Unpacking policy transfer as a situated practice

Published: 26 November 2020

(4 minute read)

Perhaps not in the last year, due to a pandemic, but we’ve all been to one. Maybe you hope and plan to meet people that might benefit your career. Maybe you are preparing a presentation to teach or inspire others. Maybe you are searching for best practices to bring back to your city. And in our case, maybe you want first-hand experience of something that rarely exists elsewhere on the planet. Conferences are multifaceted events where multiple features of personal and professional life collide. No matter the reason, how are you going to do these things? How do you learn at a conference?

In this open-access research paper, we investigate a specific case of conference learning: Velo-City 2017. A four-day international conference on cycling, taking place in Arnhem-Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a country well-known for high rates of cycling and commonly sought for advice on cycling policy. Precisely because of this location, we argue that the situated and embodied elements of the conference offered a unique experience for learning about cycling policy.

Our questions are: What learning activities do conference participants engage in? And how does the site play a role in participant learning? Using cognitive psychology and education theories on embodiment and situated learning, we argue that sensory, spatial, and social dimensions involved in the policy learning process require more attention.

What we did

Working with the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), we used a questionnaire (n = 293) to assess learning activities at Velo-City 2017 and ethnographic direct and participant observation throughout the duration of the conference and in select conference sessions (indoor and outdoor).

What we found

Trends in learning among professionals working on cycling:

  • 77% attended at least one conference (other than Velo-City 2017) in the last year
  • 69% had participated in at least one study tour (domestic or international) on cycling in the last year
  • 25% use network groups, professional manuals, and/or audio/visual material on a monthly basis
  • 43% were especially attracted to Velo City experiential aspects, such “outdoor sessions”
  • What activities do participants engage in? (Directly from paper)
  • 43% came to gain “hands-on” experience by riding bicycles
  • 20% were drawn to social elements (meeting new contacts)
  • 8% were keen to receive feedback on their work
  • 12% were drawn to the conference to present their own work
  • 72% attended 3–5 indoor sessions per day; plenary lectures were most attended, “speed-dating” sessions were least attended
  • 56% participated in at least one guided bike tour per day (18% more than 3 tours per day)
  • 85% reported bicycling alone every day during the conference
  • 60% reported bicycling alone for more than 15 minutes every day

How does the location play a role in participant learning? (Directly from paper)

  • Social, face to face interaction shaped by the conference spaces and programming
  • High levels of interaction in liminal spaces (foyer) and in outdoor sessions (guided bike tours); low levels in the indoor sessions
  • The bicycle also acted as a sensorimotor tool to mediate the social and spatial environment
  • Participants on bike tours showed a range of (fleeting) emotions and reactions (exhilaration, content, stress, discomfort) and often shared through expressions, gestures, and dialogue
  • The combination of a sensorimotor and social experience contributed to an embodied practice
  • The outdoor sessions and individual/group cycling experiences allowed for a tangible experience of “Dutch cycling,” to interpret and reflect on its meaning in the presence of a peer community (‘community of practice’), including Dutch “experts”
  • Dutch expertise was positioned prominently and performatively, arguably to legitimize the policy model and promulgate ‘best practices’
Conclusions and next steps

The conference assembled an opportunity for interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge, where experience and understanding constantly interact. Can we deliberately foster embodied interaction at conferences?

The sensory element was overwhelmingly apparent, especially on the bicycle rides and tours, and manifested through gestures, expressions, and sharing of positive and negative emotions. Here it is hard to ignore the powerful role of emotions, joy, and fun so evident throughout this case, and confirmed in other studies on cycling participation. What is the role of emotion in transport planning and policy learning?

In the case of Velo-City, we show that accumulating cycling knowledge is more than “information exchange.” Design specifications or sample policy language were (generally) not sought, rather social and experiential knowledge were. The conference represented an opportunity to build a skillset not generally recognized in transport planning practice: the distinct legitimacy of attaining an authentic experience riding a bicycle on “best practice” bicycle infrastructure. How was this experience leveraged in subsequent policy work among this participant group?

To cite or read the open-access paper:

Meredith Glaser & Marco te Brömmelstroet (2020) Unpacking policy transfer as a situated practice: blending social, spatial, and sensory learning at a conference, Applied Mobilities, DOI: 10.1080/23800127.2020.1827559

Note: Image courtesy of ECF

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