Meet the IPM: Interview with Dr Ares Kalandides

Ares KalandidesAres Kalandides is Senior Fellow and Director of the Institute of Place Management as well as founder and CEO of the Berlin-based consultancy Inpolis. He has consulted place managers around the world, and implemented various projects in many different locations. He is an Adjunct Professor at New York University in Berlin, and a guest lecturer at the Technical University and the Hertie School of Governance – both in Berlin. Ares has a degree in French studies and holds a PhD in urban and regional planning from the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens. His current research includes: migration, citizenship and identity; participatory methods in urban development; urban social policy; and local economic development. His most recent publications are on practices of solidarity in crisis-stricken Athens.

When did your interest in places start – and how has it developed?

Ares Kalandides: My interest in places developed rather late in life. I moved to Berlin in 1990, very soon after the fall of the Wall and one of the first jobs I got was as an expert guide for the Ministry of Housing and Planning. It was a period of accelerated urban development and the ministry needed people with language skills to guide politicians, planners and developers from all over the world. I was trained on the job and I’m proud to say that I followed Berlin’s growth from the first day. I gave tours through the Reichstag building when it was still being remodelled by Norman Foster, I presented the new plans for Potsdamer Platz, when it only existed in the architect’s head, I saw the now world-famous museums (re-)open one by one and the city transform into one of the most vibrant places I know. This is how I started trying to make sense of that one place I knew best – Berlin – and I even went back to University to do a Master’s and then a PhD in urban and regional planning. It probably also helped that my father was an architect and planner, though sadly he didn’t live to see me work as an urban planner myself.

“Ares Kalandides: I have come to realize that there are indeed place-specific mindsets: language of course, but also a vast array of place-specific social norms on how you behave, how you communicate, what to expect etc.”

I think what also plays an important role is that I am at home in two cities: in Berlin and Athens, so I am used to switching not just language, but also mindset. I have come to realize that there are indeed place-specific mindsets. They may be very difficult to pinpoint and describe without becoming simplistic, but we all somehow feel them and generally internalize them. It’s language of course, but not just that: it’s a vast array of (usually unconscious) place-specific social norms on how you behave, how you communicate, what to expect etc.

It comes as a surprise to most people that my first degree is in a completely different subject – namely in French language and literature. Today, I find myself coming to a full circle as I am increasingly interested on the one hand in the representation of places in literature and on the other hand in the ways that language shapes our understanding of places. I think I have a very different (some would say ‘pedantic’) approach to texts than most other people with a training in planning and I am also extremely conscious of the way we use words to express ideas. So in a way this experience has given me both interdisciplinary and intercultural skills.

Both during my studies and in my current professional life a source of constant inspiration has been my former professor at the National Technical University of Athens, Dina Vaiou. Her work, which among other things insists upon the importance of everyday practices, taught me how to look at places and the people who make them in completely new ways. Thinking of the everyday you learn to abstain from big abstractions and all-encompassing theories as a point of departure. It trains you to look at people first, with their bodies, their age and gender, with their needs, dreams, limits and aspirations; it teaches you humility and questions all your certainties. Theory creation follows, it does not precede.

One of the ideas that has most influenced me is the concept of “relative space” as it was developed by thinkers such as Doreen Massey or David Harvey. This is an understanding of space (and place, though I will not get into the distinction here), not as some kind of blank canvas upon which things happen, but as constantly constituted through social relations. And vice-versa, place is generative: it can produce and reproduce social relations. Such an understanding of place has very practical implications: we can hardly talk about the “users of places” as we often do in our job, because social relations and places are mutually constituted. Nevertheless, I now think that places are both absolute (i.e. they do exist as empty canvasses, or containers, as we often say in geography) and relative (also relational and contingent). I resisted using the term place-making for a long time, considering it another empty hip word to state the obvious, but now I think it’s rather useful because it describes the way that even our everyday practices “make place/space”. It may be obvious for geographers, but place-making introduces the concept to other fields, such as urban planning or place management.

What we still need to think about is how to operationalize the concept in our work. For example: if people are not just users of a place, but rather its constitutive elements, what consequences does that have in the way we include them in decision-making, whilst taking power-relations into consideration? In order to explore more closely the concept and its practical implications, we have sent out a call for papers for a special issue of the Journal of Place Management and Development “Participatory place-making” that will appear in Summer 2018.

What are the benefits of being both a consultant and an academic? Does having ‘two hats’ ever cause you any problems?

Ares Kalandides: I entered the world of academia trying to make sense of my experiences as a consultant. I founded my current consulting company – that later became Inpolis – in 1996 and have since worked with people in cities and regions all over the world. On the job you rarely stop to think about what you’re doing: you just want to be efficient, deliver good services and make sure there’s a next job round the corner. But I had my doubts: Berlin’s city marketing organization ‘Berlin Partners’ has been my client since 1996, but at one point, I started questioning whether we were doing the right thing in the first place. I founded a conference series, the International Place Branding Conference that started in Berlin in 2008, but then went to several cities around the world. Again, I wanted us to stop and think about what we’re doing, I wanted academics and practitioners to talk to each other. I don’t think I was particularly successful.

