Bright futures: reinventing European industrial towns and challenging dominant post-industrial discourses

Lead Research Organisation: The Young Foundation
Department Name: Research


This research looks to understand how small industrial towns in the UK, and in other countries such as Finland and the Netherlands, have successfully built a degree of sustainability that is not yet well understood. We hope that this will challenge current dominant models or understandings of 'industrial and post-industrial decline'.
One quarter of people living in Europe live in small industrial towns, yet there is very little evidence or policy development that specifically deals with them. Often they are characterised as being in post-industrial decline or with population shrinkage. This prevailing narrative also influences the policy development which affects them or the re-development strategies they undergo or are presented with, which tend to focus on promoting the service industry or creating regional hubs and which overlook the industrial nature and assets of towns.
Recently it has become clear, especially through the latest global economic crisis, that this understanding of industrial towns as declining or deprived is limited. In particular, it overlooks what we believe is likely to be the importance of locality, and cultural and social relationships which exist in small industrial towns. It is not well understood why some towns buck the trends of decline or shrinkage and there are particular cases where towns form part of successful 'development corridors'. These have not been studied previously at this scale.
This project argues that industrial towns are not inevitably associated with post-industrial shrinkage and that we need to understand the complex relationships between different aspects of their growth and development. We think that small industrial towns will be characterised by a range of factors that are as much social and cultural as they are economic. For example, overlooked areas and attributes which are likely to sustain town development include local industrial traditions and social relationships, and specific histories of development and growth. Size is also likely to be important to maintaining personal networks of cooperation and potentially underlying sustainability. We also think that towns will have different types of attributes that are often overlooked in policy terms but which would help us understand them better: socio-cultural, personal relationships, history and culture, as well as the ways people work and cooperate together.
Our evidence collection will focus on different ways to find out about and understand these characteristics, one important aspect of which is locals' own narratives and understandings of what makes each town sustainable.
We also plan to explore how these traditions, cultural relationships and ways of working might help them develop further as social innovations. Social innovation deals with the idea that we can find solutions to entrenched problems in ways which benefit society. We believe that if we apply the lens of social innovation to these places we would be able to view them in a new way which would have impact on policy and public services, because it would offer an alternative approach to development and ways of working in each town. This approach is likely to help create a pathway for 'bright futures' which build on these strengths.
The project consortium is composed of a range of country partners carefully chosen for their regional diversification and coverage across different European development areas. This will enable the project team to make comparisons across different types of small industrial towns in difference places and contexts. From this, we will develop recommendations and guidance for understanding and working with particular types of small industrial towns in the future.

Planned Impact

As a scientific, yet policy relevant project, BRIGHT FUTURE has been conceived and designed with a view to maximise its impact on all issues listed in the ENSUF call. Key beneficiary groups will include:

1. Citizens living in small and medium industrial towns
2. Policymakers, planners, practitioners and charities interested in improving the quality of life of those living in industrial towns
3. Academics and researchers (more information on this group of beneficiaries is included in the question on academic beneficiaries)

The ways in which these beneficiary groups will benefit from the research are outlined below.

The project will have an impact on those small and medium town communities that have adapted, are trying to adapt or failed to adapt to urban change: by increasing understanding of how cities that are dependent on manufacturing can thrive in the future; by developing an understanding of their economic and social dynamics, and how these can be strengthened; together with practical knowledge about the innovation and inspiration that can be taken from different cities and replicated or transferred to other situations. Adopting more realistic and targeted urban strategies in industrial towns will have an impact on the citizens, their societal needs, business opportunities and sustainable living environment. We will make a set of innovative social and institutional solutions derived from case studies that could be useful for re-invention of industrial towns experiencing shrinkage. Circulation of cases of successful and poor practises in restructuring declining industrial communities is also the most tangible result for potential user communities.

Potential users of the research outputs include local authorities, practitioners in local development and regional planning, charities interested in social issues and empowerment and other organisations that have an interest in improving the quality of life, community development and vitality. Political attention to industrial production is increasing in the aftermath of the financial crisis and our project offers new knowledge and tools to governmental organisations and local authorities that need to adopt medium- and long-term developmental strategies based on industrial traditions and knowledge. They have to balance their strategies amid dominant post-industrial expectations (such as creative industries, bohemians, attracting the creative class ...) and their industrial past and/or present. Supporting those communities with evidence-based policy measures and is one of the goals of the project.

Researchers and academics will also benefit from the research, since we intend to conceptually and empirically contribute and enhance existing knowledge on sustainable and grass-root community development, participatory research & planning. This will be done through rigorous comparative research of small industrial towns combining inter- and trans-disciplinary approach adopted by project partners with diverse research experiences and backgrounds.

The project is designed in a way to have a broader geographical impact across and beyond Europe. A set of social and organisational innovations and strategic recommendations for adopting development strategies will address the global challenges faced by industrial towns. Industrial communities and the very history of industrialisation represent something uniquely European that can be regarded as a core element of shared European identity. Our shared experiences could be useful for other declining industrial communities in the world. This is further proven by the letters of support by local and regional authorities and organisations, which were given to us as a consortium in the project application phase. Eight cultural organisations/mayors/regional governors from five countries expressed their interest in the project results with their intent letters attached to this call.


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