Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Erica Belcher

17.07.2021, Nayla Saniour

Erica Belcher studied arts and culture in Maastricht, Netherlands, before moving to the UK for her master’s degree at the London School of Economics. She then worked as a policy researcher in think tanks, immersing herself in the world of local governance where she became progressively interested in urbanism. Her next step as policy data analyst brings her to work on UK national issues of data science and statistics. # UNDERGRADUATE EXPERIENCE IN MAASTRICHT My academic background is focused on the field of politics, with my [bachelor’s studies in arts and culture]( at [Maastricht University](, Netherlands. The choice of Maastricht for my undergraduate degree came organically: I come from Brighton, UK, and my family had connections in the Netherlands, where I spent some time growing up. I wanted to live abroad and it seemed like a good starting point. Maastricht is a lovely place, very safe and familiar with a lot of students, where you can knock on someone’s door down the road to check if they are home. It is the kind of place where you can experiment with ideas and get a lot of support: we could easily create incubation spaces and undertake projects locally. But after three years there I was ready for something more challenging. # GRADUATE EXPERIENCE IN LONDON Straight after finishing my bachelor’s degree at Maastricht University, I moved to London for my [master’s degree]( at the [London School of Economics (LSE)]( There, I suddenly faced a huge city with all its busyness, diversity, multiculturalism, and chaos. I had only been to London as a tourist and the experience of living there was extremely different. Meeting everyone at LSE made me realize that up until then, I had only really had European friends. In London, I met so many people from around the world, such as the Middle East and Africa. This gave me a great perspective on different cultures and I really enjoyed the genuine interest people showed each other. {{Pic1: Photo by Zeineb Ben Yahmed}} # THE UNCERTAINTY OF FUTURE STEPS I started my master’s degree with the desire to stay in academia, not knowing exactly what career path I wanted to take. Everyone else seemed to have a focused ambition and were diligently planning their future steps. At first I found that intense and it took me some time to develop the confidence to say I did not know what I was going to do after LSE. I did not have a graduate position lined up, nor did I want to work in politics or in Parliament. I felt that I did not really fit into a mold. At that time in university, I initially did not give much thought to networking. I first thought I would be buried in a classroom or a library, living a relatively solitary university experience with a small group of friends. But it did not go as expected: at LSE, everyone was so friendly and wanted to know about your ideas, what you wanted to do with your life. There were so many campaigns and activities, as most people were only there for a short but intense master’s year. It took me some time to notice that it was the friends that I had made through social activities who were my strongest network and my closest confidants. We often think that networking happens in more formal settings, but for me it was happening organically, with friends in parks, and at dinner parties. # WORKING AT THINK TANKS As I was living in London, I grew interested in applying my knowledge in politics to local governance. There is a broad range of think tanks of all sizes in London. A lot of them focus on issues like local growth, which has become an increasingly important topic for the UK government. For a few months I took an internship at [New Local]( (formerly New Local Government Network), which provides support for local governments, helping them innovate in a context of change. There, I found that local governance was a niche in politics that I enjoyed working in. From there, I went on to work as researcher at [Center for London](, one of the only think tanks focused exclusively on London issues. The projects there reflected the diversity you find in most cities,with topics such as transport, housing, public space, employment, and the economy. With every project, I got the chance to become a part of a sector I was not familiar with, starting as an “outsider” and progressively getting to understand the topic in depth. This experience really sharpened my teeth in urban policy and grounded my interest in urbanism, as the built environment had a central place in the projects that I worked on. {{Pic2: Photo by Centre for London}} # RESEARCH TAKES DIFFERENT FORMS During my studies I had initially assumed that if I wanted to stay in research, it would be in academia. I was not aware of the huge amount of research taking place in settings like think tanks or local government bodies. Entering the professional world made me realize that there are actually different ways of doing this. Research in most think tanks is not done with the same rigorous peer review processes as in academic research; it places more emphasis on communication and presenting findings in a way that can be read by the general public, not only people who are academically trained and minded. # COMMUNICATION IS KEY IN POLICY RESEARCH Communication is essential throughout any policy research project. First, we conducted introductory meetings or simple coffee chats with field experts on the topics we were researching to ask them for initial guidance. Then, as the research progressed, we collaborated through external consultation on the methodology and findings. Finally, when the project came to fruition, we essentially focused on translating the results into presentations and reports that people would be able to understand, and policy makers would find compelling enough to enact. Also, to have a real impact, we need to build close relationships with policymakers in the city to stand out amongst the [plethora of think tanks that exist in the UK]( We needed to show why it was valuable for them to listen to our findings and advice. {{Pic3: Photo by Climate Strategies}} # FUNDING RESEARCH MEANS GOING WITH THE TIDE Ideally, researchers should be able to tackle any issue they’re interested in, or want to find solutions to. But research needs funding, which has its ebbs and flows. It can be frustrating at times when people would not see the importance of a certain topic that we wanted to address, which meant we would not be able to carry out that research. And here is where the importance of communication comes back in, to raise awareness and convince funders of the value of conducting a specific research project. Think tanks can be funded in different ways: some actively fundraise with core teams, while others work on a bid and tender model per project. Center for London, for example, is a relatively young think tank without any core funding. This means we had to actively think about who would fund which projects. As a charity all the research produced was made publicly available online under a Creative Commons license. From its foundation there was always an imperative placed on making sure that the knowledge generated was for the public good of London, and aimed at tackling London’s biggest challenges. # LIVING IN AND WORKING FOR LONDON As I was both living in London and working for the city, I developed an intimate relationship with it. I would feel passionate about the topics that I was researching since, in some respects, I was living and breathing them too. I would see the parallels of our research with my personal life and the lives of others, as young graduates paying very high rent, lots of money for transportation, not being able to save up and not having a prospect of ever buying a house in the city due to the soaring prices. This played out particularly sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like so many other cities, London drastically changed, and with this came changes both in my daily life and at work, with shifts in the topics we dealt with. One interesting outcome of the pandemic was that I saw my friends become “urbanists”: suddenly everyone was noticing the flaws in the city and were frustrated by them. They started to see the city as something they could actually shape. People became aware of and engaged in issues that were previously the exclusive focus of urbanists by trade. For example, those who wanted to cycle instead of taking public transportation were advocating for London to have better cycling infrastructure, and residents across the city were demanding more and better quality public spaces. {{Pic4: Photo courtesy of Erica Belcher}} # THE IMPORTANCE OF SHARING YOUR IDEAS After three years in think tanks my next step is in an exciting, new direction. I am taking a role as policy data analyst at the [Royal Statistical Society]( in London, where I will be working on national issues of Covid-19, artificial intelligence, government use of statistics and data ethics and privacy. I’ll also be enrolled in a degree apprenticeship in data science with the [Ada College for Digital Skills]( where I’ll learn new skills like Python, data visualization and statistics for data analysis. For this new role, I was actually contacted by a friend who knew my interests quite well, because I tend to talk to people about them. Early in my career, I felt that I needed to follow instructions and work for someone else. But then I realized that people were interested in my ideas as well, and that I could share them and contribute my own unique style and opinion to my work. I believe that sharing your ideas helps to establish a network that really understands you and that you are able to be yourself within.