Meet the researcher: Joanna Sawkins

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Our Meet the researcher series introduces the lab's doctoral candidates and research staff to give insight into our research and policy work - why we do it, what the challenges are, and why we're based at UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy.

Joanna Sawkins is a PhD candidate and her research focuses on innovations in local knowledge production for urban policy.

What inspired you to do a PhD?

The offer of time and space to think, read and help people.

Why did you choose to do your research at the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP)?

I like the policy-oriented nature of the department. I started on a part-time internship at STEaPP, supporting research. Right at the beginning I learnt from Dr Carla Washbourne (now my supervisor) about ‘boundary spanners’ and ‘boundary spanning organisations’: places and people who work across community, academia, policy and industry. I wanted to become one of these people. They seem to be able to have great impact, filling the gaps and working across many levels. STEaPP, and the Lab, seemed a great place to begin my boundary spanning journey.

Tell us about your PhD research project...

My PhD project is all about the ways in which local knowledge (community knowledge and knowledge from the grassroots) is used as part of policy-making. I am particularly interested in innovation in this area of policy research and am looking at new ways in which policy-makers are engaging with communities in London. I use action research as part of my mixed methodology and my work is grounded in post-colonial theory. I am in the process of defining the more specific research questions I will answer, in partnership with community and policy partners.

What has been the biggest challenge in doing urban research?

The scale! London is a city of more than eight million people. Each person is the embodiment of unquantifiable amounts of local knowledge. It has been a challenge for me to bound my urban research. I currently have a great many cases and new ones are always coming along.

What are your top three (urban-related) books?

I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a very old urban book, London: A Pilgrimage, an account of poverty in Victorian London, written by Blanchard Jerrold and illustrated with 180 very sensationalised etchings by Gustave Doré. I remember I went to handle the original edition in the Archives at Leeds University, where I was studying at the time. I noticed the gold on the cover, felt the sheer weight of the book and thought, who was this piece of urban research really for?

I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time watching urban-related films whilst I was studying at Goldsmiths and working at Camden Arts Centre. When it is being screened I go and watch John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, a film about the whaling industry but also about man’s mastery of the seas and the disruption and domination of so many natures by the “urban”.

In terms of popular urban-related policy-focused non-fiction I recently read Janesville by Amy Goldstein. It’s a mixture of storytelling and ethnography and describes what happens when a city loses its main industry: General Motors ceased manufacturing in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 2008, setting off a chain of events common to the post-industrial urban condition. Books like this help me to understand what is driving things like populist politics, in the US and beyond. I recommend!