Julie Mennes

Overcoming epistemological barriers for urban planning. What can we learn from Sheffield?

Back in 1936, when the steel industry still ruled Sheffield, George Orwell was not impressed by the city’s appearance, nor by its living conditions. In his essay ‘North & South’ he writes

“Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas.”

Anno 2016, Orwell would be glad to revise his words. After the steel industry disappeared, the city unfolded ambitious regeneration plan. Its implementation is still ongoing, but the results are already clearly visible: cultural and green spaces have been created, social housing has been optimized and local economy has gotten a boost. The success of Sheffield’s regeneration plan is a big achievement. Knowledge and know-how from multiple disciplines such as architecture, sociology, social work and business science had to be integrated. This required overcoming several epistemological barriers as the disciplines have different methodologies, different underlying theories of explanation and causation and other levels of description.

I visited Sheffield on a ‘short term scientific mission’ to learn more about these barriers, and how they are dealt with. More specifically, I interviewed six people with different backgrounds and functions who were all committed to the city’s development and regeneration.
My first interviewee works as a policy officer for the city council. She coordinates the ‘Sheffield Smart Lab’, a project which supports entrepreneurs and start-ups who want to bring new innovations to the city. The next three interviewees are academics from the University of Sheffield. Two of them, a principal investigator and a researcher, are currently collaborating with the Sheffield fire service to improve fire prevention. The third academic is associated with the ‘Centre of Excellence in Terrorism, Resilience, Intelligence and Organized Crime Research’. He uses his expertise in conceptual structures to make databases designed for computer processing also accessible for humans. The last two interviewees are policy advisors. The first is managing director of a social enterprise that supports communities and local governments in place making. In the past, the enterprise took a leading role in the establishment of ‘Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter’, i.e. a space for music, film and science. The second policy advisor works for an infrastructure support service provider. The main aim of this company is to optimize infrastructure works in order to limit city project expenses as well as their related social and environmental costs.

When asked what epistemological barriers they encounter during daily interdisciplinary practice, the interviewees almost unanimously replied ‘terminological ambiguity’. One interviewee indicated that his team had struggled with the notion ‘model’, another gave the example of problems with the term ‘service’. Ambiguous terms can be harmful for communication when they remain unnoticed. Once identified, an interdisciplinary group can reach agreement on a shared and unambiguous use of the ambiguous terms. However, the collective process of ‘meaning negotiation’ might take a while. In the case of ‘service’, the disambiguation took a full month.

Another epistemological barrier that was mentioned repeatedly, is the problem of combining the methodologies and data of all partners. Therefore, the interviewees prefer to limit the number of partners in interdisciplinary projects. When a project requires a big group, a leading figure is required. He or she should have a strong vision on the project, give clear instructions to the partners and coordinate their efforts.

Finally, several interviewees indicated that they had troubles finding the right partners for collaboration, i.e. partners with whom they can easily communicate. Three of the interviewees explicitly indicated that they prefer to work with people they already have a good relation with. They want their partners to be open-minded and not afraid to talk about deficiencies in their knowledge. Even more important is that they are eager learners. They have to be prepared to invest time and energy to familiarize with other disciplines in order to develop common ground. One interviewee also stressed the importance of finding the right balance: collaborating parties should be careful not to blend up to a point where they risk losing their disciplinary identities because “you don’t want to end up with grey plasticine!”

The take-home message of my research visit to Sheffield could be that interdisciplinary partners should always reflect on their language, respect the input of other partners, be prepared to learn about other disciplines, and, of course, know how to work their Play-Doh.

Author:   Ms Julie MENNES