Sir Alan Wilson

My academic origins were far removed from regional science. I graduated in Mathematics and I wanted to work as a mathematician. I had a summer job as an undergraduate in the (then new) Rutherford Lab at Harwell in the UK and this led to a full-time post when I left Cambridge. I was, in civil service terms, a ‘Scientific Officer’ which I was very pleased about because I wanted to be a ‘scientist’. I even put that as my profession on my new passport. It was interesting. I had to write a very large computer programme for the analysis of bubble chamber events in experiments at CERN (which also gave me the opportunity to spend some time in Geneva). With later hindsight, it was a very good initial training in what was then front-line computer science. But within a couple of years, I began to tire of the highly competitive nature of elementary particle physics and I also wanted to work in a field where I could be more socially useful but still be a mathematician. So I started applying for jobs in the social sciences in universities: I still wanted to be a maths- based researcher. All the following steps in my career were serendipitous – pieces of good luck.

It didn’t start well. I must have applied for 30 or 40 jobs and had no response at all. To do something different, sometime in 1962, I joined the UK Labour Party. I lived in Summertown in North Oxford, a prosperous part of the city, and there were very few members. Within months, I had taken on the role of Ward Secretary. We selected our candidates for the May 1963 local elections but around February, they left Oxford and it then turned out that  the rule book said that the Chairman and Secretary of the Ward would be the candidates, so in May, I found   myself the Labour candidate for Summertown. I duly came bottom of the poll. But I enjoyed it and in the next year, I managed to get myself selected for East Ward – which had not had a Labour Councillor since 1945 but seemed just winnable in the tide that was then running. I was elected by a majority of 4 after four recounts. That led me into another kind of substantive experience – three years on Oxford City Council.

And then a second piece of luck. I was introduced by an old school friend to a small group of economists in the Institute of Economics and Statistics in Oxford who had a research grant from the then Ministry of Transport in cost- benefit analysis. In those days – it seems strange now – social science was largely non-quantitative and they had a very quantitative problem – needing a computer model of transport flows in cities. We did a deal: that I would do all their maths and computing and they would teach me economics.

So I changed fields by a kind of apprenticeship. It was a terrific time. I toured the United States – where all the urban modellers were – with Christopher Foster and Michael Beesley and we met people like Britton Harris (the  Penn State Study) and I. S ‘Jack’ Lowry (of ‘Model of Metropolis’ fame). It was through the people I met on this trip that I had my first introduction to regional science. Back in Oxford, I set about trying to build the model. The huge piece of luck was that I recognised that what the American engineers were doing in developing gravity models could be restated in a format that was more Boltzmann and statistical mechanics than Newton and gravity and this generalised the methodology. The serendipity in this case was that I recognised some terms in the engineers’ equations from my statistical mechanics lectures as a student. This led to ‘entropy-maximising models’. I was suddenly invited to give lots of lectures and seminars and people forgot that I had this rather odd academic background.


Alan Wilson (centre) with colleagues, early 1970s

It was a time of rapid job progression. I moved with Christopher Foster to the Ministry of Transport and set up something called the Mathematical Advisory Unit, which grew rapidly, with a model-building brief. (I had been given the title of Mathematical Adviser: it should have been ‘Economic Adviser’ but the civil service economists refused to accept me as such because I wasn’t a proper economist!). This was 1966–68 and then serendipity struck again. I gave a talk on transport models in the Civil Engineering Department in University College London and in the audience was Professor Henry Chilver. I left the seminar and started to walk down Gower Street, when he caught up with me and told me that he had just been appointed as Director of a new research centre – the Centre for Environmental Studies – and “would I like to be the Assistant Director?” My talk had, in effect, been a job interview – not the kind of thing that HR departments would allow now! And so I moved to CES and built a new team of modellers and worked on extending what I had learned about transport models to the  bigger task of building a comprehensive urban model – something I have worked  on ever since. In the late 60s, regional science began to develop seriously in the UK and Europe and I recall giving a paper at a conference in London – was it the first British Section meeting or was it a European meeting? What I do remember is my naivety on conference presentations. I had written a very long paper – far too long – titled ‘Towards a comprehensive urban model’. John Parry Lewis was chairing the session and to my horror, as I was around the end of my introduction to what I was planning to say, he told me I had about five minutes left! Somehow, I survived.

By the end of the 60s, quantitative social science was all the rage. Many jobs were created as universities sought to enter the field and I had three serious approaches: one in Geography at Leeds, one in Economics and one in Town Planning. I decided, wisely as it turned out, that Geography was a broad church and had a record in absorbing ‘outsiders’ and so I came to Leeds in October 1970 as Professor of Urban and Regional Geography. And so I became a geographer! There was a newspaper headline in one of the trade papers with words to the effect that “Leeds appoints Geography Professor with no qualifications in Geography!” However, again, the experience was terrific. I enjoyed teaching. It led to long term friendships and collaborations with a generation that is still in Leeds or   at least academia: Martin Clarke, Graham Clarke, John Stillwell, Phil Rees, Adrian MacDonald, Christine Leigh, Martyn Senior, Huw Williams and many others – a long list. Some friendships have been maintained over the years with students I met through tutorial groups. We had large research grants and could build modelling teams. Geography, in the wider sense, did prove very welcoming and it was all – or at least mostly! – very congenial. Sometime in the early 1970s, I found myself as head of department and I also started taking an interest in some university issues.

