Innovation and place

Andrew Basu-McGowan

Across the UK’s local innovation landscape, the result of June’s referendum has given rise to a full-throated chorus of voices asking ‘so, what’s next?’

It’s a pertinent question, and any attempt to provide an ‘easy’ answer would invariably be trite and facile. A system and set of actors calibrated to engage with the European Union, its funds and institutions woke up on June 24 to an as yet undefined future relationship with these bodies, and a suddenly pressing need to work out a way forward.

Naturally, in terms of structural funds and framework programmes, people are pursuing as much of a ‘business as usual’ approach as possible at present; it falls to government to determine how to proceed over the coming months.

But local areas – specifically, those seeking to innovate and build resilience and diversity into their economies – might be well served by asking themselves some very simple questions:

  1. What are we good at?
  2. Where might we have the capacity to be world-leading – if not now, then in the future?
  3. What will that future look like – where are the cross-cutting technologies and applications which can get us ahead of the curve?

This is an inherently bottom-up process. Really digging into this requires a critical analysis of the rich mix of assets that make up any region: the research base; clusters of business activity; population and skills; and even the infrastructure embedded by historic industries.

Answering these questions – and doing it in a robust, honest, evidence-based way – results in a clear articulation of where a local area finds itself in innovation terms, and where it wants to go. This articulation in turn can form a compelling pitch for investment, both public and private.

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU may yet have implications for structural and other funds.

When you’re competing for a piece of the funding cake – especially when that cake is being baked as we speak, and no-one can be sure how big it’s going to be – it makes sense to be able to argue cogently for a healthy slice.

However, the trend towards devolution looks likely to continue, and more than ever it will be vital for localities to be able to clearly articulate their strengths in an increasingly competitive funding landscape.

Our organisation, the Smart Specialisation Hub, is funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the UK’s innovation agency Innovate UK, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (matched by European funds) to support local areas in identifying these innovation priorities. Our activities focus on data and analysis, and acting as facilitators, convenors and critical friends.

Smart Specialisation is a process for identifying the sectoral priorities these assets and capacities can support, using underpinning evidence and data, in order to make compelling bids for public and private sector investment.

The intent is to ensure local areas focus on their real strengths, rather than trying to emulate successful sectors seen elsewhere without the supporting infrastructure to make it work. A broad mission has always underpinned our activities: supporting the alignment of innovation and place.

It seems clear that the UK’s innovation infrastructure and projects should stand ready to support transitional regions as they look to marshal their resources behind a common purpose. We want to engage with local areas, no matter how ‘innovation-ready’ they might perceive themselves to be.

In this local context, government has also recently launched the second wave of Science and Innovation Audits to continue to explore and evidence the UK’s local strengths – as clear an indication as possible of current devolutionary direction. And the government’s innovation support networks and mechanisms are increasingly oriented towards a place-based approach.

The post-referendum world will take time to coalesce. Rather than wait to see where the chips might fall, local areas need to avail themselves of opportunities to get ahead of the game. And it’s the connected, collaborative localities able to work together to answer the tough questions that will be able to position themselves most successfully.

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