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Member Blog: ‘Freakanomics’ in local economic development


Please find below our latest member blog, from Jonathan Guest who is a Senior Economist at Atkins

During a series of long journeys last Autumn, I took the opportunity to read Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Admittedly I am late coming to the party on this as the book was first published in 2005, but reflecting on the read I thought it provided several lessons which I think are important for economic development in the UK.

If you have read it, hopefully some of the thoughts may chime with you. If you have not read the book I highly recommend it (summer holiday reading or otherwise!), but reading it is not contingent on appreciating the points below.

Please read on – the areas I highlight may resonate, or you may want to challenge them.

Forging links between disciplines

The book forges many different disciplines through its combinations of data analysis, academic writings and theoretical standpoints. Some of the disciplines outside of economics include: journalism, data analysis, psychology, healthcare, demographics and law as well as several other sources of information. Utilising concepts and approaches from different disciplines can aid problem-solving and break uniformity. Many areas are now considering skills challenges a systemic problem rather than supply or demand driven, supporting a fresh approach in addressing economic development.

Using 'new’ data

There is a real need within local economic development to look outside the usual datasets and ways of thinking. There is potential to use different data sources ranging from data which is mined or big data which is otherwise under-used. For example, mobile phone data. These can provide important information about how people move, interact with the urban environment, behaviours, as well as socio-economic characteristics. Considering new data sources and how they can frame economic development problems can unlock new insights to issues as well as providing potential solutions.


The book provides an important lesson in communicating ideas and concepts. The plain language, engaging themes and topics within the book convey information clearly, succinctly and positively. I do not mean to advocate that each local economic analysis or strategy has a book-style narrative but in my experience, local economic development work which has a ‘human’ element to it, is accessible and supports the reader in acting upon the outcomes, is highly important to delivering effective local economic development research and strategy.

The advent of big data renews attention upon economic evidence and provides opportunities for differentiation at a local level through innovation in local economic development strategy. The IED membership has an opportunity to innovate, shape and expand policy and evidence at a local level. My suggestion is we do more Freakanomics-style economic development.

Jonathan Guest is a Senior Economist at Atkins

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