Practice Research: A Paradigm for the Innovation of Knowledge and Methodology
In the evening of June 9, 2020, a two-hour online China-US seminar took place as the first session of the Practice Research serial seminars, aiming to explore what planning and design colleges and institutions should do to encourage theoretical, methodological, and technological innovations on practical issues and promote associated applications.
This seminar was initiated by Anne Whiston Spirn, a tenured professor of MIT and a reputed landscape architect and ecologist. She has conducted extensive studies on the practice research carried out by Ian L. McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania and the WMRT Firm led by himself, including one of his most notable achievements of innovative practice research, Design with Nature. Meanwhile, she is curious about the practice research in China, and has started a program at MIT focusing on the work of the College of Architecture and Landscape of Peking University and Turenscape over the past two decades, and how the interaction between research and practice has promoted knowledge innovation to address the pressing issues of the urbanization in China. Inspired by Professor Spirn, my thoughts on the patterns and challenges of practice research by Peking University-Turenscape can be concluded into the answers to three questions:
First, why do we need practice research? Targeted practice research can help improve our understanding to new discourses and generate theoretical guidance or technical roadmaps to new challenges. For instance, issues arising midst the urbanization in China see few references of prediction patterns or solutions from other countries, given the regional differences in cultural contexts, social institution, and geographical conditions. Also, the applicability of the current wide-ranging theories and methods remains unknown to Chinese cases. In some sense, it requires the spirit of “crossing the river by feeling the stones”—Only by conducting practice research can we gain the knowledge and methodologies to address authentic practice issues with constant attempts.
Second, who does practice research? They can be college faculties and students, researchers, and planners / designers. However, the instructional evaluation of faculties of most Chinese design colleges measures the number of published papers and citations, rather than practice research, leading to a pedantic ecology where scholars are keen on studying the subjects commissioned by the government, instead of those sponsored by private enterprises coping with the problems in practice. In addition, the subjects on social topics are usually less studied. This “paper-first” instructional institution also defines the faculty structure of colleges and universities, neglecting practice research in curriculum design and teaching systems. The research that divorces from practice is bound to fail to solve actual problems, and such a college training would not guarantee the graduates to be prepared for real design tasks. This deteriorates the innovation capacity and problem-solving ability of design professionals and hinders the development of design disciplines to respond to contemporary missions.
In China, before the aggressive urbanization and market reform, many state-owned planning and design institutes had a good tradition of “practice as research” with authentic cases of urban-rural development; Afterwards, with the rapid changes of China’s socio-economic environment, these institutes have finished their transformation into capital-driven firms, which have faced new challenges in knowledge and technical innovation and working-mode reform so as to fulfill the profession’s contemporary tasks. However, generic planning schemes are popularly employed, and stereotypes like “axes-corridors-centers,” “cross-river development,” or “coastal growth” are prevailing across China. Worse, the fraudulent or vicious bidding and the low payment standard never raised for almost 20 years have hindered the industry’s inputs in practice research. As a result, planning and design professionals have seen a degradation in research capacity and innovative intelligence, who now become nothing but “cheap labor force” for repetitive works, failing to respond to the new requirements of the state’s institutional reforms in natural resource conservation and urban-rural planning.
Third, how to promote practice research and knowledge innovation? First of all, colleges and research institutes should re-emphasize the importance of practice research for design disciplines, and then abolish the mechanisms impeding research enthusiasm—Alarmed by the cost of lives during COVID-19 pandemic and the problems exposed in this period, the “paper-first” evaluation system of college faculties has been called off by related departments. Moreover, researchers who are enthusiastic for addressing social issues through design interventions and influencing younger scholars to put more efforts in practice research should be more rewarded. Also, the increasingly market-oriented industry is reshaping the climate in the fields of planning and design, where the institutes good at practice research would be more competitive in business and talent recruitment. As stated by Friedrich Engels over a century ago, one market demand works better than ten universities to stimulate technical progress. Therefore, the healthy development and long-term promotion of practice research relies on the growth of the market-oriented industry.
As an ancient Chinese adage advises, if one can make things better for one day, he should make them better every day. In face of the ever-changing social and natural challenges, practice research paves the path for innovations in theory, methodology, and technology. This is particularly true for Landscape Architecture and Urban and Rural Planning, because planning and design practices are essentially a research process to find out the optimal solutions. As one type of the practice research, “prototype study” discussed in this issue offers a paradigm for the innovation of knowledge and methodology. Oriented to future challenges and uncertainties, it would help extend the horizon of Landscape Architecture, providing designers and scholars with prospective design insights and flexible working methods.
 Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. (2020, February 20). Notice from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology on Issuing “Several Opinions on Regulating the Use of Related Indicators of SCI Papers in Colleges and Universities to Establish Rational Evaluation Orientation”. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.cn/srcsite/A16/moe_784/202002/t20200223_423334.html
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