Evidenced and integrated action to drive innovation in Birmingham & the Midlands

By Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

The Leader of Birmingham City Council recently described Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands as ‘the mother of invention and the father of enterprise’ and the Chair of the Midlands Engine talked about ‘the start of a golden decade for the Midlands’ – a sign of growing confidence, particularly in our potential for innovation fuelled growth. At the same Conservative Party Conference Fringe Event the Prime Minister anticipated that ‘with the election of West Midlands mayor … we will fire up the Midlands Engine, we will make sure that this economy truly does work for everyone.’

The layers of Midlands geography may seem complex, perhaps a barrier to realising these ambitions, but they are in fact highly complimentary, offering different scales and specialisms for investment and action. A summary of the layers is given below:
At each layer of geography, the role of science and innovation in driving increased productivity is given prominence:

Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBS LEP) is a business-led partnership of private, public and academic centres, that works to deliver economic growth in ‘Greater Birmingham’ and raise the quality of life for its 2 million residents. The GBS LEP Strategic Economic Plan is included as one of its three priorities ‘to be a world leader in innovation and creativity’, with a particular focus on stimulating demand led innovation.

Image result for GBS LEP             Image result for west midlands combined authority

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is a legal body that brings together GBS LEP and neighbouring LEPs in the Black Country and Coventry & Warwickshire. The West Midlands Mayor (from 2017) will have devolved powers and budgets allowing big issues to be tackled more effectively and coherently. The Strategic Economic Plan of the WMCA, which complements and supports the LEPs’ individual plans, has innovation as one of its underlying principles, threading through the eight priority actions.

The Midlands Engine is a collaboration involving 11 LEPs (including the three WMCA LEPs), 86 local authorities, 27 universities and 25 science parks – a geography of 11.5 million people. The Midlands Engine is a banner to promote the region, and a collaboration of such scale to allow direct bidding to government for programmes and projects. The Midlands Engine prospectus states innovation as one of its five priorities.

There is, therefore, clear commitment to stimulating science and innovation as a driver of the economy and quality of life at all our layers of geography.  There is also consistent commitment that an evidenced approach to prioritising investments and actions, in keeping with the definition of Smart Specialisation adopted by the UK government:

Smart Specialisation seeks to ensure that proposed actions are based upon sound evidence that properly reflects the comparative advantages of the physical and human assets of particular places in the global economy. It emphasises the need to ensure that activities are fully integrated in the local economy and its supply and value chains.

In the light of this commitment the Midlands Engine embraced the opportunity to be in the first wave of Science and Innovation Audits (SIAs) in England, backed and published by by BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; formerly BIS). The Midlands Engine SIA report was successfully submitted in September for publication by BEIS, as above, after an intense summer of data analysis, extensive stakeholder consultation and debate amongst business, LEPs, universities, science parks, Catapult centres and network organisations. The report presented a new framework for prioritising interventions in innovation to drive productivity – we are awaiting publication of the SIA reports by BEIS at the time of writing, but it will be the subject of a future blog post on this site. It moved our thinking on from sector based, to a framework where four market-driven priorities and three enabling competencies have been identified where investment will bring the greatest impact, based on our existing strengths and future opportunities. The process, as well as the findings, of the Midlands Engine SIA will be hugely beneficial. It has fostered new relationships, identified synergies, and helped to identify, develop and embed both the concept and content of the Midlands Engine innovation ecosystem.

There is recognition that the SIA forms only the first step to develop a competitive and integrated innovation ecosystem for the Midlands Engine, and its constituent areas, so more detailed and comprehensive action planning work will continue. Immediately, a supplementary piece of work is planned to identify in more detail the science and innovation strengths and opportunities in the WMCA and its three individual LEPs. This WMCA SIA will follow the same principles as the Midlands Engine report, to ensure that decisions and priorities for innovation at the LEP, WMCA and Midlands Engine geography, each at the appropriate scale, can complement each other.

As the Industrial Strategy for the UK develops (see previous post on this site) , it is clear that understanding the science and innovation strengths and opportunities of different geographies will be critical to optimise local action to exploit them to improve productivity. In a recent speech on the matter Greg Clarke stressed the importance of ‘Building upon … a powerful record on science and innovation’ and his view that ‘any successful industrial strategy has to be local’. In the approach we have been taking in Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority, with partners across the wider Midland Engine, we have been positioning ourselves to exploit our science and innovation assets and opportunities to become a major driver of productivity for the UK.