With my impressions on the Special Edition on the Place Branding still fresh, both exhausted and enthusiastic after two days of intensive work, I will try to sum up my thoughts from the event, more or less as I presented them in the closing panel:
There were two issues that came up during the conference, one to be expected the other rather a surprise. The first was about the nature of Place Branding – and by extension of place itself. Are we dealing with the real place or with perceptions of place? And could we call the former place identity and the latter place image? Now the ones who follow my research will know that I have written repeatedly about place identity (1) and that I am still intrigued by the many different ways the term is used. I suggest that we follow Henri Lefebvre’s “trialectics of space” in his 1974 book, The Production of Space (2). There Lefebvre suggests that we can look at space from three different perspectives: lived space (éspace vecu), perceived space (éspace perçu) and conceived space (éspace conçu). Inspired by Lefebvre, I tend to think about space (and place) as simultaneously lived (experienced through materiality, practices or norms), perceived (through complex processes of identification, incorporation, abstraction, reduction etc.) and represented (through symbols, signs or artefacts). I think place branding is somewhere in the middle of this triangle: Our aim is to influence perceptions, but we do that both by working on representations of place and on the lived place itself.
The second issue, that really came as a surprise, is that there we had very interesting presentations and discussions on whether Place Branding makes any sense if we take it out of the competitive environment of the neo-liberal doctrine. There were a couple of papers and Robert Govers’ key note lecture that went into the possibility of understanding Place Branding in the context of more complex place relations that may include co-operation. As I have argued before (3) places are involved in extremely complex relations that may include inter- and co-dependency, co-operation and indeed competition. Reducing these relations to one, i.e. competition, is rather a conceptual and political choice, rather than merely a statement reflecting reality. Here I find David Harvey’s (4) approach to space as simultaneously absolute, relative and relational extremely helpful. Absolute, in the sense that it can be limited (through all kind of boundaries), divided up and measured; relative in the sense that it is constituted by relations among objects (very much as Einstein defined it); and relational, in the sense that each object contains in itself its relations to other objects across space. Places is at the same time all of the above and can thus be interdependent,cooperate or compete, depending on the issue, the agent and the actual question: Who is competing/cooperating etc.with whom for what?
I hope that our next International Place Branding Conference in Manchester 18th – 20th January 2013 together with the Institute of Place Management will take on this issues and develop them further.