But that decade was mainly about research and was very productive. In the mid-70s, I had three years as an Adjunct Professor in the Dept of Regional Science at Penn and I spent three weeks there each summer giving lectures. It was a period of close collaboration with Britton Harris that led to our 1978 paper on retail dynamics that has informed much of my work since. I attended many regional science conferences and odd remarks stick in my memory: Morton Schneider, for example, saying in a response to a presentation of mine, that I was the only person in the history of mathematics who used the letter ‘O’ as a variable!

By the end of the decade, there had been the oil crisis, cuts were in the air – déjà vu! – and research funding became harder to get. The next big step had its origins in a horse racing meeting on Boxing Day – was it 1983? – at a very cold Wetherby in Yorkshire UK. I was with Martin Clarke in one of the bars and we were watching – on the bar’s TV – Wayward Lad, trained near Leeds by Michael Dickinson, win the King George Stakes at Kempton.

Thoughts turned to our lack of research funding. It was at that moment, I think, that we thought we would investigate the possibility of commercial applications of our models. We first tried to ‘sell’ our ideas to various management consultants. We thought they could do the marketing for us. But no luck. So we had to go it alone. We constituted a two-person very part-time workforce. Our first job was finding the average length of garden paths in rural Oxfordshire for the Post Office! Our second was predicting the usage of a projected dry ski slope in Bradford, UK. We did the programming, we collected the data. We wrote the reports. We were once moved on by the management from outside Marks and Spencers store in Leeds when we were standing outside with clip boards trying to collect origin and destination data from customers! But then it suddenly was better. We had substantial contracts with W H Smith (a major UK high street chain) and Toyota (UK and Belgium) and we could start to employ people. It is a longer story that can’t be told here, but that is what grew into GMAP, with Martin Clarke as the Managing Director and driving its growth. At its peak, GMAP was employing 120 people (largely Leeds University geography students) and had a range of blue-chip clients. That was a kind of real applied geography and regional science that I was proud to be associated with.

Simultaneously in the 80s, I began to be involved in university management and I became ‘Chairman of the Board of Social and Economic Studies and Law’ – what in modern parlance would be a Dean. In 1989, I was invited to become Pro-Vice-Chancellor – at a time when there was only one. I left the Geography Department and, as it turned out, never to return. The then Vice-Chancellor became Chairman of the CVCP and had to spend a lot of time in London and so the PVC job was bigger than usual. In 1991, I found myself appointed as Vice-Chancellor and embarked on that role on 1 October in some trepidation. I was VC until 2004. It was challenging, exciting and demanding. It was, in Dickens’ phrase, ‘the best of times and the worst of times’: tremendously privileged, but also with a recurring list of very difficult, sometimes unpleasant, problems. But this is about geography and regional science: I somehow managed to keep my academic work going in snatches of time but the publication rate certainly fell.

I was Vice-Chancellor for almost 13 years and in 2004 I was scheduled to ‘retire’. This, however, seemed to be increasingly unattractive. Salvation came from an unlikely source: the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in London. I was offered the job of Director-General for Higher Education and so I became a civil servant for almost three years with policy advising and management responsibilities for universities in England. Again, it was privileged and seriously interesting, working with Ministers, having a front row seat on the politics of the day. But I always knew I wanted to be an academic again, so after a brief sojourn in Cambridge, I returned to academic life at University College London as Professor of Urban and Regional Systems – and that was over four years ago. This has been another terrific experience. I work with Mike Batty, an old modelling friend and Andy Hudson-Smith in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and a group of young researchers and students. I run a course for graduate students based on a book of mine which was published in 2010 – Knowledge Power – url: – and a course on urban modelling, written up as The science of cities and regions published by Springer in January 2012 – search for details. What has been very exciting is that my research field, developed into the realms of what is now called complexity science, has become a hot topic. So research grants flow again. This includes £2.5M for a five-year grant from EPSRC for a five-year project on global dynamics – now 18 months under way – see the CASA web site for recent working papers. This embraces migration, trade, security and development aid: big issues to which real geography and regional science can make a significant contribution. It funds half a dozen new research posts and five PhD studentships. The shopping list of research challenges is a long one and so ‘retirement’ seems, hopefully, a long way away!

(Published on RSAI Newsletter 2012 May)

Read 28837 times Last modified on Monday, 05 November 2018 13:30

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