Research

Our research is focused on rethinking public policy in the age of disruption. It is interdisciplinary, addressing the big problems – above all, inequality – and proposing sustainable, innovative policy approaches.

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy is interdisciplinary - connecting political thinking, economics, the humanities, health, technology, engineering and science. Our initial research themes are designed around some of the major policy challenges of the 21st century:

• Place 
• Progress 
• Productivity

Place 

A focus upon place is integral to effective public policy: where people live and work determines how policies affect them and what policies might deliver better results. Are cities, with their significant inequalities, the drivers of economic growth for the foreseeable future? Are profound spatial inequalities unavoidable given the agglomeration effects associated with technological innovation and economic change? Does a place-based approach to policy mean that more funding and attention should be directed to towns and rural areas? Should policy decision making be more decentralised to respond to place-based concerns?

Our Place programme includes these projects.

The left-behind across Europe, led by Davide Luca, is a data-driven analysis of some of the political consequences of the geographical inequalities that have been opening up across most advanced economies, and asks whether public policies aimed at fostering agglomeration economies in large cities have contributed to the rise of political disenchantment and the growth of populism.

In our Place-based Industrial Strategies project, we are working with policy-makers in the UK government and in some of the new Combined Authorities, including the Greater Manchester Authority, to explore different ways in which central, devolved and local governments can respond to the challenges posed by regional inequality and stalling productivity. 

Our Townscapes project offers an in-depth examination of the economic fortunes and public service footprint of towns across the nations and regions of Britain.

Our ‘Levelling Up’ blog series explores issues relating to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. The series looks at the role of infrastructure, the importance of data and measurement, the relationship between trust, social capital and levelling up, and the impact of a transition to a net zero carbon economy on left-behind places. We will also look outside of the UK for examples of how other countries have managed regional inequalities.

This programme also encompasses Between Two Unions, a major research project funded by the ESRC, which seeks to understand the implications of Brexit for the territorial governance of the UK.

Progress

Public policy is intended to lead to better outcomes, but what does ‘better’ mean? One important dimension is economic growth, but progress is a broader concept. How can policies also deliver these other dimensions of well-being, from public health to fair access to goods and services? What measures are needed to reflect today’s economy and society, from tracking the digital economy and the impact of other new technologies, to understanding the distribution of opportunities? 

The programme includes the following projects:

The Wealth Economy, led by Matthew Agarwala and Dimitri Zenghelis, with Saite Lu and Yamini Cinamon Nair, is focused on the vital, but usually unmeasured wealth such as natural assets and social capital that are essential for sustainable societal progress. People care not just about short-term material consumption but also about the range of opportunities and justice for them and their children, as well as the degree to which they are insured against risks of social upheaval, conflict and insecurity.

The Many Dimensions of Well-Being is a major ESRC/AHRC funded research project in co-operation with the What Works Centre for Well-being. It is exploring how the sources of well-being differ among individuals and also different communities or groups, and develop measures of well-being that balance the need to represent this diversity while being useful for policy. It is led by Diane Coyle, Matthew Agarwala, Anna Alexandrova and Mark Fabian.

Our earlier project Practical Wisdom in a Complex World led by Penny Mealy explored how we can better understand and shape our surrounding socio-economic system towards delivering on human purposes. Inspired by the Aristotelian notion of `practical wisdom’ the project is exploring possibilities for effective and cognitively efficient decision making in our complex world, including representation systems (e.g. languages, measures, models, stories) for more effective and efficient thinking and communication and coordination mechanisms and alternative modes of social organisation in tackling complex problems.

Man overlooking the water

Productivity

Productivity is driven by innovation and social and economic organisation. It is a dry, technical term for the transformational changes in technology and society experienced in so many countries since the first Industrial Revolution. Yet there has been a long-term slowdown in productivity growth, and greater inequality in the distribution of its benefits in terms of income and access to opportunity. How can policy affect the drivers of innovation, and how should governments be thinking both about regulating technology and harnessing it for public services?

Projects in this programme include:

The Bennett Institute leads the Cambridge hub of the UK’s national Productivity Institute. Professor Diane Coyle leads one of its eight major research themes on Knowledge Capital: investigating the way that ideas and know-how – “intangible assets” not easily defined or measured – permeate our society and the economy. This work will lead to better understanding the links between productivity and things that are important but hard to pin down, whether that’s how businesses adopt new technologies and ideas or the role of social networks in determining how well different areas perform.  

Valuing Data led by Diane Coyle, launched with a partnership with the Open Data Institute in a Nuffield Foundation project developing a road map for data policies. It maps the distinctive economic and social features of data, a key asset in modern economies, and explores what these mean for regulators and policymakers. Further work in this programme includes testing empirical approaches to data valuation.

The Digital Economics & Policy Initiative is led by the Bennett Institute and Cambridge-INET. This project will examine the interaction between digital economics and public policy to address the growing size and scope of digital enterprises, the rising challenges to international cooperation and policy development, as well as to help narrow the distance between academic research and public discourse.

The Digital State project led by Tanya Filer is exploring how, as users, developers and regulators of digital technologies, governments can shape whether the digitisation of government, society and the economy will produce more equitable futures. It also seeks to explore and propose good governance mechanisms for the Govtech sector, prioritising democratic values and useful innovation that meets public needs. 

The Centre for the Future of Democracy

The Centre aims to understand the prospects for democracy in broad historical and international perspective, getting beyond the immediate crisis to identify different possible trajectories for democracy around the world. This means distinguishing what is essential to democracy, what is contingent and what can be changed. That requires taking the long view, drawing on the big picture and expanding our imaginative horizons. This is what the Centre hopes to achieve, and in doing so it will connect with work being done across Cambridge in a wide variety of fields, from computer science and environmental science to history and philosophy.

Find out more about the Centre here.

Centre for the Future of Democracy