The following is an outgoing address from President of RSA, Ron Martin. Professor Ron Martin, is Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Cambridge. His main research interests include the geographies of labour markets; regional development and competitiveness; the geographies of money and finance; geographical economics; and evolutionary economic geography. He has published some 35 books and monographs, and 200 articles, on these and related themes. Ron is a Fellow of the British Academy, and in 2016 was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Victoria Medal for outstanding contributions to economic geography and regional development studies. Ron is a Fellow of the British Academy, and in 2016 was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Victoria Medal for outstanding contributions to economic geography and regional development studies.
In November 2020 my five-year term as President of the Regional Studies Association came to an end. I had been looking forward to what would be my last President’s Event at the Association’s annual Winter Conference, held in each November, at which the President shares the pleasure of presenting the year’s various awards, and gives a short address prior to the Conference Dinner. Alas, because of the Covid-19 pandemic the Conference had to be cancelled. Had it taken place, I would have taken the opportunity of thanking the Association for the honour of being its President, and expressed my gratitude to Sally Hardy for all her support during my time in that role. I have thoroughly enjoyed my term as the President of what, under Sally’s outstanding leadership and commitment – supported by her excellent team – has become a leading world-wide body for promoting regional research and policy engagement. I have worked in various capacities with Sally for all of the 34 years she has led the Association, and have watched it grow and thrive under her custodianship.
It would also have been my pleasure to have to welcomed my successor, Professor John Agnew, at the University of California Los Angeles, and to extend him my very best wishes for his term in the office. I know he will make an excellent President. Further, it would have been my honour in announcing Professor Susan Fainstein, of Harvard University, as the recipient of the Sir Peter Hall Award, in recognition of her formative contributions over many years to urban planning and the study of cities. I know that the late Sir Peter would have been thrilled by the choice of Susan for the Award, especially given her work is in the very same disciplinary area in which he himself excelled.
As part of the proceedings I would also have given the last of my customary President’s Addresses. Mark Tewdwr-Jones, whose own term as Chair of the Association has also come to end, has kindly referred to my short addresses as ‘provocations’. I think that is a very generous depiction of those short missives! What I have merely done is to use the occasions to offer some personal thoughts on regional studies, why we do it, what it is (or should be) for, and for whom we do it, in the hope of stimulating some reflection amongst the wider regional studies membership. I do believe, however, that such reflection has now become more relevant and urgent than ever in the light of ongoing events and circumstances. This is the theme of the short text that follows, on which my Address would have been based.
The word ‘crisis’ is perhaps one of the most overused, even abused, terms in academic and popular commentary. Yet it is a highly pertinent description of the state of our contemporary world. We stand confronted not by one, but by the conjunction and intersection of several crises. Barely a decade after the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, in early-2020 the world was thrown into another crisis caused by the Covid-19 Global Pandemic, a public health emergency on a scale not seen since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. As states have resorted to the imposition of social and economic lockdowns in order to control the spread of the Coronavirus, so their economies have plummeted into a downturn that in many countries has been even deeper than that triggered by the Global Financial Crisis. In some cases, the collapse of economic output has been the worst on historical record. In the space of just over a decade, the world economy has experienced two dramatic disruptions that are only supposed to be ‘once-in-a-century’ events. Meanwhile, and to add to these historic disruptions, unless carbon emissions are soon reduced, mounting climate change will itself become a crisis of epic proportions.
What these crises and disruptions have served to highlight and intensify is a growing calamity of social and spatial inequality in the advanced economies, a trend that had in fact already been gathering pace since the 1980s. Economists have long argued that both social and regional economic disparities within countries tend to narrow as economies grow. While this may have been true in the post-war period up to around the 1980s or so, since then social and spatial inequalities have increased: convergence has been replaced by divergence. While some social groups – the highly educated, skilled, technical and professional – have seen their real incomes increase significantly, other groups – the less educated and less skilled – have lagged behind. Likewise, while certain regions, cities and localities have ‘pulled ahead’ in terms of economic prosperity, many other regions, cities and localities have failed to keep pace, and have been ‘left behind’.
As events over the past few years have demonstrated only too clearly, in many Western countries these social and spatial inequalities have reached levels that politicians and policymakers can now ill-afford to ignore. Many ‘left behind’ places have become key sites of social discontent. Across several of the advanced OECD countries the voting populations in ‘left behind places’ either feel forgotten by mainstream politicians and their policies, or at worst deliberately neglected by them in favour of the more prosperous places and the metropolitan centres where national political and economic elites themselves are typically concentrated. The electorates in many ‘left behind places’ have seen the ballot box as their last chance to reverse their lagging fortunes. Anti-establishment populist movements had been building in many Western advanced economies before the Global Financial Crisis, but have certainly intensified since. Both the surprising election of Donald Trump as President in the US, and the Brexit vote and election of Boris Johnson as Conservative Prime Minister in the UK, were fuelled by social discontent, especially in the places forgotten by the economic progress of recent decades.
