RESEARCH | Phronesis and Regional Development

Posted on 10/07/2013


My study over the past semester (for which I have attained a High Distinction) was focused on policy and program analysis and evaluation. I find this arena to be particularly rich, especially in relation to urban and regional development policies and programs. So I focused on the analysis of regional development policy in Australia and undertook close analysis of a report produced in the early 2000s, as a turning point for Australian regional policy under the Howard government. In part, it was marked by a shift from what appeared to be a redistributive ethos to one that promoted endogenous strengths (competitiveness and productivity) and localism. Note the Regional Australia Institute has recently launched [In]Sight, its Regional Competitiveness Index.

I was interested in considering a possible relationship between phronesis, collaborative governance and regional policy innovation, particularly as the mantra of regional development policy was, and still is, ‘local people, local solutions’. Throughout my studies I have developed a growing interest in Bent Flyvbjerg’s work on phronesis and its application to social science, urban planning and political science. It’s easy enough to map some connections from here to Actor Network Theory and the intersubjective, relational and collaborative nature of urban and regional planning, development and governance (note an earlier post referring to de Roos and Porter’s work on ‘fuzzy planning’). I find these approaches a bit more fluid – engaging complexity and systems – than the various technical and/or rationalist approaches that tend to proliferate. This is not and cannot be allowed to be the exclusive domain of economists. Please note that this post is a bit ‘quotey’ … However, even though I am focused on urban and regional development initiatives, for me, the following infographic, which was posted to facebook, highlights the potential of phronetic approaches with its emphasis of transformation, participatory process and futures thinking.

Phronesis is introduced as a framework for appraisal and to shift discussion of planning and policy from a technical (techne) or scientific (episteme) endeavour to a practice oriented and values based one (phronesis). Drawing on the Aristotelian notion of phronesis – understood as ‘practical wisdom’ – phronetic social science is grounded in practice, values and experience (Flyvbjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012) (Schram & Caterino, 2006). Halverson defines phronesis as involving “the ability to understand how complex and messy situations hang together, and to discern the affordances … whereby appropriate actions might be founded” (Path, 2012, p. 71). Phronetic social science provides a framework for thinking and practicing in relational ways.

Schram (Flyvbjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012, p. 19) describes phronetic social science as primarily concerned with practice and argues that “phronetic social science … is centrally about producing research that has relevance to decisions about what can and should be done, and also how to do it”. For Greenwood and Levin (Greenwood & Levin, 2005), “phronesis is best understood as the design of action through collaborative knowledge construction with the legitimate stakeholders in a problematic situation”. Given my own interest in areas like collaborative governance, futuring and stakeholder engagement, there are opportunities to unfold from towards a richer practice of planning and policy development in urban and regional contexts.

For Flyvbjerg (2001, p. 60), phronetic social science aims to “carry out analyses and interpretations of the status of values and interests in society aimed at social commentary and social action i.e. praxis”. This approach to analysis is suited to policy, planning and programmatic interventions which are inherently action and praxis oriented. Planning may be considered as ‘practising phronesis’ – affirming the applied dimensions of social science – as these definitions and questions are consistent with evaluation processes geared towards the implementation of policy and program interventions . Landmann (2012, p. 27) states that phronesis calls for “quality systematic value-oriented research” that contributes to “incremental gains in knowledge”. Notably, phronetic social science does not favour particular methodologies, although Landmann (2012, p. 27) argues that phronesis favours particular kinds of relationships with knowledge and stakeholders including the manner in which “evidence is collected, coded and analysed; and the ways in which the inferences that are drawn from the analysis of evidence inform larger questions of appropriateness and the challenge to existing power relations with respect to the research topic at hand” …

For the coming semester, I am studying intergovernmental relations and this may present another opportunity to explore some questions around regional and/or urban governance with particular reference to the Regional Development Australia Committees, which supplanted the Area Consultative Committees and were granted a broader brief and stronger sense of purpose, urban policy and collaborative governance.

Posted in: phronesis, policy, regions