Meet Professor Stephan Weiler, Fulbright Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Birmingham – Part Three

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Professor Stephan Weiler is currently visiting City-REDI as a Fulbright Distinguished Research Chair. The Fulbright Distinguished Chair Awards are viewed as the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program, a global exchange program now in existence for over seventy years. In a series of blogs, Stephan will introduce himself and outline how this partnership came about. In the final blog Stephan will discuss what his Fulbright Scholarship will entail for City-REDI, the West Midlands, and other evolving regions across around the globe:

I hope that my living, working, and becoming involved in the city and region will directly contribute to the various constituencies – academic and non-academic – in Birmingham. In turn, the experience will yield long-term benefits to my own research program, particularly in terms of my ability to assess and address a wider range of economic development challenges back in the US. Part of my passion for studying regions and their economies is that it is a unique way to understand, become involved in, and contribute to solutions to the particular problems of a place; past examples range from Denver’s downtown redevelopment to restructuring labour markets in largely-rural West Virginia. As I have found throughout my career, the effectiveness of all three efforts – understanding, involvement, and contribution – depends on their interaction. The proper statistical modelling of regional economies depends on knowing what factors are important, how they fit together, and why they might shape a region’s future. Working directly with other scholars at City-REDI, jointly reflecting, probing, exploring, has been extraordinarily stimulating, especially at this stage of my career.

Our collaboration focuses on better understanding stagnating and restructuring areas and industries as well as gleaning lessons from more dynamic areas. This unifying informational component is really the heart of the collaborative research agenda. Universities create information. We believe that much of it is useful beyond the ivory tower, certainly in an economic development context, but usually isn’t directed at the audiences who need it most. Too often, economically peripheral regions remain peripheral, isolated from dynamic industries and places that themselves would also benefit from broader regional linkages. Our collaboration directly addresses this lack of connection by making the project’s informational role paramount. As my own research has shown over the last two decades, struggling regions’ lack of information about entrepreneurial prospects and potential regional linkages is a key reason for their continuing stagnation. The UK vote to exit the European Union underscores the broader impacts of localized economic difficulties, as deindustrializing areas were especially likely to vote for leaving. In that vein, the project can also shed light on the impact of globalization, uneven job loss, skill imbalances, and transition costs for affected populations. The ongoing uncertainty at the European and national levels reinforces the importance of well-informed devolved decision-making at the local and regional levels.  Fresh, relevant, and effectively presented information flows from universities can help tip the balance towards economic dynamism – and can reinforce the momentum of successful regions.

Universities create information which is useful for the economic development of areas, but this information isn’t always directed at the right audience

One of the most synergistic elements of partnered regional economic development research is precisely its ambassadorial nature, in that the West Midlands themselves are not only the site of my visit but also its direct purpose. I can channel my background and experiences in regional development directly towards local and regional topics, helping to inform and add to the insights and perspectives of the host institution. In particular, lessons from the US policy structure that leaves key economic development decisions to states and localities can be used to better understand and plan for the ongoing devolution occurring in the UK, with the West Midlands being among the regional leaders in forging fresh terrain with the channels now open with devolution. In keeping with the core theme of this collaboration, a crucial element to the success of local and regional decision-making is that officials have the proper training and information to make critical economic development decisions. Universities are ideally placed to provide that training and information. As I return to the US, I can bring back the lessons from the UK’s recent emphasis on regions and localities to help inform and improve decision-making at home.

In that sense, the usual benefits of a six-month cultural exchange are inherently deeper, as the focal topics are in fact the places themselves and their decision-making communities. In that spirit, working with the Institute of Advanced Studies and the College of Social Sciences, on the 1st of May I gave a Business School Lecture motivating our research agenda by addressing why Place Matters as a key to Unlocking the Growing Global Inequality Puzzle. Special invitational workshops and seminars on empirical methods, modelling, and economic development practice will complement the Business School Lecture, with the eventual goal of generating a special issue of a major journal. You can view the slides and listen to the audio from the lecture below.

We have already created dedicated sessions at disciplinary and inter-disciplinary conferences, with plans for more such special sessions. Disseminating the collaboration’s findings is a primary goal of the partnership, across a variety of fields from economics to geography to planning to policy. The collaboration’s partners are keen to have their integrated perspective endorsed by top field and generalist journals; all have experience publishing in both types of outlets, and the collaborative research projects will target those journals as well. All these channels would help lead to the generalizability of the insights and lessons from the project’s collaboration, opening the doors to public, private, and nonprofit audiences to tools that can help them make informed decisions that ultimately will shape the region’s prospects in the years and decades to follow. Similarly, the intensive Fulbright residence itself will provide the necessary crucible teamwork that can strengthen an already-productive research partnership, which can then continue evolving in both the US and UK as well.

This blog was written by Professor Stephan Weiler, Director, REDI@CSU, Colorado State University and Fulbright Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Birmingham. 

You can read Part One here.

You can read Part Two here.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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