I fail to see how anyone can work (especially if a Professor) in a Business or Management School and not have any contact with businesses or organisations, or even worse, any interest in how business or organisations really work or how they interact with society. For me it is vital for academics to get out and about and listen, discuss, debate and if possible assist in decisions and in shaping our world. It helps that I also enjoy it!
But this is now a less common view that it was previously and such engagement is often not recognised by academic paymasters who’d prefer us to focus alone on academic papers in high-ranking academic journals. But that’s a discussion for another day perhaps.
So, much of my ‘engagement’ is done on my own time and gets little, if any, acknowledgement as part of my academic role. That’s why on two nights last week I was listening and presenting in two very different places in Scotland, but which share a very common concern – having pride in their place and seeking to improve their towns and town centres.
I am fortunate enough to be involved in a Charrette process in Neilston, led by Tom Sneddon, a board member of Development Trust Association Scotland. The charrettes are designed to engage the local community in designing their town and town centre and improving what is there.
Last week’s charrette saw a large and hugely enthusiastic group discuss and debate the future of Neilston and the steps needed to enhance it. My role was to listen and learn and to help stimulate the discussion on the high street. It was a privilege, with two more formal events and other information gathering to be integrated and discussed with the community.
The following night I was the last speaker in an evening lecture series on town centres arranged by HADAS (Haddington and District Amenity Society). Haddington is different to Neilston but again people came out to debate and discuss the future of retailing and specifically Haddington and its town centre. Much of the groundwork has already been done here, as Haddington has produced a vision for its future and is now working on making it happen, based on its stunning urban fabric.
Despite being very different, at least two things linked the two events and the comments of the people present:
1. In both places a sense of belonging and pride in place simply flowed out from the participants. They like where they live and want to make it the best possible place they can. These communities have not given up or don’t care; they want their say and their opportunity to shape and deliver it.
2. So what’s stopping this? The second common theme was a distinct sense of powerless and hopelessness due to the reactions and behaviours of the local council. Now I can’t judge the rationality or truth in this view in Neilston and Haddington – council planners were present on both occasions, and it can be too easy to pass the blame to them – but in the face of communities coming together and trying to do positive things then surely the onus has to be on the council to help them, not to put barriers in their way.
If we can harness the enthusiasm and ideas shown in such places and show people that things can change and their views and desires can begin to be delivered, then we will stand a chance of having great places and towns across Scotland. And academics should be out and about trying to make this happen, if only to realise the limits of their understanding of real places.