In a globalising world, many countries, regions and cities face similar challenges. As a result, governments and policy-makers increasingly look for policy solutions, ideas and ‘good practice’ examples from other countries, seeking to adapt them to their domestic contexts. At the same time, certain states or supranational and international organisations are keen to export their policy approaches and tools to other countries for pragmatic or normative reasons striving to project some of its policy norms and values beyond its borders. This is exemplified by the increasingly prominent dialogues on regional and urban policy between the EU and the major developing countries, including China, Brazil and other Latin American countries. Such processes of transnational learning, import/export of models and exchange of knowledge on policy approaches are embedded in international relations, diplomacy or para-diplomacy, and relate to an expanding range of policy areas, involving governmental and non-state actors at multiple territorial levels.
While this phenomenon appears increasingly commonplace, there are few studies looking at the policy transfer in the field of regional and urban development policy, even though such transfer does take place, as illustrated by the diffusion of place-based approaches to regional policy among the OECD countries, adoption of shared regional policy practices across the EU Member States through processes of Europeanisation, or cross-national cooperation on development of industrial parks and eco-cities in East Asia.
The workshop on Monday 19 January 2015, taking place in Berlage Rooms in the Faculty of Architecture of TU Delft, tackled this under-researched topic from both theoretical and practical perspectives, looking at cross-national transfer and learning in the fields of regional and urban development policy as well as in spatial planning and related topics in the EU context and in other parts of the world.
The workshop was hosted by the Chair of Spatial Planning & Strategy and co-organised by the European Policies Research Centre (University of Strathclyde) and the Department of European Studies at Poznań University of Economics, in collaboration with the partners within the RSA Research Network on EU Cohesion Policy and with support of the Regional Studies Association.
It was a day of intense and inspired debates. The conference was kicked-off by two keynote lectures of exceptional standing, delivered by Professor Andreas Faludi (TU Delft) and Professor Alan Gilbert (UCL), both undisputed authorities in their respective fields of European spatial planning (Faludi), and employment, urbanisation and regional development in developing countries (Gilbert).
Starting off from the premise that policy transfer has been the ‘engine of Europeanisation’, as noted by Professor Andreas Faludi, there was also discussion of the fact that policy transfer in the field of regional and urban policy has been nevertheless characterised by many failures (‘a history of failure’, in the words of Professor Gilbert). The keynotes were followed by interventions by two discussants, Roberto Rocco (TU Delft), one of SPS experts on Latin America, and Prof. Wil Zonneveld (TU Delft), a regional planning specialist, pointing to further policy transfer pitfalls and difficulties that were debated throughout the event.
And indeed, the conference provided many examples of failure in cross-national lesson-drawing. Gilles Lepesant, for example, in his appraisal of the Eastern partnership’s ENP programme, warned about the need to be careful not to replicate some of the mistakes in Cohesion policy while transferring its aspects to the EU’s neighbours and about the problems stemming from not having taken into due account shortages of administrative capacity, institutional settings, political tensions, and the difficult path of institutional reform in the Eastern Partnership countries. In his presentation, focused on Ukraine, he stressed that transfer required flexibility, adaptation and a process of creative re-elaboration. Ebru Ertrugal, in her paper on Turkey, discussed the limits of policy transfer when it is ‘imposed’ rather than emerging from a genuine desire to learn and find better solutions to policy problems. She showed that policy transfer is actually not always based on the ‘evidence’ of success of the practices adopted in other policy settings (e.g. no evaluations or feasibility studies) and that there can be hidden enemies (e.g. bureaucrats opposing change, despite politicians’ pressures) whose reluctance towards ‘forced’ adoption can lead to a rather fruitless process of emulation. In other words, she demonstrated that attempts at policy transfer cannot be parachuted down and imposed coercively (as also emerged in other papers, e.g. Dorina Pojani and Dominic Stead’s).
A number of papers (Ida Musiałkowska, Marcin Dąbrowski and Laura Polverari; Viktor Varjú and others) discussed the barriers to cross national learning and policy transfer. Corruption of policy-makers by foreign providers of technology and infrastructure emerged various times in presentations (e.g.Gilbert) and discussions, as did the opposite side of the coin: trust (e.g. Györgyi Nyikos and Ren Thomas et al.).
Whilst the papers and discussion focused at length on the many things that can and have gone wrong with policy transfer in regional and urban development policy, at the same time they also allowed participants to put their (often negative) assessments into context. First, in part at least, the difficulty of appraising cross-national policy transfer in the regional and urban policy field as a success story, lies with how success is
perceived and communicated. At the end of the day, policy transfer is a process; as such it may not necessarily entail clear-cut outcomes and therefore it cannot be articulated easily as a success story (even when important lessons have been learnt and usefully integrated in the policy cycle).
Second, policy-makers tend to resort to transfer and lessons-drawing when they have a dilemma, a puzzle, a new problem that they need to solve, or when a problem has proven untreatable, thus requiring different solutions than those already attempted. Some of the papers presented at the conference dealt with
environmental issues (Varjú), sustainable urban and metropolitan growth (Simonetta Armondi, Carola Fricke), the integrated development of macro-regions (Nyikos), and the implementation of new transport strategies that challenge conventional thinking (Asya Bidordinova): these are all particularly challenging fields, where policy needs are either novel or very rapidly evolving. In a way, thus, policy transfer is from the start at a disadvantage and unlikely to succeed, if success is defined narrowly as policy effectiveness.
Third, the papers emphasised that the adaptation of policy solutions is as difficult as it is necessary. There are many dimensions or components to policy transfer, most of which are not readily transferrable (Thomas et al.) and ‘there are no good practices that can be translated just like currency’.
In sum, many messages emerged from the conference and probably the key thing that participants took with them was that one can learn a lot from the mistakes and the failures – those cases where policy transfer has been attempted unsuccessfully, because the aspects transferred have not performed as desired. And one can learn a lot also from failed attempts at policy transfer and lessons drawing, by reflecting on the factors of successful implementation and governance of specific aspects of regional and urban policy, as the papers presented at the conference did.
Some presentations had the common theme the role of elites and experts. Guillermo Jajamovich, for example, showed how important pre-existing links between experts from across the Atlantic have been in shaping up the Puerto Madero development, in Argentina. One side effect of the conference was thus to make participants reflect about their role as academics and the type of research that they want to engage with; notably whether they wish and attempt to have an impact, by providing an understanding of the causal mechanisms that may inform, allow or prevent change. This was the intensions of conference organisers and one of the ambitions behind the conference, which was not disappointed.
The conference was a fruitful opportunity to discuss emerging research in this light. Many, if not most, of the papers presented were still work in progress. The conference provided a valuable opportunity for constructive and informed exchanges, both among the academics and practitioners present (Committee of the Regions, Wielkpolska Region’s Brussel Office). These debates will hopefully improve the many strands of research presented and will be continued in a forthcoming special issue on the theme of policy transfer in the fields of regional and urban development.
(This report from the workshop was prepared by Laura Polverari, EPRC, University of Strathclyde)
- Presentations are available for download here.