And according to many reports, social and spatial inequalities could continue to widen still further within many advanced economies. If appropriate policy action is not taken, it is predicted that emerging ’smart’ technologies, the continuing shift in the global economic centre of gravity to South and East Asia, and attempts by states to reduce their historic levels of debt incurred in supporting jobs and businesses during the pandemic, could, in combination, further disadvantage less prosperous and less adaptive places while reinforcing the advantage of already leading knowledge hubs, capital cities and high-tech places.
So where does all this leave us in relation to forging an economic recovery from the Covid pandemic? What will a recovery look like – what should it look like? There is talk of everyday socio-economic life ‘returning to normal’ once populations are given the new anti-Covid vaccines. But this does not mean that economies will emerge from the pandemic unchanged. History suggests that major crises in the development of capitalism provide critical junctures for taking stock of our views of the world, of dominant approaches for understanding that world, and of our ideas on how to improve it. This was precisely what happened in response to the Great Depression of the interwar years and immediately following the Second World War itself, when, to varying degrees, Western states adopted a new social-democratic mode of economic growth and regulation, founded on an interventionist state and social welfare programs at home, and a regulated financial and trading system internationally, that helped to forge three decades of steady and stable economic development, until it was unwound from the late-1970s onwards. It has been under the neoliberal model that has held sway since that social and spatial inequalities have widened.
But we now stand at another historical critical juncture. There is a growing consensus that socio-economies may not, indeed should not, return to some pre-Covid status quo ante, but that instead policymakers should take this opportunity to ‘build back better’, to shift to a new regime of economic and social development. This of course immediately raises questions of ends and means: what precisely is (or should be) this new ‘better’, and what sort of policies will be needed to ‘build’ it?
A veritable flood of prescriptions has begun to fill our bookshelves. While these differ in their specifics, almost all argue that what is needed is a major ‘reset’ of capitalism, of its underpinning societal imperatives, economic logics and institutional organisation; that the task is that of ‘building forward’ to a system founded on different priorities that emphasise green growth, wellbeing, health, quality of life, and environmental sustainability, rather than solely the pursuit of material wealth that has underpinned neoliberalism. There are calls for a ‘new economics of belonging’, a radical new approach to economic policy that addresses the basic causes of the inequality that exists in many societies, and that sets out what is needed to achieve a ‘just economy’ for everyone. An essential aspect of that just economy must be a ‘levelling up’ and revival of the places that have been ‘left behind’, to bring them into the mainstream of economic prosperity.
Where does regional studies stand in relation to all this? Given the current scale of regional and local social economic inequalities, in many instances now wider than at any time since the interwar years, the relevance of regional studies – with its key concern with the causes and consequences of geographically uneven development – has arguably never been greater.
By any criteria, regional studies now comprises an impressive range of insights into regional and local development, and the Association and its members have been at the vanguard of many of these advances. We know much about the characteristics associated with regional, city and local economic success – such as skills, innovation, entrepreneurship, modern infrastructure and good local governance. It is tempting to then turn 180 degrees, as it were, and argue that these are therefore the very features needed to ‘level up’ and build prosperity in the ‘left behind’ places. But is this enough? To be sure, policies aimed at improving skills, innovation, entrepreneurship, and so on, in ‘left behind’ places will all be necessary going forward. But will they be sufficient? I suggest not. Is it not also necessary to ask why many places have been unable to develop the attributes associated with economic prosperity, why they have been ‘left behind’? While locally-specific causes and factors will of course have been involved, the growth of social and spatial economic inequalities over the past four decades has been inextricably bound up with the very nature of the socio-economic-political growth model – its particular constellation of ‘big processes’ and ‘large structures’ – that has driven advanced capitalism over this time, and which is now being questioned. ‘Building back better’ is all about resetting that growth model, and regional studies scholars need to engage with – and indeed seek to influence – this resetting.
This means addressing the ‘big processes’ that have driven spatial socio-economic inequality and which need to be rethought. Once such is globalisation. There is no doubt that globalisation has helped lift millions out of poverty in developing and emerging countries. But at the same time, it has served to increase regional and local socio-economic inequalities within the advanced economies, as highly unbalanced trade with lower-cost countries, and the offshoring and outsourcing of production and jobs to the latter has particularly hit many places and communities in the former. The pandemic has shown just how vulnerable globally distributed production networks and supply chains – and the regions and cities that depend on them – have become.
Has globalisation gone too far? How can we globalise better? How can the advanced economies help their vulnerable and ‘left behind places’ to better adapt to globalisation? After all, rampant unrestrained globalisation is not some ineluctable force of nature, like gravity, to which regions, cities and localities have no option but to bend, but is in large part a political construction, shaped by the values and ideologies of individual states, global institutions and today’s global corporations. What is needed is a new construction of common rules on finance, the taxation of global corporations,  environmental standards, and labour standards, all underpinned by a commitment to reduce social and regional inequalities within countries. It is incorrect to assume there is a trade-off between globalisation and regulation, or between globalisation and the pursuit of social and spatial equity.
