Diana Torres, principal researcher at URBES-LAB: on founding a new think tank

26 October 2020

The URBES-LAB research group focuses on the analysis and production of critical theory and history of ‘the city’. The first time I came across URBES-LAB was at the awarding of the Peruvian Ministry for Development and Social Inclusion’s research prize during Evidence Week 2019. Immediately, their work and its presentation caught my attention. The research community on public policy issues in Peru is made up of very good cadres, but it is limited in its scope and diversity – little is or feels new.

Sharo López’s presentation on social displacement caused by the private sector in the Historic Center of Lima felt, and was, something new. I remember that in those days I had been reading about urban issues in Lima from think tanks and initiatives that wrote from a perspective quite far from the crude reality of the city; the one that reinforces the false idea that Lima is flat and that the bicycle will save it from chaos. This is the perspective of researchers and urban activists that live in a very privileged and small part of the city. The work of URBES-LAB, on the other hand, seemed to me to be grounded in reality.

And this connection with the subject or object of study, no matter how anti-academic it may seem, is part of the debate about the legitimacy of research centres and researchers globally. Can you really investigate from the comfort of distance?

I asked Diana Torres, principal researcher at URBES-LAB, to tell me a little about the group. What she described is very common for the new generation of researchers in Peru and across the world – especially for female researchers. But what it illustrates is that there are alternatives, and that it is not necessary to replicate past models.

Enrique Mendizabal: What is the origin of URBES-LAB?

Diana Torres: Since the new University Law came into force, CONCYTEC (Peru’s science council) has been promoting research improvements in public universities. One of its guidelines is the creation of research groups to promote multidisciplinary work and improve impact rates.

In this context, at the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería (UNI), the Vice-Rector’s Office for Research started a campaign in 2017 to create research groups. Thus, we registered URBES-LAB in August 2018.

Initially made up of Sharo López, Daniela Perleche, Wiley Ludeña, Milton Puente and myself.  Wiley and Milton belonged to the group for a while, but for personal reasons they took other directions. Now the group is made up of 17 people.

EM: What motivated you to form URBES-LAB?

DT: Sharo López and I returned to Lima in 2017, after studying scholarships abroad (Brazil and Chile, respectively), and we dedicated ourselves entirely to academic development. After being exposed to an active and productive academic environment in Brazil and Chile, returning to Peru made us realise that there were few spaces for academic development.

Furthermore, in the few research centres that exist, the positions were only accessible through contacts. We felt there was a very tight, male-led elite of ‘experts’. There was no space for young researchers and even less so for women.

So, we set out to create a space with greater freedom and with new theoretical approaches. Of all the possibilities we thought about, forming the research group at UNI was our best bet. We both had studied at UNI and we felt that it was a way to change things from the inside – to change something we always complained about as student representatives – and to contribute to the development of a public university.

EM: What makes URBES-LAB special, what differentiates you from other centres?

DT: We are a group of young researchers who firmly believe that the world can be transformed, and for that we must move from the production of knowledge to critical action.

We want to create synergies with the multiple actors, but above all to raise public awareness. We do not pretend that our production remains in papers or libraries; but rather we want to transmit knowledge, in clear and simple language, to the ordinary citizen, who is the subject who must begin the transformation in society.

EM: What are your goals?

DT: To generate a space for engagement, debate, and production of research and actions on relevant issues related to the historical and current production of urban space in Peru and Latin America.

We want to ensure that in this process we involve multiple actors, from their different scales and temporalities, and produce and disseminate evidence that allow citizens to question the imposed normality of the cities we live in and enables decision makers to make better informed decisions – particularly policy decisions.

EM: What has been the main challenge you have faced so far?

DT: Fighting with the bureaucracy and the paradigms of public management. Young people are seen as inexperienced and even inept at conducting research; and the prevailing gender inequality makes this worse. We have had multiple problems with the officials of the Vice-Rector’s Office for Research at UNI. We have been discretionally denied funding, have faced mistreatment and many obstacles to the development of the group, all this based on the fact that I, as the group coordinator, a woman and a young teacher: ‘have just started my professional career at UNI and therefore the group is not yet solid.’

EM: How are you  financed? (I ask this because at OTT we promote transparency of think tanks)

DT: So far we only finance research with public funds obtained through competition within UNI, either through the Vice-Rectorate for Research or the Research Institute of the Faculty of Architecture, Urbanism and Arts (INIFAUA).

The founders of URBES-LAB faced what many young researchers in Peru (and in other parts of the world) face: few opportunities to innovate in the practice of research.

Diana, Daniela, and Sharo overcame that challenge by creating, in effect, a new institution. And not only that: they have not wasted time and are already investing in new generations of researchers in urban issues through a scientific initiation programme.

But now they face new challenges, typical of the stage the think tank is in: strengthening its governance and management, attracting long-term funds, consolidating its agenda, investing in communication strategies and guaranteeing its sustainability. Not an easy task, especially without institutional support.

I would dare to say that they, and other similar research groups in national universities across the country, represent Peru’s best opportunity to solve the most complex problems it faces – in this case, that of Peruvian cities, and in particular, of Lima.

So far, they have managed to form a young, committed and competent work group. But they will need institutional support to overcome the challenges that every undertaking of this type faces.