pretend their Airport doesn’t exist!!) Rebecca Whittle and Will Medd “Bridging the Recovery Gap” got people involved in helping Hull residents in the aftermath of the 2007 floods to keep diaries, and their article deserves especially wide readership in this new age of council cuts.
There are several case studies – on energy, water, and transport, buildings and so on. All of them are detailed and thought-provoking. The big gap, in this reviewer’s opinion, is on how publics are (dis)engaged from policy formation and implementation. The coming decades will need governments with a credibility that can only be won through extended and genuine dialogue. It would have been good to see work on adaptive leadership and what some call “shadow organisations.”
Other chapters, on including the “conceptual framework” quartet that makes up the book’s first section, will appeal to the more theoretical reader. It’s not a book for the casual reader, but any academic working on these issues should have a copy, and a few could usefully find their way to the policy writers at local and regional level.
* Fear Not! The heroic staff of MCFLy will interview several of the authors over the coming months and cajole and threaten them into speaking English.
TITLE Shaping Urban Infrastructure: Intermediaries and the Governance of Socio-technical Networks
AUTHORS Simon Guy, Simon Marvin, Will Medd and Timothy Moss
ISBN 978 – 1- 84971 – 068 – 8
PAGES 217 + index
PRICE £65 (hardback)
[Disclosure: We asked for and received a copy of this book.]