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Mar 17, 2021
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Understanding Regional science, globalization and recession

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In recent times behavioral science – drawing on the insights of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and behavioral economics to better understand how and why people decide and act – has given us a new lens through which to better understand the real drivers of behavior for our citizens. The success of policy and public service campaigns have always depended on shaping the perceptions, decisions and actions of citizens, behavioral science has provided us with a powerful new tool to help improve the lives of the people we serve.

It could be argued that in the past most public service policy and communications were built on traditional economic assumptions, optimized for what might now be considered the experiences of ‘hypothetical humans’. For example, if we want to encourage a behavior, we should “fine people if they don’t do it” or alternatively we should “educate people of the benefits”.  

While ‘rationally’ these both sound like valid approaches, behavioral science is offering fresh and sometimes counterintuitive insights to help solve age-old problems (for example, making an opportunity seem limited to encourage a behavior, rather than discourage it). It’s important we recognize that for many of the challenges the public services continue to face, if the solution was purely rational or logical in nature, they would have already been solved.

It is argued in the paper that Regional science needs to rethink its theoretical frameworks and research agendas. Globalization and impending recession show starkly how too little attention has been paid to issues of finance and the supply of funds within economies. Too frequently business relationships have been seen as embedded in benign networks, neglecting issues of power, control and exclusion, the role of contracts and their enforcement, and the pursuit of inimitability to maximize rents. Rethinking these issues involves new perspectives to be developed on policy development, including the neglected significance of ‘bureaucratic politics’, and how policy interacts with communities to create outcomes on the ground. The paper seeks to stimulate a debate that is needed to keep Regional Science relevant.

Members of a discipline share common research questions, values they use to address normative issues, and a set of research methods. Collectively, the features of a discipline that are common to all of its members constitute its core. Disciplines – and their specializations – can also be defined by their boundaries. However, in the case of regional science, the boundaries are fuzzy. Because regional science has been influenced by economics, geography, urban and regional planning, sociology, political science, public administration, and transportation engineering, it overlaps to a significant degree with these “parent disciplines” so that clear cut boundaries do not exist. This article explores the core and, to a lesser degree, boundaries of regional science. No definition of a discipline should be considered final because its boundaries and core are subject to change. Because of this, it is necessary from time to time to re-examine our discipline. Just as disciplinary cores and boundaries are dynamic, so too are the pressing needs of the societies that research supports. Ideally, disciplinary shifts occur in response to societal needs, in ways that underscore rather than undermine disciplinary relevance. Therefore, the backdrop of societal relevance provides the context for our reconsideration of regional science’s core and boundaries

Neo-liberal ideologies continue to pervade the regional sciences and Australian regional and economic development policy. But is Neo-liberalism still our sharpest tool for creating adaptive regions in this post-globalized age of the ‘me’ individual? A paradigm shift is needed – one that takes us beyond Neo-liberalism and social capitalism and towards a renewed social liberalism. Such a transformation, it is argued, would better suit emerging policy needs in an unstable world. In this paper, the Sustainable Development Platform Method’s (SDPM) institutional governance design, core processes and knowledge sharing phases are explored to reveal their capacities for organizing power structures and relationships. Using the SDPM, regional development agents can create Deliberative Power Spaces where relational and structural power transparency is increased and subjected to social scrutiny and community interaction. Increased community ownership of power within regional development praxis can facilitate regional adaptability whilst fostering increased social responsibility and re-embedded social economies

Behavioral science is not a ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’ science. Humans are incredibly complex and the context in which a behavior occurs heavily shapes our actions. Because of this, it’s a discipline that requires ongoing experimentation and evaluation to reinforce its validity and applicability within modern society. The nature and structure of local government offers a perfect platform for this. By embracing a consistent way of thinking across all councils, we’ll be able to independently explore how we solve and better understand many of the universal challenges we face, accelerating our collective learning.

To increase the application of behavioral science across local government, we believe that more than an understanding of its theory is required, but a cultural shift in our willingness to take risks, experiment and test. Reinforcing the perception of risk is the concern that behavioral science always requires deep expertise. This is not the case. At its best, behavioral science provides a ‘check-list’ of simple yet fundamental questions like “How might we make this easier?” orHow might we deliver this message at the right time to trigger action?” These are sound challenges that certainly don’t require a PhD to understand – yet can be extremely powerful when executed.

Predicting the future is always fraught with danger but we can highlight anticipated shifts in focus.

We expect a more human centric approach to public service initiatives and communications, with fewer, more targeted programmes underpinned by a powerful learning agenda. We anticipate that this will begin to focus on an individual’s context, their existing emotional state or social restraints to responding (simply considering the timing of a message can be powerful!). We also expect a shift in the appreciation of behavior change being driven in a more holistic sense, from a single direct mail campaign, to an integrated experience, many with elements that don’t feel like Governmental communications at all.

David Ogilvy, the father of advertising and founder of Ogilvy & Mather, said: “Never stop testing and your advertising will never stop improving.” Behavioral science is not a panacea nor a silver bullet. It is a powerful tool that we should embrace and continue to experiment with. Contemporary behavioral frameworks provide a fresh lens helping us to better design initiatives and therefore more easily draw upon human biases and subconscious drivers in effective problem solving.

By embracing, creatively applying and experimenting with Behavioral Science, we’re finding more and more that our psychology – not technology – can make the biggest difference, and that the smart and small can yield valuable returns.

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