31 Jan 2017



Professor Ivan Turok, Executive Director of the Economic Performance and Development Programme, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa
Editor-in-Chief, Regional Studies

Email: iturok@hsrc.ac.za

A series of extraordinary challenges and risks are coming together and causing great uncertainty across the world. The anaemic and unbalanced recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has produced turbulent international markets. The instability coincides with a longer trend of rising social inequality, which is provoking discontent and disaffection in many regions and nations. There are multiple targets of this resentment, including international trade, refugees, business elites and the political establishment. The backlash is apparent in rising populism and nostalgic nationalism, resulting in protectionism, currency wars and resistance to immigration.

The Regional Studies journal was launched 50 years ago into a very different environment of relatively high and stable economic growth, when the benefits were shared more equally. This was an optimistic era of full employment, rising prosperity and diminishing regional inequalities. It was also a period of relative political stability and ignorance of global warming. Regional Studies was intended to stimulate research on how space, place and location mattered to economies and societies.

The 50th anniversary special issue of Regional Studies published this month reflects back on developments over this period and offers signposts for urban and regional research looking ahead. It outlines the changing international context for regional studies and identifies ways in which regional research is made more compelling by the threats and uncertainties confronting the world today, and the many anxieties facing localities and regions.

This is clearly a period of flux, in which circumstances are changing rapidly and unpredictably. Globalisation is under particular scrutiny, following decades during which regions and nations became intertwined through cross-border flows of trade, capital, labour, technology and information. The increasing openness of territorial boundaries and the integration of world markets rewarded highly-educated groups, well-positioned city-regions and selected emerging economies, shown by the rise of China. But freer trade and financial deregulation also caused volatility and instability. Deindustrialisation, privatisation and welfare reductions in many advanced economies enlarged social and spatial divisions and left working class communities worse off. People were told that governments can’t buck the market, and that there is no alternative.

Falling transport costs, human mobility and digital technologies prompted many economists to predict the death of distance and the demise of cities and regions. Geographers proposed more permeable concepts of the region, and focused more on the flows and relationships between regions. Intensified competition for trade, talent and investment amplified regional disparities by raising the stakes for winning, and leaving less-favoured places with lower wages and lost jobs, thereby fuelling the sense of injustice and anger. Regional research became a multi-disciplinary endeavour covering a range of disciplines beyond economic geography.

The impetus to hyper-globalisation has stalled since the Great Recession. Economic fragility, financial austerity and the rise of emerging economies in the East provoke fear and frustration in the West. People feel buffeted by forces beyond their control and increasingly question the benefits of interconnected world markets. Resentment towards new waves of immigration and international institutions is rising, epitomised by Brexit, despite the academic consensus that this is not in Britain’s interests.

Global trade and capital flows are being forced into reverse by rising protectionism and the dismantling of free-trade agreements, exemplified by the first steps of the Trump Presidency. At the very time when international cooperation is vital to mitigate the risks of climate change, illicit financial flows, escalating refugee crises and mounting threats to security and peace, popular opinion seems to favour going it alone. Enlightened thinking also risks being crowded out by uncompromising, partisan and chauvinistic reactions to unfolding events.

The implications for cities and regions of the fracturing of the international order are highly uncertain. Resurgent popular nationalism could inhibit foreign investment, access to external markets and scarce skills. It could force more reliance on local capabilities and domestic production. Patriotic impulses that challenge ossified structures and global cartels could potentially provoke a resurgence of regional enterprise and organic growth. Well-conceived policy reforms that disrupt business inertia could engender a wave of innovation and creativity based on smaller-scale production. Dynamic regional multipliers might be spurred by efforts to localise resource flows so as to secure the supply of food and scarce materials, to cut energy consumption and to regenerate degraded ecosystems – boosting the ‘circular economy’. Democratic constraints on business short-termism may also curb financial speculation and encourage longer-term investment in the real economy.

Furthermore, international disengagement might serve to bolster local and regional identities and renew a sense of place and belonging. This could elevate the obligations on civic leaders and rebuild confidence in the role of city and regional institutions. Against this, heightened perceptions of fear and insecurity could foster a ‘new tribalism’ through separatist movements, ethnic tensions, insurgent splinter groups and other inward-looking forces that escalate conflict and pull countries and regions apart. Much depends on whether democratic institutions are capable of responding to the genuine concerns of citizens and can meld different interests and values together in pursuit of shared agendas, collective solutions and a new social contract.

The case for regional studies is accentuated in all these scenarios. Systematic analyses of how different territories are adapting to the unravelling of globalisation and introducing more holistic and resilient strategies to cope with the turbulence are urgently needed. The world is also undergoing other complex transitions: towards a lower carbon future; an increasingly urban milieu; unprecedented technological advances; cultural intermingling, and new global geopolitical alliances. A new era is emerging in which the rules of the game are being rewritten. New relationships are being established between politics and the economy, between state institutions and markets, and between different places and territories. The regional dimension has been neglected in recent commentaries, but whether regions have the capabilities to influence these transitions and manage the risks they entail will have a major bearing on the outcome. The Regional Studies editorial team would welcome proposals for papers and special issues addressing the themes of regional transitions, shifting state-market relationships and new inter-regional connections in the context of stalled globalisation.


Professor Ivan Turok is Editor-in-Chief of Regional Studies and Executive Director at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa.


You can read the 50th anniversary special issue here.

Ivan Turok, David Bailey, Jennifer Clark, Jun Du, Ugo Fratesi, Michael Fritsch, John Harrison, Tom Kemeny, Dieter Kogler, Arnoud Lagendijk, Tomasz Mickiewicz, Ernest Miguelez, Stefano Usai & Fiona Wishlade

Michael Keating

Anssi Paasi & Jonathan Metzger

Ron Boschma, Lars Coenen, Koen Frenken & Bernhard Truffer

Andy Pike, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose & John Tomaney

Edward L. Glaeser & Bryce Millett Steinberg

Michael Dunford & Weidong Liu

Richard Florida, Patrick Adler & Charlotta Mellander

Riccardo Crescenzi & Simona Iammarino

Eric Knight & Dariusz Wójcik

Alessandra Faggian, Isha Rajbhandari & Kathryn R. Dotzel

Chia-Lin Chen & Roger Vickerman

David Gibbs & Kirstie O’Neill

Dimitris Ballas, Danny Dorling & Benjamin Hennig