“I entered the world of academia trying to make sense of my experiences as a consultant.”

At a personal level, there is little synergy between my two curricula: my achievements as a consultant don’t count in my evaluation as an academic, and vice-versa, it is not very likely that my publications as an academic will make any difference when my company bids for a project. I am occasionally frustrated, as I feel I have two unrelated jobs, but most of the time I find it a very enriching experience.

Academics are more used to listening to practitioners, as their work is generally based on the examination of case studies, but it doesn’t work the other way round. Practitioners either don’t have the time or the necessary skills to follow academic work, which often appears too complex and esoteric. It is not necessarily the academics’ fault, it’s how the system works, as we all pursue careers in our respective silos. The narrower your focus, the more likely you are to have a successful career in it. I think it is a negative development, so I’m trying to resist it – at least in my own life.

Which are the practical place projects you have delivered that you feel most proud of and why?

Ares Kalandides: I have worked in many projects round the world including places such as South Africa, Australia and South America, and of course in several countries in Europe. They are generally the most prominent ones on my CV and on Inpolis’ list of references, but they are not necessarily the ones I’m most proud of.

Two of my favourite projects revolve around the same question: How can we create added value from current social trends for excluded groups of people? The first project, Nemona, started as an initiative to assist women migrants in participating in the boom of the creative industries in Berlin. For the past five years we have worked on connecting young fashion designers and tailors/seamstresses in the Berlin borough of Neukölln, where immigration is very high. We bring them together, we train them, we assist them with their business skills and sales, we organize pop-up stores and help create a local value chain in the fashion industry. By strengthening the group we also create spill-over effects for the local economy and also enhance place reputation.

The second project was called COBRA and is now completed. During the two years of its operation we took designers to a peripheral area of Germany (close to the Polish border) and set up a collaboration with small and medium size local firms. Designers brought in innovative ideas to solve real-life challenges the firms were facing and, vice-versa, SMEs contributed through their experience in manufacturing know-how. The real measure of success for us were the collaborations that continued after our work was completed.

“By personifying places, we create the illusion that what we do is good for ‘a place’ without asking ‘for whom’ in that place. Only by examining the power relations in place, can you answer this latter question.”

I like to see the impact of my work and I want to see that it makes a real difference to people. Ultimately, the aim of every policy is to make people’s lives better, but I think this is something we often forget. By personifying places, we create the illusion that what we do is good for “a place” without asking “for whom in that place?”. Only by examining the power relations in place, can you answer this latter question.

Finally, teaching is one of my greatest joys and I wouldn’t mind doing it full-time. Explaining things helps you understand them better yourself; constant preparation means that you have to be up to date with recent events; listening to students’ doubts allows you to question your own certainties.  Interaction with young people eager to learn is a rejuvenating experience for everybody, although it can also be exhausting.

As a Director of the IPM what is your vision for the organisation?

Ares Kalandides: I really believe that we can become the missing link between academics and practitioners in place-related professions. As I said, it is not the practitioners’ fault that they don’t follow developments in theory, methodology or research – it’s how the system works. So if we could be that interface, a translator who makes recent academic findings accessible to practitioners, I think we would be a major contribution to all place-related professions. People call it ‘knowledge-transfer’, but I like to think of it as a two-way process, so I call it ‘knowledge exchange’.

There are several ways we can achieve that:

First of all, we have our own research. The latest project where we’re looking at how to use big data to improve the customer experience in retail is a good example. Here we bring together robust methodologies and several theoretical perspectives as well as practitioners’ experience. Our results will help inform policy and we hope will contribute to what I called earlier ‘knowledge exchange’.

Second, we have Special Interest Groups (SIGs) on Place Management, Place Branding, Place Making and Responsible Tourism. The SIGs focus on special themes (rather than separate between practice and academia) and aim to bring together our members who work in a particular subtheme of the rather vast place management field.

“The Institute of Place Management is neither a blank canvas nor an empty container. We are what our members make us”

Third, we train practitioners, bringing to them the latest insights from research and academia in general. Our executive education formats (certificate, diploma and MSc) all have that same goal, only at different levels.

Fourth, we organize workshops, symposia, seminars and conferences – or we participate in similar formats organized by others. We don’t do tracks for academics and tracks for practitioners. On the contrary, we encourage our members to listen to each other.

Finally, we organize study trips so that delegates can meet colleagues, understand what they do, exchange ideas and maybe initiate collaborations. Our last Study Trip was to Berlin and the next one will be to Athens in January 2017.

Of course none of that would be possible without our team and our members. We are like places: The Institute of Place Management is neither a blank canvas nor an empty container. We are what our members make us.

The interview was conducted by Prof Cathy Parker




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