Skills gaps and stereotypes

Joanie Willett, ‘Challenging peripheralising discourses: using evolutionary economic geography and complex systems theory to connect new regional knowledges within the periphery’, Journal of Rural Studies 73 (2020), pp.87-96

This latest article by Joanie Willett, co-director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, is heavy on theory. However, hiding amongst the dense undergrowth of concepts and references are some useful observations. The article basically sets out to address ways in which stigmatising discourses of peripheral regions as ‘backward’, ‘slow’ or ‘traditional’ might be challenged from within the region.

It does this by employing two theoretical packages. The first is evolutionary economic geography (EEG), which emphasises how regions adapt in response to their changing environments. This is combined with a complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach, which is claimed to open up new possibilities of thinking about regions through its focus on flows of information and self-organisation.

The claim to newness is perhaps a little over-stated. EEG/CAS allows the possibility of seeing regions as bounded but also connected to socio-economic and political environments beyond the region. Yet the same point was being made by Doreen Massey and the new regional geography back in the 1980s. Moreover, the emphasis of CAS on ‘knowledge’, meaning ‘know-how’ within regional economies as well as the representations created about regions, also echoes earlier thinking. The ‘knowledge economy’, contrasting with the old material economy, has been around since the 1990s when it was the buzz-words of the Blairite Government.

Central to this article is the stress in CAS on the importance of flows, connectivity and public engagement. The assumption is that knowledge, in the sense of knowing how the regional economy is performing, where skills gaps are emerging and what training or re-training is most required, can then help people construct a new narrative of the region, one that challenges the older stigmatising discourses.

The article moves on to a comparison of two post-industrial regions, the Mount Rogers district of Virginia in the US and Cornwall, focusing on top-down policy initiatives and information flows. The main contrast between these two regions is that in Virginia the district is losing population whereas in Cornwall the rate of population growth is increasing. But this article finds another important contrast. In Cornwall, planners and decision-makers are more likely to be locked into a path-dependent discourse and trapped in an informational closed system, unable to transcend traditional stereotypes of Cornwall as ‘remote’ and a ‘lifestyle’ destination. Although focusing on the new sectors of digital technology, creative industries and food production, decision makers struggle to build any bridges to the public.

As a result, serious misunderstandings about the regional economy persist among the general public. They fail ‘to spot other major sectors beyond tourism’. At the same time ‘rather than find better information feedback-loops, planners assume that the problem is that local people do not aspire to better careers’. Consequently, they look outside the region to attract new entrepreneurs and labour.

This systemic blockage between new knowledges and the general public both result from and reinforce path-dependent narratives. The result is that people do not have the knowledge, either of new and emerging sectors in which they might get involved, or of the (more arguable) recent success of the regional economy in closing the gap with the centre. They are, by this logic, therefore unable to challenge ‘stigmatising perceptions of place’.

The question, not explored in this article, thus becomes why decision-makers and planners in Cornwall cling to peripheralising discourses. The answer may be that most of them are new to the region and unable to escape the narratives they bring with them, narratives heavily informed by holiday experiences and the pre-existing discourse of Cornwall as a place of leisure and hedonism. Unaware of the region’s history, they assume it merely needs more people like themselves. This makes them incapable of contesting the deadening effect of a well-funded tourist lobby experienced in using a supine local media to spread misinformation about its own role and mask the true function of this enclave sector.

While the conclusion of this article is that everyone has a potential role in constructing new narratives of the region and not just decision-makers, the solution may turn out to be a lot more radical than merely improving the general public’s knowledge of skill gaps.

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