Likewise, there is a need to make technological change more inclusive. Unfortunately, history indicates that previous industrial-technological revolutions have been far from spatially neutral in their effects, and have tended to widen social and spatial inequalities. The latest revolution – the so-called Fourth Industrial-Technological Revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, robotics, new materials, advanced digital platforms, and medical technologies – could be no less socially and spatially divisive in its creative and destructive consequences for jobs and incomes: indeed, there are signs that this is already happening. We understand the role of ‘brain hubs’, ‘star cities’, ‘high technology clusters’ and the like in driving technological advance. But we know less about how to spread the prosperity-creating and social benefits of technological change more evenly and equitably across regions, cities and localities, whilst simultaneously mitigating the local impact of the disruptive effects of such change.
Then there is the issue of cities, especially big cities. Both academic work and policy discourse has become obsessed with the advantages of large and dense cities, and with agglomeration. Of course, cities confer all sorts of positive externalities that promote prosperity. But do those benefits simply increase linearly with city size and city density? The COVID-19 pandemic has struck at the heart of cities, with an estimated 90 percent of confirmed cases worldwide reported in urban areas. High rates of density, cultural and social gatherings, public transportation, the intermingling of diverse business and creative networks—many of the traits that define the uniqueness of cities – have proved to be vulnerabilities. Further, big cities do not always score the most highly in terms of quality of life. The shift to online retailing, accelerated by the pandemic, is likely to continue post-Covid, as is the shift to homeworking amongst city office workers during the pandemic lockdowns. None of this suggests of course that the age of urbanisation is over or that agglomeration in unimportant: cities are indispensable to human progress. But perhaps now is the time to reimagine our cities, their role and structure, to highlight the social, environmental and health benefits of lower density, as well as the advantages of smaller cities, many of which are just as, if not more, economically dynamic as large cities.
What the pandemic has also activated is a return of large-scale state spending. States have dramatically increased spending to support businesses, jobs and workers in the pandemic. Are we now witnessing a revival of the state and an end to austerity? It is crucial that once the pandemic is past states do not then seek to reduce debt levels through another round of fiscal austerity, given the enormous damage to public services, especially in less prosperous regions, cities and localities, wrought by the austerity programmes pursued following the Global Financial Crisis. Given that the costs of borrowing are at an all-time historic low, states have a major opportunity to rebuild their economies by upgrading infrastructures, investing in green technologies, in public health facilities, in labour skilling, and support for business and innovation. As Mariana Mazzucato has so convincingly argued, the time has come for a new discourse on government activity as productive and essential to creating a dynamic and fair capitalist economy. And as part of this new discourse, there is a need to consider how government activity can be harnessed, in collaboration with and by devolving more power to, local state authorities, to renew, reorientate and level up the economies of ‘left behind’ places. In short, a key question is what form should the post-Covid state take, particularly as a strategic agent of inclusive and sustainable development?
These are just a few of the questions and issues concerning the state of our world which need to be scrutinised if it is to be ‘rebuilt better’. Many more could be listed. The key point is that in every case there are implications for regional development and the role of regional policy – and thus a major opportunity for regional studies to shape the new discourse. In so doing, I believe, we must be willing to engage more explicitly with normative issues in our analyses and engagement, and to make our positions clear. There are some, I know, who may be uncomfortable with that, who believe that our work should always seek to be objective, and that normative issues, to do with positions on social and spatial justice, should follow on from what empirics reveal, rather than influencing our prior choice of theories and methods. But there is no such thing as objective research: all approaches embody some normative position, some underlying values, of one sort or another. Regional studies, like all social science, must surely be about not just helping to understand the world, but also about helping to improve it. If this brief address has a ‘provocative’ message, it is a call for a ‘melioristic turn’ in regional studies, an enhanced explicit focus on research and policy engagement committed to the prosecution of just and equitable regional development. Perhaps as never before in the history of regional studies – and the Association – ‘building back better’ has taken on an urgency that behoves us to make such a ‘turn’.
 As such it is certainly not meant to be a fully referenced (or refereed) academic paper.
 Although this is the name given to the H1N1 virus pandemic of 1918-1919, there is no universal consensus regarding where it originated. Some of the earliest cases were in fact in the United States.
 The phrase comes from Martin Sandbu (2020) The Economics of Belonging, Princeton University Press.
 Global corporations – including the giant info-tech companies – have perfected the art of tax avoidance using complex mixtures of debt shifting, tax havens to register intangible assets, and transfer pricing strategies. Using such devices, these companies accumulate wealth by using places to extract value which is then sheltered in a few favoured locations. It has been estimated that multinational companies shift over $400billion in profits out of 79 countries each year. This equates to about US$125billion in lost tax revenue in those countries (see https://descrier.co.uk/business/how-multinational-corporations-avoid-paying-hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars-in-tax/), the governments of which could otherwise use to provide essential public services and infrastructures.
 It has been estimated that up to thirty percent of workers in cities could work from home, either full-time or part-time, without any loss of productivity. Most of such workers are in knowledge-intensive, professional, finance and business services (see https://blogs.deloitte.co.uk/mondaybriefing/2020/10/home-working-and-the-future-of-cities.html).
 See Mariana Mazzucato (2013) The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths and (2018) The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy.
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