Sunday, December 19, 2010

From Ghent With Love

Not for the first time, seeing Manchester and England from a distance doesn't so much give you perspective as marvel at what we accept as normalised.

I spent last week in Ghent, Belgium for a succession of meetings and conferences. Ghent is the biggest student city in the country, and everywhere you go there are bicicle parks, and cyclists on the streets, hardly any with helmets. The snow that fell briefly on Thursday night was cleared away by morning, and I walked again the 2km to the conference centre, through a mostly pedestrianised city centre. The city centre spreads further than Manchester does, but it's very low rise, and the old Cathedral and other similarly iconic buildings are the landmarks that rise about the city-scape. The city's canals break up the landscape and seem to separate the different sections of the town. Much of the centre is under construction as a new tramline is put into place.

It's the first time I've been to a conference where the AV has been so contemporary - powerpoint and speaker side by side on the big screen, apparently in HD. The conference centre itself was a model of quiet organisation, and vast, with a series of technology related events taking place one after another during the week.

You look hard for a chain pub, take away or shop in Ghent, though I did glimpse both a McDonalds and a Subway, elsewhere it's a high class shopping town, Manchester's King Street, meets Chester. Most people, at the conference and in the town, spoke English, though there's a political dimension to this, as Ghent is part of Flanders, and currently Belgium is without a national government. It hardly seems to matter, so strong are the regional institutions. Explaining our regional/city structures to delegates from elsewhere in Europe sometimes seems like you are explaining a primitive toy that you have just created to an advanced civilisation. Even as you proudly show them how it works, you know how stupid it sounds.

Belgium's a country with the population of the North West, but with the infrastructure of a nation, and it shows. Its not just that the workforce is educated, and international, but that it's also educated for a purpose. There seems to be a much greater understanding and synergy between the public and the private sector, and our current politically led upheavals seem not just absurd, but frankly dangerous, when you look at how other parts of Western Europe goes about it's business. Prices are high, yet the restaurants are full. Bookshops proliferate, there are posters everywhere for art and theatre, and I managed to squeeze in an hour in a record shop, Music Mania, which was like the kind that hardly exist in England these day. The town itself is monocultural in a way that Brussels, for instance, isn't, and I guess it's a wealthy city. But how can this be? Alongside heritage, there is progression. The conference was hosting the annual "Future Internet Assembly" and the companies exhibiting were cutting edge - and far more about useful new applications and new technology than about marketing and sales. If the internet occasionally failed, it wasn't as bad as in Brussels, and certainly not as bad as I've often found in the UK.

There are things that frustrate, of course, but most of those things were a result of being a visitor and expecting to find the 24 hour opening shops, or the cheap takeaways that are the Americanised side of our convenience culture. We only need such convenience, I began to think, because of the inconvenient way we arrange our lives. Last December I was at a similar event in Strasbourg, and again you begin to see that the things that we are supposedly good at, those service economy activities that have displaced so much of our industry, we're not. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a Manchester restuarant that was as plushly appointed as the riverside Malthouse conversion of Belga Queen, for instance.

At the heart of everything you got a sense that history and innovation are bedfellows not enemies, and that a confidence in the regional and local institutions is key to their current ambitions and prosperity. At the heart of everything, a highly education population and workforce, with a sense that such hard work will be rewarded, not put into the melting pot of an uncertain future market.

Manchester is much larger than Ghent, and more well known, but in a busy week, it's advantages seem a lot less clearcut if it wants to punch its weight in the wider world. It is not just the major cities of Brussels and Amsterdam that are strong competitors in Europe, but these smaller cities. There was substantial local pride in Ghent, but it felt anything but parochial. Its too easy, when we talk about Europe to think about its poorer nations, and the problems faced there; but in the countries that were there at the start of the EU, and the Scandinavian countries north of there, you see so much that we should aspire towards, rather than dismiss as irrelevant, that our Anglo-Saxon parochialism, and confidence in failed neo-con market solutions seems self-flagellating. Walking through the streets of undiminished art deco architecture I wonder what unfortunate accident of birth and education makes us monolingual English so unable to even imagine our own lives and cities in the same way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite an interesting article. Dad